After Seabiscuit hung on to win in 1 minute 49 seconds, chopping a full 4 seconds off the track record, Richardson filed a protest. The stewards upheld Seabiscuit's victory, but only because they felt that Richardson was as guilty as Woolf. They released the following report:
"Jockey Richardson reached out and grabbed Seabiscuit's saddle cloth and held onto it until he got practically to the 70-yard pole. At this point he let go of the saddle cloth and tried to grab jockey Woolf's wrist.
"Woolf fought to get his arm loose and about 20 yards from the finish, reached out and grabbed Ligaroti's bridle rein and held on to it from there to the finish."
The stewards suspended both jockeys for the remainder of the year, but were forced to rescind the penalties because the race had been a no-betting exhibition. Woolf and Richardson were restored to good standing at the end of the Del Mar meeting on Sept. 5.
Woolf, one of the leading jockeys of that era, died in 1946 at age 36 after being thrown from a horse named Please Me at Santa Anita. Richardson died early this year at 74.
As for the race itself, no one in the crowd of 20,000, which included a Ligaroti cheering section organized by Lin Howard, could have asked for anything more.
"It was a real corker," McDonald recalled. "The horses were never more than a head apart."
Ligaroti went to the post carrying 116 pounds, the extra pound a result of Richardson's inability to sweat off enough weight. A bigger disadvantage for the Argentine horse was the outcome of a coin flip, which put Seabiscuit on the pole.
Richardson said at the time of the race's 50th anniversary last August, "My horse was notorious for lugging in, which is why if we drew the inside, we would have won for sure."
After the horses reached the gate, it took starter Fred Cantrell three minutes to settle them down. The delay only added to the suspense.
Finally, Cantrell sprung the latch on the gate, and O'Brien, at the NBC microphone, said, "History is about to be made."
Eddie Read, Del Mar's public relations director from 1938 until his death in 1973, gave this account:
"Breaking from the inside, Woolf gunned Seabiscuit for the lead and had the track by about a head going into the first turn. Richardson kept pace with the Argentine and, turning into the long backstretch, had inched his mount forward, on the outside, and was a head in front.
"They stayed that way, a roaring, driving team, to the quarter pole. At this point, the 'Biscuit got his head in front again. From there to the finish line, it was sheer drama as horses and riders dug in with everything they had. The desperate head-and-head battle from flagfall to finish had the crowd limp with emotion.
"But the drama wasn't over yet. Seconds after the horses flashed by under their perch, the stewards posted the 'inquiry' sign on the totalizator board."
Inevitably, there were many versions of what happened at the finish.
Some sportswriters went so far as to suspect a fix. One even quoted Woolf as saying he had been instructed "to make a race of it." This so incensed Charlie Howard that he issued the following statement:
"Any fool writing racing ought to know that a race run in 1:49 couldn't be fixed in that manner . . . Once on the backstretch, Woolf was told to take back slightly and get on the outside, letting Ligaroti go up on the rail. Seabiscuit always runs well from behind. He was told to make his move on the outside at the far turn, but Seabiscuit wasn't able to get more than a neck in front and had to stay on the rail."
Film footage taken from the roof didn't shed any light on the matter. Neither did the quotes of the riders, who predictably were in total disagreement on what had happened.
Said Richardson: "Woolf grabbed Ligaroti's bridle in the stretch."
Said Woolf: "Richardson grabbed my whip hand and then claimed foul to save his own skin."
A year ago, Richardson embellished his story by saying, "Woolf reached over and whipped my horse across the nose four or five times. He grabbed my bridle rein and turned my horse sideways. Otherwise, I would have beaten him."
As it turned out, the Del Mar race led to the biggest victory of Seabiscuit's career. Taking a cue from Del Mar, Pimlico put on a match race between Seabiscuit and the great War Admiral later that year--this one with wagering--and Seabiscuit won.
An injury forced Seabiscuit to miss the 1939 season, but he came back in 1940 at age 7 and won the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap, the nation's richest race, after finishing second by a nose in both 1937 and 1938. He retired soon afterward with record earnings of $437,730, having topped the total of Sun Beau.
Ligaroti also had some success after the match race. Later in the Del Mar meeting, he won the Del Mar Handicap. Still, Ligaroti was never really in the class of Seabiscuit, and Richardson admitted this when he said, "Ligaroti almost beat him, but we needed 15 pounds to come close."
In the final reckoning, Ligaroti's weight advantage--actually 14 pounds--was a key to Del Mar's rise to prominence. Who would have been excited if Seabiscuit had won going away?
Thanks to that one big event, Del Mar became major league in every respect--talent, purses, attendance and mutuel handle.
"Pretty soon they started calling it the Saratoga of the West," McDonald said.