George Woolf's "lucky saddle," which he used when he guided Seabiscuit to victory over War Admiral in the 1938 Pimlico Special, is the centerpiece of a major auction of much of the great rider's racing collection July 20 in Beverly Hills.
But the sale of the kangaroo and lizard-skin trimmed saddle -- regarded as an important part of racing history in the United States -- has created a furor in Australia, where news of the saddle's availability has been loudly trumpeted by the nation's news media.
That's because to Australians, the saddle wasn't Woolf's, even though "the Iceman" used it from 1932 until 1946. It belonged to their national hero, the legendary champion Phar Lap.
"They are very excited," said James Goodman, who will be auctioning off the saddle as well as more than 370 other items mostly owned by Woolf, in association with the I.M. Chait Gallery.
"The things that we like about Seabiscuit, his courage and strength and how he helped lift the country during the time of the Depression, that's exactly how they speak about Phar Lap, except in even greater terms. The warmth and love they hold for Phar Lap is unbelievable. They consider (the saddle) to be a national treasure."
Phar Lap's jockey, Billy Elliot, gave the saddle to his friend Woolf after "Big Red," as the Aussies refer to Phar Lap, won the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, Mexico. Phar Lap died tragically of arsenic poisoning a short time later while preparing for a U.S. campaign.
"(The jockeys) obviously had a high regard and respect for each other," noted Goodman. "They were friends and, for the next 14 years, it was Woolf's good luck saddle."
The saddle has been on display for decades in The Derby restaurant, originally owned by Woolf and located less than a mile from Santa Anita Park.
Woolf died of head injuries received in a fall at Santa Anita in January 1946. It was one of the few times he did not use the saddle as he was a last-minute replacement rider on an ordinary horse named Please Me.
Goodman says he has had inquiries about the piece from England, France and the Middle East, but by far the strongest response has been from Phar Lap's homeland. He said he has spoken to representatives from two museums -- he declined to say which ones --who have indicated an interest in forming a consortium to assure that the saddle comes back to where it originated.
The auction house estimates the saddle to bring between $150,000 and $250,000, but Goodman notes, if there is enough interest in keeping the saddle in the U.S., it could sell for more than that.
A replica of the saddle, as well as copies of a number of other items in the Woolf collection associated with Seabiscuit, were used for the soon-to-be-released movie, Goodman said.
The Chip Sturniolo family -- who bought the restaurant from Woolf's widow, Genevieve, in 1951 -- has taken care of the collection. Over the years, they have added to the treasures and those items are also going on the auction block.
The timing of the event was designed to take advantage of the "Seabiscuit" movie release July 25, but many of the items are unrelated to the one Woolf called "the greatest horse I ever rode."
Goodman said the event has been an eye-opener.
"This is not the sort of auction we usually hold and we've had a great deal of fun with it," he said. "This is the first time the saddle, as well as most of the pieces, have been offered for sale. Much of it has been held for 70 years."
There will be a five-day public preview of the "Legendary Seabiscuit and Historical Racing Memorabilia Sale" at the gallery beginning July 15. The auction will begin at 1 p.m. and there will be in-room, absentee, phone and live on-line bidding.
Click here to visit I.M. Chait Auctions and Gallery