Story by Brien Bouyea
Photos Courtesy of the National Museum of Racing
Some of the most iconic sports heroes in American history took center stage during the 1920s. It was a golden era known as the Roaring Twenties and generational legends – Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange – were emerging and defining their respective sports. During these splendid times, 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 Museum of Racing and Hall 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 was a chestnut son of Fair Play out of the Rock Sand mare Mahubah, bloodlines that beckoned greatness. Fair Play was an accomplished runner eventually enshrined in the Hall of Fame; Rock Sand was an English Triple Crown winner. Man o’ War’s paternal grandfather was Hastings, the 1896 Belmont Stakes winner known for biting other horses and ramming opponents during races.
Belmont’s military involvement in World War I prompted him to sell his entire 1917 yearling crop. Avid sportsman Samuel Riddle, a Pennsylvania textile manufacturer, purchased Man o’ War for $5,000 (approximately $104,000 today) at Saratoga’s 1918 yearling sales, in what turned out to be 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. “He fought like a tiger,” Riddle said. “He screamed with rage and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled with safety.”
One Saratoga story describes
Man o’ War enjoying “more than 15
minutes of freedom after launching
his rider more than 40 feet” during a
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 turf editor of the New York
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.
His presence made the turnstiles swing at dizzying rates in Saratoga. Man o’ War romped in his Spa debut in the United States Hotel Stakes on Aug. 2, 1919 and decimated the competition in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the Hopeful Stakes later that summer. In the Daily Racing Form, his victories in those races are a testament to superiority: “Eased in final 16th” says the account of both the U.S. Hotel and Grand Union Hotel. “Easily” is the description of the Hopeful.
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. Years earlier, Pettingill almost incited a riot in Chicago when he kept the horses at the start of the American Derby for an hour and a half, forcing the race to be restarted almost 40 times.
The starting gate had not yet been introduced, so horses in that era broke from a flimsy 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 again after his fifth lunge through the tape when, without warning, Pettingill sprang the webbing, apparently catching Loftus by surprise. Various reports said Man o’ War was facing the wrong way, sideways, or simply caught off guard. Whatever position he was in, Man o’ War was left at the start.
Making made a furious rally to get in contention, Loftus found traffic trouble and became locked in a pocket on the rail. Past the eighth pole, the jockey knew he had no choice but to swing his mount outside, and Man o’ War lost valuable ground.
"Man o’ War was abominably ridden," The Thoroughbred Record reported.
Although he 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.
“Given an equal chance Man o’ War
would undoubtedly have won the race,”
The Saratogian stated.
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
The Sanford, however, proved to be a fluke. Man o’ War raced against Upset six other times and won each meeting. He followed his lone defeat with the victories in the Grand Union Hotel and Hopeful, before closing out his juvenile campaign with an easy score in the Futurity at Belmont.
And 1920 did not skip a beat. Riddle passed on the Kentucky Derby in favor of having Man o’ War make 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, romped in the Miller Stakes and followed that with a remarkable performance in the Travers. Even though he was restrained in the stretch, Man o’ War covered the Midsummer Derby’s 1¼ miles in 2:01⅘, setting a stakes and track record that stood for 42 years.
From the Travers, Man o’ War returned to Belmont for the Lawrence Realization. By this time, few owners had any interest in racing against Riddle’s powerhouse. Only Hoodwink, at 100-1 odds, came forward. Knowing Hoodwink provided no legitimate threat, jockey Clarence Kummer set Man o’ War against the clock. The mighty colt responded by shattering the previous world record for 1⅝ miles (2:45 flat) by more than four seconds (2:40⅘). Poor Hoodwink was left approximately 100 lengths in the dust, and Man o’ War’s performance that day still stands as a Belmont record for the distance.
After pushing his win streak to 13, with impressive victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Potomac Handicap, legitimate 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 seven-length victory, and smashed the track record for 1¼ miles by more than six seconds. Kummer again restrained Big Red throughout the contest.
There was nothing left to prove.
Man o’ War was a perfect 11-for-11 as a
3-year-old and had won 14 races in a row. He
carried as much as 138 pounds as a sophomore
after being burdened with 130 pounds six times
as a juvenile. What could be next? There was talk
of sending Man o’ War to England for the Ascot
Gold Cup. An offer was telegraphed from
Churchill Downs for a match race with the
great gelding Exterminator. The Chicago World’s
Fair wanted Man o’ War as a drawing card.
There were even offers to make him a movie star.
Riddle, however, spurned all overtures and
decided the time was right to retire Man o’ War.
The decision was made easier when Riddle spoke
to Walter S. Vosburgh who, as The Jockey Club’s
handicapper, assigned the weights horses carried
in New York. Riddle asked Vosburgh what
weight he would put on Man o’ War if he were
to race at age 4. Vosburgh told him it would be
the highest weight ever carried, perhaps as
much as 150 pounds.
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, Man o’ War’s 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 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.”
MAN O' WAR AT 100: A special exhibit honors the legend of the great champion