War Admiral became just the fourth horse – after Sir Barton, Gallant Fox and Omaha – to win the American Triple Crown and was subsequently voted American Horse of the Year in 1937, ahead of Sea Biscuit. By Man o’War out of the diminutive broodmare Brushup, War Admiral stood just 15.2 hands high. He was once described by Neville Dunn of the Lexington Herald as “a little brown horse that takes after his mammy in size” and known in some quarters as “The Mighty Atom”. However, his ability more than compensated for his lack of stature; he won 21 of his 26 races and over £273,000 in prize money.
Bred and owned by Samuel D. Riddle and trained by George Conway, War Admiral won three of his six starts as a juvenile and his first two starts as a three-year-old, before Riddle made the unusual decision, by his standards, to allow him to take his chance in the Kentucky Derby. After playing up at the start, War Admiral made all the running under jockey Charles Kurtsinger and gradually increased his advantage from the home turn to beat Pompoon by 1¾ lengths.
In the Preakness Stakes, just seven days later, War Admiral was again fractious at the start and, although he held a lead of a length or more entering the home straight, he had to withstand a strong challenge from Pompoon in the closing stages, scraping home by a head.
In the Belmont Stakes, after again delaying the start, for eight minutes, War Admiral stumbled leaving the starting gate and was later found to have struck into himself, taking an inch-square chunk out of his off forefoot. Despite the obvious handicap, War Admiral not only routed his six rivals by 3 lengths – winning with “speed to spare”, according to the Daily Racing Form – but also broke the track record set by his sire, Man o’War, in the same race 17 years earlier. Despite the injury, War Admiral finished 1937 with a perfect eight-from-eight record.
The following November, he started favourite for the long-awaited showdown with Sea Biscuit in the inaugural Pimlico Special. The so-called “Match of the Century” was run without a starting gate, at the behest of Samuel Riddle, and was widely believed to favour War Admiral, granted his early speed. However, Seabiscuit poached an early lead and, although War Admiral drew alongside heading into the far turn, drew away in the closing stages to win by 4 lengths.