No Robbery

By Laura Hillenbrand
In an article on the conjecture that Kayak II could have won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap (The Blood-Horse of March 22, page 1758), Morton Cathro criticized me for not discussing the issue in my book, suggesting that I avoided it to give the story a "fairy-tale ending." Unfortunately, Cathro didn't make an honest attempt to report fairly or fully. Though my work and my integrity were his subject, he didn't contact me. And though his article indicated that he read two pieces in which I gave solid reasons for my approach to the issue, he excluded my justification entirely. The result was a grossly biased, misleading article.

When Charles Howard's Kayak II and Seabiscuit ran as an entry in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, Howard had Seabiscuit "declared to win," meaning that if Kayak II and Seabiscuit were running one-two, Kayak II's jockey, Buddy Haas, could allow Seabiscuit to win. Coming into the stretch, Seabiscuit had a clear lead as Kayak II closed in second. Haas didn't whip Kayak II in the final sixteenth, and Seabiscuit won by a length.

Was Kayak II robbed? The visual evidence is equivocal: some spectators thought that if Haas had ridden harder, Kayak II might have won; just as many disagreed. Though Cathro claims that the Racing Form notes favored Kayak II, the chart only said that he "might have been closer" to Seabiscuit if urged harder. Kayak II's supporters cite a quote from Haas saying he could have won, but Haas also repeatedly stated that he couldn't have won. "I let Kayak run all the way," he said, "and he simply couldn't have caught Seabiscuit." What did he really believe? Howard said he asked Haas privately to tell him the truth, assuring him that he'd be happy either way. Haas replied that Kayak II couldn't have beaten Seabiscuit.

Even if Kayak II had more to give, it doesn't automatically follow that he could have outkicked Seabiscuit. The Biscuit was a ferocious competitor famous for slowing down to let challengers catch him, then annihilating them with dazzling bursts of speed. "It may have seemed that (Kayak II could have won), but you have to ride Seabiscuit to know him," said his jockey, Red Pollard. "No horse is ever going to pass him once he gets to the top and the wire is in sight...A horse racing alongside him just makes him run all the harder."

Many others, including most of the jockeys and prominent reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, Daily Racing Form, Thoroughbred Record, Los Angeles Examiner, and other major publications, agreed. David Alexander, who covered both horses in depth, wrote, "Had (Kayak II) ever got to Seabiscuit's saddle girth, Seabiscuit would have come on again and won anyway." George Woolf had ridden both horses, and when asked if Kayak II could have won, he laughed and said, "If Kayak had charged at him...(Seabiscuit) would have bounded away...That fellow never saw the day when he could take the champ." Tom Smith, trainer of both horses, said, "Kayak never saw the day when he could beat Seabiscuit."

Kayak II was a grand athlete, but the idea that he was robbed of the race isn't very plausible. I made this argument at length in my manuscript, but cut it and instead added a statement that Haas "drilled everything he had at Seabiscuit." I annotated the statement so readers could look up my source. In later editions, I added a long footnote on the issue.

I approached the subject in this way for a compelling reason. To digress into lengthy speculation at the climax of the story obscured what was by far the most important fact about the race: By any measure, Seabiscuit was the best horse, delivering an astounding performance. He forced a suicidal pace--the six-furlong split was equal to, or faster than, the winning time for seven of the 10 previous runnings of the nation's premier sprint, the Toboggan. He should have been staggering, but he kept rolling, overcoming traffic problems and blistering his final quarter to clock the second fastest 10 furlongs in American racing history. He did it at age seven, carrying high weight of 130 pounds, returning from serious injury. Nothing Kayak II did that day, or any other, compared to that.

Seabiscuit's story did have a "fairy-tale ending," but he didn't need me to give it to him.

LAURA HILLENBRAND is the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend.