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Man o' War: Thoroughbred Legends

Man o' War was one of the 20th century's greatest racehorses. He was cared-for, throughout his life, by Will Harbut. Will was Man o' War's groom who famously observed that Man o' War was:

The Mostest Hoss There Ever Was

Many historians and horse lovers agree with that observation, declaring Man o' War the greatest racehorse of the 20th century.

It wasn't just Man o' War's own incredible ability, particularly on the track, that is remarkable. His bloodline includes other famous racehorses such as his son, War Admiral, and his grandson, Seabiscuit.

One thing to note about Man o' War, which may seem surprising. He never raced at Churchill Downs (meaning, he never ran the Kentucky Derby). His owner, Samuel Doyle Riddle, refused to enter his horse in that race.

Unsurprisingly, Man o' War was extremely hard to break. Riddle once said:

He fought like a tiger. He screamed with rage and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled with safety.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (in Saratoga Springs, New York) has an extended biography of Man o' War on its website. Hereafter are several excerpts from that bio:

Bred by August Belmont II, Man o’ War was foaled on March 29, 1917 at Nursery Stud near Lexington, Ky. He was blessed with quality bloodlines, as his sire, Fair Play, was an accomplished runner. His dam, Mahubah, was well thought of in breeding circles even though she was never a star on the track. Man o’ War’s grandfather was the ill-tempered 1896 Belmont Stakes winner Hastings, a violent competitor known to bite and ram other horses 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 on the advice of Hall of Fame trainer Louis Feustel at Saratoga’s 1918 yearling sales in what turned out to be one of the greatest bargains in racing history.

Like his grandfather, Man o’ War had a violent disposition, forcing Feustel to bring him along slowly in training. Man o’ War routinely dumped his exercise riders and was usually belligerent when his handlers attempted to saddle him.

Man o' War took the race track in his first public display of prowess at Belmont on the 6th of June, 1919. He had an astonishing 28-foot stride:

After cooling his temper to a manageable level and settling into training, Man o’ War made a stunning debut in a maiden race against six other 2-year-olds at Belmont Park on June 6, 1919. Despite having jockey Johnny Loftus using much restraint throughout the race, Man o’ War won by an easy 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 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

Man o’ War became such a sensation that police officers and Pinkerton guards had to protect him at the tracks from souvenir hunters who routinely attempted to snatch the hairs from his mane and tail. His notoriety also attracted more significant danger, as Riddle became aware of multiple assassination plots against his great runner. Riddle went to great lengths to protect Man o’ War. Armed guards were always around his stall and even Feustel had personal security.

Man o' War lost only one race, and it was very controversial:

The summer of 1919 was not without controversy for Man o’ War. What transpired on Aug. 13 that year at Saratoga in the Sanford Memorial turned out to be the one black mark on an otherwise flawless record. For the first and only time, Man o’ War was defeated. The loss, however, did little to tarnish Man o’ War’s reputation. If anything, it enhanced his legend, as he almost pulled off a miracle victory. The circumstances of the race remain shrouded in mystery and controversy. The horse that handed Man o’ War his only defeat was the aptly named Upset.

The blame has often been assigned to the man who was filling in that day for Mars Cassidy, 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.

Horses in Man o' War's era broke from a piece of webbing that was strung across the track, as the starting gate had not yet been introduced. 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. 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 and unprepared for the start. Whatever position he was in, Man o’ War was left at the start and at a clear disadvantage.

Man o’ War made a furious rally to get in contention. Loftus attempted to get through on the rail approaching the stretch, but he found traffic trouble and became locked in a pocket. Past the eighth pole, Loftus knew he had no choice but to swing his mount outside. 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 for part of the journey, and forced wide, Man o’ War still nearly won the race. The result was Upset winning by a diminishing half length. Man o’ War blew past Upset 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 the riders? If so, it has never been uncovered.

Based on his dominant past performances, Man o’ War was also forced to carry 15 more pounds than Upset in the Sanford. Legend has it that Riddle’s stablehands claimed Man o’ War had nightmares for weeks following his only defeat.

“Given an equal chance Man o’ War would undoubtedly have won the race,” The Saratogian stated.

The Sanford Memorial, however, proved to be a fluke. Man o’ War raced against Upset six other times and won each meeting. Man o’ War had no trouble bouncing back from the Sanford. He followed his lone defeat with the victories in the Grand Union Hotel and Hopeful at Saratoga before closing out his juvenile campaign with an easy score in the Futurity at Belmont.

With Loftus banned by The Jockey Club, Riddle and Feustel chose Clarence Kummer as Man o’ War’s new rider and the combination proved to be a winning one. Riddle decided to pass on the Kentucky Derby in favor of having Man o’ War make his 3-year-old debut in the Preakness. Man o’ War won easily, as he did in the Withers, Belmont (a 20-length victory), Stuyvesant and Dwyer.

Match races are awesome to watch, as two magnificent horses compete head-to-head. Man o' War had such a race, in 1920, against Sir Barton (the first "Triple Crown" winner). The event took place in Canada:

Riddle sent Man o’ War to Kenilworth Park in Canada in October of 1920 for a match race against Sir Barton. 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 and cruised to a seven-length victory and smashed the track record for 1¼ miles. Again, Kummer restrained his mount 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 in a row. He had carried as much as 138 pounds as a sophomore and as much as 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. Matt Winn telegraphed an offer 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.

Instead of risking injuries to his famous horse, Riddle decided to pull him from the track after his third year:

Man o’ War’s days of dazzling on the track were through. Rather than tempt fate and risk a breakdown under extreme weight, Riddle opted to retire Big Red after his 3-year-old campaign. Despite all the records and astonishing performances, Man o’ War was never fully extended and his ultimate potential was never known.

At the time of Man o’ War’s retirement, Riddle was offered $1 million for him. He turned it down. It wasn’t until 35 years later that any thoroughbred was sold for that amount.

Although Man o’ War never raced in Kentucky, he spent most his life in the Bluegrass State. There are estimates that as many as three million visitors traveled to Riddle’s Faraway Farm 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, and he always introduced his charge to visitors as “the mostest horse that ever was.”

Man o' War developed heart trouble in 1943. He lived another four years, although he no-longer sired any more foals:

Man o’ War began experiencing heart trouble in 1943, forcing his retirement from breeding. He died of a heart attack on Nov. 1, 1947 at Faraway, less than a month after Harbut’s death. It required 13 men to lift Man o’ War’s 1,300-pound body from his stall. Three days later, more than 2,000 people attended Man o’ War’s funeral, which was broadcast on NBC Radio and featured nine eulogies.

A scroll from the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division was placed with a black ribbon on Man o’ War’s barn. The First Cavalry Division had dubbed Man o’ War an honorary colonel. In Japan, an estimated 3,000 members of the country’s cavalry division paid their respects to Man o’ War with military honors as well. American racetracks held a moment of silence at 3 p.m., coinciding with the funeral.

At 3:24 p.m. on Nov. 4, 1947, buglers from the Man o’ War Post of the American Legion, dressed in the famous black and yellow Riddle silks, signaled farewell to the legend with the somber playing of Taps.

The greatest was gone.

Man o’ War was buried at Faraway Farm and a massive bronze statue by Herbert Hazeltine was eventually 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 enjoyed tremendous success as a stallion. Among his 386 registered foals, 64 became stakes winners, including his greatest son, 1937 Triple Crown winner and Hall of Fame member War Admiral. He also sired Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen, as well as Belmont Stakes winners American Flag and Hall of Fame member Crusader. Man o’ War also produced Hall of Fame steeplechaser Battleship, winner of the famed British Grand National.

One of horse-racing's famous journalists, Joe Palmer, summarized the life and legacy of Man o' War with these words:

He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else. 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. He could get in no position which suggested actual repose, and his very stillness was that of a coiled spring, of the crouched tiger.

Click on the image of Man o' War, with Will Harbut, for a better view.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Sep 25, 2018


Media Credits

Image of Man o' War, with his groom Will Harbut, online via University of Kentucky. Here the two are pictured at Faraway Farm.

 

 

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