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Jewel Princess - Corey Nakatani up
Jewel Princess - Corey Nakatani up

Nakatani (1997), Woolf and Richardson (1938)

By: Ron Hale

DEL MAR (August 3, 1997) Jockey Corey Nakatani hits and knocks apprentice jockey Ryan Barber off his mount after pulling up from a race. The stewards suspend Nakatani for the remainder of the Del Mar meeting, beginning August 11 (subject to appeal).

DEL MAR (August 12, 1938) Jockeys George Woolf and Noel Richardson engage in fierce fighting during the running of the West Coast's first-ever major match race. The stewards suspend both Woolf and Richardson for the remainder of the Del Mar meeting.

The suspensions of these three riders happened at the same track in the same week, 59 years apart.

Seabiscuit - George Woolf up
Seabiscuit - George Woolf up
The 1938 race in question was a $25,000 winner-take-all match race between American champion Seabiscuit and South American star Ligaroti. Seabiscuit was owned by Charles S. Howard, while Ligaroti was owned by Bing Crosby (one of Del Mar's founders), in partnership with Lindsay Howard (Charles' son!).

Fifty years later, William Murray, writing in "Del Mar, It's Life and Good Times" (Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, 1988), says that this match race "served more than any other event to put Del Mar permanently on the map."

The race was run on Friday, August 12, 1938 as the fifth, and featured, race on the Del Mar card. One of the largest crowd in Del Mar's short history to that date, more than 20,000, turned out to see a race that had been well publicized throughout Southern California.

The race drew much advanced criticism from the media and the racing trades. Here's how historian John Hervey ("Salvator") describes it in the 1938 edition of "American Race Horses" (Sagamore Press, 1939):

"The sports pages of California grew torrid with ante-post publicity. Of this much was of a derogatory nature. Direct charges were made that the affair was a 'hippodrome,' that it was gotten up only in order to afford Seabiscuit an opportunity to pick up $25,000 of 'easy money,' thereby giving him an unfair advantage toward becoming the champion money winner..."
The race was 1 1/8 miles, with Seabiscuit carrying 130 pounds and Ligaroti, 115. The California Horse Racing Board, aware of the pre-race publicity, denied Del Mar's request to have betting on the race.

Historian Robert F. Kelley describes the race in "Racing in America, 1937-1959" (The Jockey Club, 1960):

"Seabiscuit started from the rail and immediately it became apparent that this was to be no "Hippodrome," so far as the contestants were concerned. The South American was off a shade in front, and stayed there a half mile. Down the backstretch, Seabiscuit managed to gain a slight lead, but they entered the stretch almost nose and nose."

"They had put the mile behind them in 1:36 1/5, very fast for that track that day. All down the stretch, with the crowd roaring, they fought each other, and Ligaroti, which had the reputation of bearing in, was laying over on Seabiscuit. But George Woolf, on the champion, instead of taking back, lashed at Noel Richardson on the other, and they were literally locked together as they crossed the finish line."

Seabiscuit won by a nose, taking four full seconds off the young track record. The stewards delayed their decision for some minutes, but finally announced that Seabiscuit would stand as the winner.

More from John Hervey (op. cit.):

"Both jockeys were suspended for the remainder of the meeting for foul riding. According to the testimony of the patrol judges and the presiding officials themselves, when he saw that Seabiscuit could not be beaten, Richardson reached over in the home stretch and grabbed Woolf's saddle cloth, and then his bridle-rein, thus impeding the horse and making it impossible for him to move away from Ligaroti."

"In retaliation, Woolf had used his whip on Richardson in order to loosen his hold. The horses themselves had committed no fault."

There was much publicity in the following days -- the media quoting many sources who gave many different accounts of the race. Some reporters said that Woolf had been instructed to hold the horse back to make a race out of what would have been a farse. Charles S. Howard and Woolf denied those charges.

Hervey said, "It was doubtless bad judgment to have such a match in the beginning. The bahavior of the jockeys was reprehensible."

Seabiscuit, of course, went on later that year to meet 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a much more celebrated match race at Pimlico. Seabiscuit won and was named Horse of the Year. Ligaroti went on to win the Del Mar Handicap that season. The South American was a failure at stud. He collapsed and died while covering a mare. The foal of this mare, a colt, was appropriately named Last Bang.

© 1997, Ron Hale

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