Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Seabiscuit Win in Santa Anita Handicap Still Thrills, 75 Years Later

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Seabiscuit Win in Santa Anita Handicap Still Thrills, 75 Years Later

Article excerpt

Seventy-five years ago when they ran the Santa Anita Handicap, the attendance was 68,525, plus George O'Bryan. It is fair to say that all 68,526 had come to watch Seabiscuit run.

It was 1940. There were still remnants of the Great Depression. There was a war in Europe, little money and no freeways, but they still came. Now, it is likely that fewer than a handful of people who were there that day are still with us.

"It'd be hard to get a good card game out of us," O'Bryan has joked to his son, Craig, a whippersnapper of 65 who, like his father was, is among the top jockey agents in the sport.

Among George O'Bryan's riders were Hall of Famers Ralph Neves, Manny Ycaza, Don Pierce and Laffit Pincay Jr. Among Craig's riders is Hall of Famer Gary Stevens. Oh, yes, and George's grandson and Craig's son, 27-year-old Brandon, is also a jockey's agent with a Hall of Fame client, Alex Solis.

So when you sit down with George O'Bryan in the Arcadia Gardens Retirement Hotel, you are in legendary company. Five of O'Bryan's jockeys won Santa Anita Handicaps, including Pincay on Affirmed and John Henry.

It also helps that, at 94, the man known for years as "Black Heart" for his ability to get his riders on great horses and disappoint others in the process still has his memory fastball.

"The 1940 race was a beautiful day, probably 70 degrees," O'Bryan said, "and I watched it from center field (the track infield). They'd just opened up the tunnel at Santa Anita, and going out there to watch was kind of a novelty."

The hearing aid was turned up, the nearby TV provided perfect background atmosphere with the channel tuned to horse racing, and the glimpses of 75 years ago, and the great horse that made the '40 Big 'Cap a day of history came rushing back.

"I caught a look at Seabiscuit when they turned for home, and I had a clear view of him the rest of the way," said O'Bryan, who was 19 at the time and an exercise rider. "He got by on the rail and that was it. He probably won by two lengths."

The official chart says it was one length. The grainy old film on YouTube makes the finish look closer to O'Bryan's memory than the chart.

"Seabiscuit was a little crooked in the front, you know," O'Bryan said. "He wasn't a pretty horse."

Indeed, that was part of Seabiscuit's Everyman quality that seemed to appeal to the masses the most.

"In those days, my dad told me," Craig O'Bryan said, "the headlines were either about war or Seabiscuit."

In addition to not being all that pretty, Seabiscuit wasn't all that big, either. Also, he was a bit injury prone and didn't always have the best luck in the biggest races.

That made the 1940 Big 'Cap about elements that forever inspire the human spirit: underdogs and comebacks.

When Seabiscuit won the race, the last one he would run, he became the winningest thoroughbred in history in terms of money, $437,730. …

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