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Ending Is Seen as Real Stretch

Ever since legendary Seabiscuit won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, there have been suspicions that result was decided by owner, not the horses.

November 20, 2002|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

If differences of opinion make for horse races, those races do not necessarily settle the arguments.

So although the epic showdown with War Admiral in 1938 at Pimlico is widely portrayed as Seabiscuit's signature race, the other race that ought to be crammed into any time capsule is his 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. Not necessarily because of the obvious trappings -- Seabiscuit breaking the earnings record, in a record time, in what would be his final race -- but because of the gnawing suspicion that Kayak II, Seabiscuit's younger stablemate, might have been the better horse that day, had he been given the chance to run all out through the stretch.

Such conjecture, more than 60 years later, is hot-stove horse racing at its best. Tom Dante, who was there in the record Santa Anita crowd of 68,526, tosses a few logs on the fire with the adamant opinion that Buddy Haas, Kayak's jockey, loafed through the last sixteenth of a mile, allowing Seabiscuit to win.

"I said right after the race that Haas didn't try with his horse, and I'm still saying it," said the 86-year-old Dante, who trained horses for nine years and still owns one or two. "There's no question in my mind that this is what happened. I have always been absolutely convinced. Haas moved his horse into second place at the eighth pole, but the rest of the way he just didn't try to beat Seabiscuit. He only sat on Kayak, instead of just laying into him [with the whip]. He hand-rode him to the wire."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 07, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 300 words Type of Material: Correction
Horse racing -- The photograph in Sports on Nov. 20 accompanying an article on Seabiscuit's victory over Kayak II in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap did not show the finish of that race, as the caption stated. The photograph of the two horses was taken at an undetermined time.

The Daily Racing Form's footnotes to the official race chart, written only minutes after Seabiscuit had crossed the finish line, also suggest that Haas was content to finish second with Kayak. Conversely, at least two still-active trainers who saw the race believe that Seabiscuit was a legitimate winner.

As for Laura Hillenbrand's recent best-seller about Seabiscuit, the author said she chose not to include the controversy because she didn't buy into the Kayak-was-better scuttlebutt. A spokeswoman for the movie based on Hillenbrand's book, which recently went into production, said that the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap would be filmed toward the end of the shoot, and it was unclear how much, if any, of the behind-the-scenes intrigue would be included.

Enough went on -- or might have gone on -- in that Big 'Cap to fill a two-hour film by itself.

Kayak was an Argentine-bred who had won the Santa Anita Handicap in record time in 1939, a year in which Seabiscuit went lame, ran only once and was bred to several mares. That victory by Kayak was posted under a feathery impost of 110 pounds. In 1940, paying the penalty for having won eight races the year before, Kayak was weighted at 129 pounds, one fewer than a supposedly declining Seabiscuit. But Kayak lost by a length as Seabiscuit and jockey Red Pollard reached the wire in 2:01 1/5, a fifth of a second better than Kayak's 1939 clocking.

The day after the 1940 Big 'Cap, The Times said that Haas "seemed to take things easy" in Seabiscuit's wake. The unsigned story also said, "Many left the track with the impression Kayak II might have won the big race if Buddy Haas ... had more vigorously ridden the black Argentine [horse] in the final sixteenth."

Over the years, that speculation kept rearing its head. In 1978, Jane Goldstein, writing in the Blood-Horse magazine, said, " ... Some thought ... that Kayak II was not pushed to challenge sentimentally favored Seabiscuit." Goldstein referred to the chart footnotes, which, much like the next-day account in The Times, pointedly said:

"Kayak II, slow to get going, ran a sensational race to make a very strong move in the backstretch, and might have been closer to the winner had he been vigorously ridden in the last sixteenth."

In 1983, writing in Spur magazine, Jack McDonald said:

"Seabiscuit had passed Sun Beau's all-time money-earning record [becoming the first horse to reach the $400,000 mark] and the acclaim was his, although some thought Kayak II had been purposely restrained in the stretch to benefit his illustrious stablemate."

In 1984, Bob Hebert, who had retired as a turf writer for The Times, opened the door of suspicion only halfway.

"I've heard that Kayak wasn't supposed to beat Seabiscuit," Hebert said in an interview with his old paper. "But I know one thing -- Seabiscuit ran an awfully game race that day."

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