Monday, November 1, 2010

Ninety Years Since Man o' War

The press called him “wonder horse,” "speed miracle," "horse of ages,” “superhorse of the ages,” "The Horse of a Decade," and "Horse of the Century." His groom called him “the mostest hoss.”

Ninety years ago, the magnificent Man o'War ran his last race, a dominating seven length win over Thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown winner. With the first decade of the 21st century now over, it is probably safe to say that the name 'Man o'War' remains widely recognized in America, whether one has ever witnessed a horse race or not. No other racehorse has ever commanded such enduring notoriety. The flaming red chestnut colt from Faraway Farm continues to be the symbol of American racing, and the standard of Thoroughbred greatness. His name has been immortalized in the cinema, books, and sports lore. Man o'War was to horse racing what Babe Ruth was to baseball, two towering figures, larger than life, and forever carved into the psyche of American culture.

Man o'War's bright star ascended in the aftermath of World War I, helping to usher in a golden era of sports during the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. He was so overwhelming, that he repeatedly beat his opponents senseless, with effortless style and unbelievable power. He excelled equally at all distances ranging from 5 ½ furlongs to 1 5/8 miles, under a variety of surface conditions. Rarely was he ever extended, his rider keeping a rein on the horse, even though the great animal was always keen to run on. His owner, Samuel Riddle, did not believe in breaking records just for the sake of records, but always wanted his steed to have something in reserve for the next test, most of which proved not to be tests at all, but merely workouts. Even high imposts, in an attempt to be an equalizer, usually didn't make a difference. As a two-year-old, in 1919, Man o'War made ten starts, and lost only once, in a contest where human fraility led to his defeat. At three, he won all eleven races, setting numerous track, American, and world records.

Man o'War, was first owned and bred by August Belmont II. The horse, who would become a large chestnut colt, was sired by Fair Play out of Mahubah by English Triple Crown winner Rock Sand, and born at Nursery Stud in Kentucky, on March 29, 1917. When the United States entered the Great War, Belmont joined the fight. His wife Eleanor named the horse in recognition of her husband, whom she regarded as a “man of war.” Later, when Belmont decided to sell his yearlings, Man o'War was one of the horses sold for the price of $5,000, not exactly a bargin basement deal in those days, but not the most expensive sale either. The man who bought him, Mr. Riddle, became his lifelong owner, and was an excellent steward of the great champion, with a deep sense of responsibility to the horse's American public.


Nicknamed “Big Red,” Man o'War was trained by Louis Feustel, and began his race career on June 6, 1919, at Belmont Park, going 5 ½ furlongs. He easily broke his maiden by six lengths, over six other runners, then returned three days later, against five juveniles to annex the 5 ½ furlong Keene Memorial by three lengths.

By the colt's third race, on June 21, he was already conceding weight. Taking up 120 pounds in the 5 ½ furlong Youthful Stakes at Jamaica, Man o'War gave twelve to fifteen pounds to his three rivals, and still won easily by more than two lengths. He started again two days later.

Weight Carrier

In his next six starts, Man o'War was assigned 130 pounds, beginning with a win in Aqueduct's five furlong Hudson Stakes, on June 23.

This was his fourth victory and on every occasion he has won with ridiculous ease.” (2)

Man o'War's remaining races in 1919, would all be at six furlongs. He continued his conquests in effortless fashion, with the Tremont at Aqueduct, then ventured upstate to Saratoga. After being very keen, he captured the U.S. Hotel Stakes, while geared down. Neither competitors, imposts, nor premature starts could defeat him.

Man o'War remained at the Spa for his next three races, the Sanford, Grand Union Hotel, and Hopeful.


On the day of the Sanford Memorial, regular starter Mars Cassidy was out ill. Charles H. Pettingill was his replacement, and out of seven races, he only managed two clean starts. The Sanford wasn't one of them. Pettingill had extreme difficulty getting the horses set for the start, then sent them off out of unison, some flying, some left behind, with the highly regarded Golden Broom and Harry Payne Whitney's Upset getting the jump. Man o'War, not even set down yet for the break, was one of the last to leave. When finally away, he was already at a three to four length disadvantage, but his tremendous stride enabled him to pass horses, while still behind the speeding leaders. The race continued to be problematic for the Riddle colt, when he became caught in close quarters near the rail, losing precious time. His rider, Johnny Loftus, was finally able to swing him outside into daylight, where he sped toward the new leader Upset, and as they crossed the finish, he was still a half length short.

Man o'War and Upset would meet again ten days later.


If there was any concern that Man o'War would suffer defeat again, the horse wasted no time putting those fears to rest. The Grand Union Hotel went off clean, and the son of Fair Play beat Upset by two lengths, while still giving him five pounds. There were no excuses, and Upset ran a good race, but was simply outclassed. Man o'War went on to easy victories in the Hopeful, by four lengths, and Belmont Park's Futurity, by more than two, to end his juvenile campaign. He would now get a long rest before continuing as a three-year-old.

Speed Miracle”

Mr. Riddle ruled out the 1920 Kentucky Derby for Man o'War, partly because he felt 1 ¼ miles was too much distance at that point of the year for a three-year-old. On May 18, the colt made his sophomore debut in the Preakness Stakes, contested at 1 1/8 miles, and despite a layoff of more than eight months, was favored. Paul Jones, who won the Kentucky Derby, was not eligible because he was a gelding. Upset also started. Man o'War had a new jockey, Clarence Kummer, who would stay on the colt, with the exception of two races. Going a route of ground for the first time, Man o'War, under 126, again displayed his heels to some of the fleetest runners in the country, winning easily by a length and a half. Trailing in second was Upset, who carried 122, with Wildair, under 114, in third.


Probably without intent to do so, Man o'War began what amounted to a demolition of racing records, most of these with consummate ease. First to fall was the one mile Withers (American record), followed by the 1 3/8 mile Belmont Stakes (world record), 1 1/8 mile Dwyer (world record), Travers Stakes (equals track record), 1 5/8 Lawrence Realization (world record), 1 ½ mile Jockey Club Stakes (American record), 1 1/16 mile Potomac Handicap (track record), and 1 ¼ mile Kenilworth Gold Cup (track record). He won the Belmont Stakes by twenty lengths, the Lawrence Realization by 100, and the Potomac Handicap under 138 pounds.

Since the Preakness Stakes, when he had faced eight others, his fields had become very small because nobody was brave enough to take him on, or perhaps had the sense to know it was futile. Many of his contests involved a lone opponent, and never more than three. On June 22, Man o'War started in the one mile Stuyvesant Handicap, at Jamaica, going off at odds of 1-100, the first of three races in which he'd be that low. Carrying 135 pounds, he merely galloped to an eight length win.

John P. Grier

The 1 1/8 mile Dwyer Stakes was run on July 10, at Aqueduct, and Man o'War's only foe was John P. Grier, but Grier would be enough.

John P. Grier was another Whitney colt, and during the race, Man o'War could not shake loose, with Grier constantly on him, both horses going at full throttle in rapid fractions. Man o'War managed to prevail, when John P. Grier finally depleted his last reserve of strength, within a matter of yards before the finish. The winning margin was one and a half lengths. Man o'War had given eighteen pounds, but John P. Grier had demonstrated fine talent and enormous heart that no other runner had been remotely able to show against the superhorse.

Following the Dwyer, Man o'War won the 1 3/16 mile Miller, by six lengths, carrying 131 pounds.

Supreme but not invincible

Despite his incredible athletic prowess, Man o'War was still a creature of flesh, bone and blood, certainly supreme but not invincible. In his next to last race, when he won the Potomac Handicap, in record setting time, he carried a considerable burden of weight. He did not come out of that race unscathed, and sustained a contused tendon in one of his forelegs. Man o'War also had an enormous appetite and as a youngster would wolf down his food almost as fast as he ran. In one instance this resulted in a stomach ache, bordering on collicky symptoms, an often deadly malady of horses, which would later plague him in advanced age.

Before the great colt exited the track for good, one more challenge awaited him.

Match Race

Although not officially recognized until the 1930s, in retrospect the first American Triple Crown winner was Sir Barton, who won the three race series of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes in 1919. Owned by J.K.L. Ross, and trained by H.G. Bedwell, Sir Barton was a chestnut colt by Star Shoot, out of the Hanover mare Lady Sterling. Although he may have lacked an appealing personality, he was a very good racehorse, a legitimate equine star, and based on his victories in the classics alone, it might be even fair to call him a great racer. He also had tender feet. At the age of four, he was still considered formidible, although his campaign didn't seem all that remarkable; however, among his credits was a win over the great gelding Exterminator in the Saratoga Handicap, while giving him three pounds, and a record performance in the 1 3/16 mile Merchants and Citizen's Handicap, under 133, when he just beat Gnome by a nose.

Man o'War's swan song came on October 12, 1920 in a confrontation with Sir Barton in Canada at Kenilworth Park Racetrack, remotely set about three miles from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The venue was a very modest one, with a small seating capacity, but the track had been well prepared for the race. The contest was the 1 ¼ mile Kenilworth Park Gold Cup, and it was over after the first 60 yards. There was little drama, except for perhaps the shock experienced by observers who saw the four-year-old champion get blown away by his younger and superior opponent by seven lengths. It must have been sad to see Sir Barton be humiliated like this, but he never gave up the chase perservering to the finish.

Riddle understood the significance of what Man o'War had done over two years, and was well aware of the staggering imposts which would have been placed on his horse if he had returned as a four-year-old. Although there had  been some discussion of the horse venturing to England to run in the Ascot Gold Cup, and an offer to engage Exterminator, nothing came of either, and Man o'War was retired to stud. He had won 20 of 21 races for earnings of $249,465.

The Stallion

In retirement, Man o'War was an excellent stallion, although his book of mares was kept limited by his owner; therefore his full potential as a sire was probably never realized. A few of his notable offspring included sons Crusader, American Flag, War Relic, and his greatest progeny, 1937 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year War Admiral. Man o'War also sired Hard Tack, who in turn sired the legendary hero Seabiscuit. Among later descendents was In Reality, whose sireline would produce two time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow.


Man o'War lived a long life, but with age came increasing infirmity, including bouts of colic and a series of heart attacks, the last one felling him for good on November 1, 1947, when he was 30 years old. The entire turf world mourned the loss of its king, and the magnificent champion was honored with a national radio broadcasted funeral. Many industry leaders and dignitaries gave eulogies, singing the praises of the flaming red colt, who influenced the sport like no other horse before or since. Yet the most famous and enduring acclaim of all came from his simple and beloved groom Will Harbut, who called Man o'War “the mostest hoss that ever was.” He was right.

Recommended Reading

Dorothy Ours, Man o'War: A Legend Like Lightning (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006).

Edward L. Bowen, Man o'War Thoroughbred Legends, No.1 (Lexington, KY: Eclipse Press, 2000).

Page Cooper and Roger L. Treat, Man O' War (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, First Paperback Edition, 2004).

Robert Shoop, Down To The Wire: The Lives Of The Triple Crown Champions (Everson, WA, USA; Chilliwack, BC, Canada: Russell Dean and Company, 2004).

The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Champion: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century (Lexington, KY: The Blood-Horse, Inc., 1999).

Copyright 2010, 2012, 2015 by John Califano

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