Nothing draws more people to the racetrack than a rivalry. In a sport that’s a game of “my horse is better than yours”, rivalries and their ensuing match races flourish. A little horse named Seabiscuit would have his name listed as a contender in two matches races in 1938, the first against an Argentinian horse named Ligaroti.
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was opened for the first time in 1937, but struggled to attract huge amounts of patrons because of the Great Depression. Founding partners Bing Crosby and Charles Howard, ever the creative marketers, designed the perfect marketing scheme to get people out to their new racetrack: a match race between their horses Ligaroti and Seabiscuit.
Ligaroti was owned by Binglin Stable, a partnership between Bing Crosby and Charles Howard’s son Lindsay Howard. Lin Howard was confident that Ligaroti, a top-performer in his native country of Argentina, was capable of beating his father’s horse.
By 1938, Seabiscuit had already won top Handicap races across the country. Charles Howard had done an incredible job of turning the horse into one of the biggest sport’s stars in California and beyond by promoting both his talent and his underdog story. He too was confident that his horse would win the match race.
Not only was the race shaping up to be a father and son duel between the owners, but between the trainers too. Seabiscuit was trained by a respected horseman Tom Smith, Ligaroti by Tom’s son Jimmy Smith.
Seabiscuit and Ligaroti had already raced each other twice before with Seabiscuit beating Ligaroti to the wire each time. According to writer Terry Conway, local newspapers and racing publications were against the match race for this reason. They thought that the race was just going to be an easy way for Seabiscuit to win $25,000.
Still, Lin Howard insisted that Ligatori was ever improving and had a shot at defeating his father’s horse. To level the playing field, Seabiscuit was assigned to carry 130 pounds. Ligaroti would carry 115.
Crosby and Howard marketed the match race heavily. Poster were hung around Southern California that read:
August 12, 1938
Seabiscuit vs. Ligaroti
Charles Howard vs. Bing Crosby
Father vs. Son
The “Iceman” Woolf vs. “Spec” Richardson
America vs. Argentina
One of the Greatest Match Races of All Time”
It was truly going to be a match race of a lifetime that no one wanted to miss. A crowd of 20,000 people filled the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club on August 12th, all yearning to get a glimpse of the two horses as they dueled. Thousands of others listened to NBC’s nationwide broadcast of the race.
The race lived up to its hype from the moment the horses sprung out of the gates. Seabiscuit and George “The Iceman” Woolf took the lead first, but Ligaroti and “Spec” Richardson weren’t going to let him get away that easy. They went the 1 ⅛ miles side by side, running at record breaking speeds.
There was hardly a time when the crowd could tell whose head was in front. Neither horse was willing to give in to the other, the older and younger horse fighting like boxers in a ring. A photo of the wire showed Seabiscuit’s head in front, but it was a close call nonetheless.
The fight didn’t end when the horses crossed the wire. A steward’s inquiry was called for some apparent rough riding. While the crowd was caught up in the horse’s ferocious duel, Woolf and Richardson had been pounding on each other.
According to America’s Best Racing, Woolf claimed that “Richardson grabbed my whip hand when he headed into the stretch,” while Spec argued that his rival “had grabbed Ligaroti’s bridle during the run down the backstretch.”
Seabiscuit’s victory would stand, but both jockeys were fined and suspended for their fouls. Days later, footage would reveal that Richardson had actually sparked the fight and Woolf had been acting in self-defense. Because the race was just an exhibition event, the suspensions were lifted.
Despite the fouls, Bing Crosby and Charles Howard succeeded in getting more spectators to Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. The crowd of 20,000 eclipsed their grand-opening attendance of 15,000 and far surpassed their average daily attendance of 6,000. The race was all that the press talked about for weeks on end.
Seabiscuit would go on to win another match race two months later, that time against Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Though Richardson would continue to claim that he was not the aggressor, he would admit that Seabiscuit was indeed the best horse that day.
“I rode Seabiscuit once, winning on him in a race at Caliente,” the Los Angeles Times quotes Richardson. “He was the best horse I ever got on. Ligaroti almost beat him, but we needed 15 pounds to come close.”