Promoting Dressage and
Combined Training as Art and Sport
by Brien Bouyea
Some of the most iconic sports heroes
in American history took center stage
during the 1920s. It was a golden era
and legends – Babe Ruth, Jack
Dempsey, Red Grange – were emerging
and defining their respective sports.
Perhaps no athlete marked the period
more perfectly than the four-legged
sensation known as Man o’ War.
Arguably thoroughbred racing’s most
popular figure of the 20th century,
Man o’ War combined speed, power,
endurance and charisma into a package
the likes of which had never been seen
before. A century after his birth,
Man o’ War’s name and legacy remain
as revered as any of the great athletes
of his, or any, era.
“He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get,” turf writer Joe Palmer would say, “and horses get closer to this than anything else.”
The mighty horse known
as “Big Red” was foaled
at Nursery Stud near
Lexington, KY, on March 29,
1917. Exactly a century later,
Man o’ War at 100 – a
comprehensive exhibit that
chronicles his remarkable
life – opened at the National
of Fame in Saratoga
Springs, right across the
street from the track where
the champion became a
phenomenon. Man o’ War at 100 will be on display through 2018.
Bred by August Belmont II, Man o’ War had bloodlines that beckoned greatness. His paternal grandfather was Hastings, the 1896 Belmont Stakes winner known for biting other horses and ramming opponents during races.
Belmont’s involvement in World War I prompted him to sell his entire 1917 yearling crop. Samuel Riddle, a Pennsylvania textile manufacturer, purchased Man o’ War for $5,000 (approximately $104,000 today) at Saratoga’s 1918 yearling sales, in one of the shrewdest purchases in racing history.
Like his grandfather, Man o’ War was a difficult beast: belligerent when handlers attempted to saddle him, routinely dumping exercise riders. One story describes Man o’ War enjoying “more than 15 minutes of freedom after launching his rider more than 40 feet” during a workout.
On June 6, 1919, Man o’ War made a stunning debut in a maiden race against six other 2-year-olds at Belmont Park. Despite being restrained in the stretch by jockey Johnny Loftus, Man o’ War won by six lengths and made quite an impression in the papers. “He made
half-a-dozen high-class youngsters
look like $200 horses,” wrote the
New York Morning Telegraph.
With his power, blazing speed and
incredible 28-foot stride, believed to be
the longest ever, Man o’ War captivated
the imagination of racing fans and
drew record crowds everywhere he
appeared. He was the favorite in every
one of his races and three times he
was recorded to have odds of 1-100.
The Saratoga summer of 1919,
however, was not without controversy.
What transpired on Aug. 13 in the
Sanford Memorial turned out to be
the lone blemish on an otherwise
perfect record. For the first and only
time, Man o’ War was defeated, as a horse named Upset lived up to his name. The circumstances of the race remain shrouded in mystery and disputed almost a century later.
The blame for Man o’ War’s loss to Upset has often been assigned to the man who was filling in that day for the regular race starter. The substitute, Charles H. Pettingill, was in his late 70s and reportedly had problems with his vision.
The starting gate had not yet been introduced, so horses in that era broke from a piece of webbing strung across the track. Man o’ War, always eager to get on with the race, was infamous for breaking prematurely through the barrier. On the day of the Sanford, he broke through five times, each time having to be pulled up.
Loftus was backing up Man o’ War, trying to line him up againwhen, without warning, Pettingill sprang the webbing, apparently catching Loftus by surprise. Man o’ War was left at the start. Buried in traffic, carrying 15 additional pounds, and forced wide, Man o’ War still nearly triumphed. Upset won by a diminishing half length, and Man o’ War blew past him right after the finish line.
The shocking result became even more mysterious the next year when The Jockey Club refused licenses to both Loftus and Upset’s rider, Willie Knapp. No explanation was provided, but both jockeys were never allowed to ride again. Was there a conspiracy between them? If so, it has never been uncovered, and both Loftus and Knapp were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.
The Sanford, however, proved to be a fluke. And 1920 did not skip a beat. Man o’ War made his 3-year-old debut in the Preakness. Big Red won easily, as he did in the Withers, the Belmont (setting a world record and drawing away by 20 lengths), Stuyvesant and Dwyer.
Man o’ War returned to Saratoga in August, with a remarkable performance in the Travers. Even though he was restrained in the stretch, he covered the 1¼ miles in 2:01⅘, setting a stakes and track record that stood for 42 years.
After pushing his win streak to 13, with impressive victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Potomac Handicap, competition was scarce. The one possible exception: Sir Barton, who’d become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 1919.
So, in October, Riddle sent
Man o’ War to Canada’s
Kenilworth Park for a match
race. There was tremendous
excitement for the showdown,
but the result was familiar and
predictable. Sir Barton broke
well and owned an early lead,
but Man o’ War quickly reeled
him in, cruised to a 7-length
victory, and smashed the track
record for 1¼ miles by more
than six seconds. There was nothing left to prove.
The final racing ledger for Man o’ War was 20-1-0, and the all-time earnings record of $249,645. In 21 races, he established three world records, two American records, seven track records and equaled another track standard.
Man o’ War spent the rest of his life in Kentucky. He stood at Hinata Farm for one season and most of another and then was moved to Faraway Farm. There are estimates that as many as three million visitors traveled to Kentucky between 1921 and 1947 to see the legendary horse in retirement and hear his groom, Will Harbut, tell glorious tales of his exploits on the track. Harbut became famous for the way he crafted the stories of Man o’ War, always introducing Big Red to visitors as “the mostest horse that ever was.”
The great champion died of a heart attack on Nov. 1, 1947, less than a month after Harbut’s death. It required 13 men to lift Man o’ War from his stall at Faraway; three days later, more than 2,000 people attended his funeral, which was broadcast on NBC Radio and featured nine eulogies. American racetracks held a moment of silence at 3 p.m., when the service began.
At 3:24 p.m., buglers from the Man o’ War Post of the American Legion, dressed in the famous black-and-yellow Riddle silks, signaled farewell to Big Red with the somber playing of Taps.
The greatest was gone.
Man o’ War was buried at
Faraway Farm and a bronze
statue was mounted on a marble
base with only the words
“MAN O’ WAR” as the inscription.
No other words were needed.
Three decades later, his remains
were exhumed and moved along
with the 3,000-pound statue to the Kentucky Horse Park. Thousands of visitors pay their respects at his resting place each year.
Man o’ War enjoyed tremendous success as a stallion. Among his 386 registered foals, 64 became stakes winners, including his greatest son, 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral. His blood still pumps through champions: 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and 2000 Preakness winner Red Bullet have Man o’ War in their pedigree. So do Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta from the 2016 Hall of Fame class.
Man o’ War was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1957. Forty years later he bested Secretariat in an Associated Press poll for Horse of the Century, and received the same honor from The Blood-Horse.
As the decades have passed and his remarkable accomplishments have seemingly become more mythic, the legend of Man o’ War has only grown. “A living flame,” as Joe Palmer penned, and yet something more: "It was that even when he was standing motionless in his stall, with his ears pricked forward, and his eyes focused on something above the horizon which mere people never see, energy still poured from him,” Palmer wrote. “He could get in no position which suggested actual repose, and his very stillness was that of a coiled spring, of the crouched tiger.”
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