In horse racing, there is one name which, after nearly a century, still represents "the greatest" in nearly every aspect of the sport: Man o' War. It may be argued that the 1970s icon Secretariat was the greatest equine athlete in American racing history. In fact, both horses made twenty-one professional starts in their lifetimes, but Secretariat suffered four defeats to Man o' War's one. The jazz-age stallion broke three world records, two American records, and three track records. What's more, Man o' War became the more influential sire, with offspring including Triple Crown champion War Admiral.
A Breed Apart
The thoroughbred who would become a legend was born March 29, 1917, at Nursery Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. His sire (father), Fair Play, came from a notable stallion named Hastings, a horse as feared for his relentless temper as he was admired for his blazing speed. The dam (mother) of the chestnut foal was named Mahubah, daughter of Rock Sand, 1903 winner of England's Epsom Derby. Man o' War's history extends even farther, however: his lineage can be traced back fifteen generations to the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation sires that created the American Thoroughbred.
The name Man o' War was not given lightly. In 1917 America had just entered World War I, and patriotism was running high. The colt's breeder and owner was August Belmont II. His father was the founder of Belmont Park in Elmont, New York; the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel of racing's Triple Crown, was named in the senior's honor. It was Belmont Jr.'s wife who called the son of Fair Play "My Man o' War," after her soldiering husband, who was stationed in France, according to an ESPN biography. When the colt was later registered, "My" was dropped.
It was Belmont's military service that prompted the sale of all his 1917 foals. Samuel Riddle, owner of Glen Riddle Farm, consulted with his trainer, Louis Feustel, and purchased the tall, thin yearling for $5,000 in the spring of 1918. They had a handful in the young horse. Inheriting the Hastings ill-will, Man o' War proved to be "a tiger," in the words of Riddle, quoted in the book The Most Glorious Crown. "He screamed with rage, and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled with safety." The horse had sense, however, and "became docile enough when he finally understood that what these lowly humans wanted of him was to run, which is what he wanted too," as Kate Gilbert Phifer put it in her book Track Talk.
Post Time for "Big Red"
Once he became acquainted with the track, there was no stopping Man o' War. The colt entered—and won—his first race, at Belmont Park on June 6, 1919. Carrying the 115 pounds of jockey Johnny Loftus, the two-yearold streaked to a six-length maiden victory, running five furlongs in under one minute. In the next sixteen months Man o' War "rewrote the record books," according to Ron Hale in an article posted in about.com. The horse's stakes victories included the Keene Memorial, the Youthful, the Hopeful, the Hudson, Tremont, United States Hotel, and many others. "He was odds-on in all 21 of his races," noted Hale, "three times being quoted by bookmakers at 1-100."
Related Biography: Breeder August Belmont Jr.
The Belmont name is long associated with horse-racing. The first August Belmont was a wealthy nineteenth-century banker; the Belmont Stakes, the third race of the Triple Crown, is named for him. August Belmont Jr. was born in New York City on February 15, 1853. A financier like his father, Belmont Jr. also shared his forebear's love of sports. The younger Belmont ran track at Harvard University, where he introduced spiked track shoes in the United States. Following his father's death in 1890, Belmont Jr. assumed leadership of the family's banking and railroad concerns. He also was instrumental in the construction of the New York subway system and was the founder of Belmont Park. In 1917 Belmont matched his winning mare Mahubah to a son of Hastings, a well-respected (and much-feared) stallion who liked to fight as much as race. The product of that pairing was Man o' War, named by Belmont's wife, Eleanor, for her husband, who was serving in World War II at the age of fifty-four. Sold as a yearling, Man o' War continued his career with new owner Sam Riddle. August Belmont Jr. died on December 10, 1924.
As Man o' War's wins grew, so did the weight allowance that contributed to his handicap. Eventually, the chestnut was required to carry 130 pounds, more than his competitors. But it made no difference to the horse nicknamed "Big Red" after his bright chestnut coat. Only once in his storied career did Man o' War experience defeat. It was at the Sanford Memorial, August 13, 1919, at Saratoga. As Larry Schwartz explained in an espn.com article, "Starting gates were not yet used, and horses were led up to a tape barrier. A fill-in starter had difficulty getting the horses ready and they milled around. While Man o' War apparently was backing up, the tape was sprung." That bad start was compounded
when the chestnut was boxed in the pack. He broke free but not soon enough, finishing second. The one horse that bested Man o' War was appropriately named Upset.
During the horse's three-year-old campaign, under the hand of jockey Clarence Kummer, Man o' War continued to win. One notable contest of 1920 was spared of the Thoroughbred's presence: the Kentucky Derby. But "Big Red" did streak to the winner's circle in the two other races that make up the Triple Crown. He triumphed in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, winning the latter by twenty lengths in a new track record of 2:14 and 1/5. It would be more than fifty years before Secretariat would win the lengthy Belmont by such a commanding margin.
"Race of the Century"
Indeed, Man o' War didn't need the publicity of a Triple Crown to prove his mettle. In an age of tintype and telegraph, the horse's name and exploits were known around the world. The only problem was finding Thoroughbreds who could provide competition for the big colt. Only one horse challenged in the Belmont, two in the Travers Stakes, and one in the Lawrence Realization at Belmont Park. In the latter race, Man o' War outran a horse named Hoodwink by an astounding one-hundred lengths.
A contender finally arose. Canadian-bred Sir Barton had the previous year become the first winner of the Triple Crown. The horse-racing community of fans demanded a match race between the four-year-old Sir Barton and three-year-old Man o' War. The two were set to meet at Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario, on October 12, 1920. Both horses had gone through their share of bad luck prior to the match: Sir Barton was said to be sore-footed; Man o' War had suffered a bowed tendon in the Potomac Handicap. But by race day both horses were pronounced fit to run, and bettors made Man o' War the overwhelming favorite at 5 to 100.
In preparing for the mile-and-quarter race, "the jockeys had been given identical instructions—get to the front and stay there," as Marvin Drager wrote in The Most Glorious Crown. "Man o' War was fractious at the barrier, which was located at the near turn of the track. Sir Barton, on the rail, was more docile and broke first with the flag." At the first turn Sir Barton led, but his advantage was "short-lived," said Drager, "as Man o' War caught up quickly and went ahead to stay after they had traveled only sixty yards." When the shouting was over, "Big Red" had proven himself once again, beating the Triple Crown champion by a margin of seven lengths and at a time that clipped more than six seconds off the existing track record. "It was a ridiculously easy victory," noted Drager.
Man o' War's Kenilworth romp was big news: the first horse race "filmed in its entirety around a circular track," Drager reported. The race also marked the end of Man o' War's two-season career. After earning a record $249,465, he was retired to stud in 1921. The chestnut stallion became known as a prodigious producer of quality foals. In 1926, his offspring won more than $400,000; among his 366 registered foals were sixty-four stakes winners, Triple Crown champion War Admiral, Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen, and Battleship, who took England's Grand National steeplechase in 1938. A grandson, Seabiscuit, became a popular money-winner in the 1930s.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1919||Winner of maiden race at Belmont in June|
|1919||Winner of next eight of nine starts, June-September|
|1920||Winner of the Preakness Stakes|
|1920||Winner of the Belmont Stakes by twenty lengths, setting a new track record|
|1920||Winner of all eleven starts|
|1920||Winner of match race against Triple Crown winner Sir Barton|
|1999||Named one of ESPN's one-hundred greatest athletes of the twentieth century|
A Legacy of Racing Talent
For decades, Man o' War continued to be the benchmark of racing quality. According to espn.com, by mid-century an Associated Press poll "overwhelmingly voted [him] the greatest thoroughbred of the first half of the twentieth century." The Man o' War Stakes is run in his name; a notable winner is Secretariat. Man o' War lived to a fine old age in equine terms; when he died at age thirty on November 1, 1947, thousands attended a memorial ceremony. In 1999 ESPN named the horse to its list of the one hundred greatest athletes of the twentieth century.
Drager, Marvin. The Most Glorious Crown. Winchester Press, 1975.
Farley, Walter. Man o'War. Bullseye Books, 1962.
Phifer, Kate Gilbert. Track Talk. Robert B. Luce Co., 1978.
"80 Years Ago." About.com. http://horseracing.about.com/ (October 4, 2002).
"Man o' War Came Close to Perfection." ESPN. http://espn.go.com/ (October 4, 2002).
"Man o'War." About.com. http://horseracing.about.com/(October 4, 2002).
"Newport Notables." Newport Notables. http://www.redwood1747.org/ (October 25, 2002).
Sketch by Susan Salter