Man o' War with jockey Johnny Loftus in 1919. (Photo courtesy Horsephotos.com)
Perched high on the bluffs above the Susquehanna River and at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay sat one of America’s most revered racetracks, Havre de Grace. Racing history was minted here.
During early morning works the mist rose like steam from the water, the sun pale and golden. In the spring of 1919 a feisty Man o’ War turned up in preparation for his 2-year-old campaign. “Big Red” had the whole backstretch buzzing. Ruggedly handsome, he struck his regal, high-headed stance. His coat was rubbed and brushed, and gleamed like polished copper. Grooms, exercise boys, and trainers hugged the rail when he stepped onto the loamy track. With his long, effortless stride Man o’ War ran other horses off their feet from the beginning.
Name: Man o' War
Foaled: March 29, 1917
Died: November 1, 1947
Birthplace: August Belmont III’s Nursery Stud, Lexington, Ky.
Sire: Fair Play
Owner: Sam Riddle, Glen Riddle Farm, Berlin, Md.
In all the history of American horse racing no Thoroughbred has ever quite matched either the brilliance or popularity of Man o’ War. He is the measuring stick for greatness in horse racing. Though he competed for just two years, Man o’ War was a national hero, joining Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange as the first shining stars of the "Roaring Twenties".
"He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else," wrote legendary racing writer Joe Palmer. “It was that way 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.”
Man o’ War was bred by one of the premier sportsmen of the American turf, August Belmont III. He was a son of Fair Play out of Mahubah, both of whom Belmont bred and raced. The chestnut colt inherited a fiery disposition from Fair Play, the archrival of the fabulous Colin. Fair Play’s sire, Hastings, was a hellion as well.
In spring 1918, Belmont, now in his sixties, departed his Nursery Stud to answer the call of his country and served as a major in Spain in the U. S. efforts in World War I. With that fateful decision Belmont also announced the sale of his entire yearling crop at the upcoming Saratoga sale.
Pennsylvania’s Sam Riddle with his trademark straw boater hat and sporting a bottlebrush mustache was at that August sale. He became, arguably, the luckiest man who ever bid on an American thoroughbred when the gavel fell on Fair Play's powerfully built colt at $5,000. That day six yearlings went for more than that sum. Later that afternoon, Man o’ War and ten other horses walked up a ramp into waiting box cars destined for Riddle’s Glen Riddle Farm in Media, Pa. Later, Riddle moved him to his other Glen Riddle Farm located near Berlin, Md.
Trainer Louis Feustel began the chore of breaking him. Man o’ War fought every step and repeatedly dumped his rider.
“He was a tough horse to saddle,” said Feustel. “You couldn’t tighten the girth all the way or he would jump right up and out of the stall.
“He was always in a hurry. If I wanted him to walk, he wanted to jog. If I wanted him to jog, he wanted to gallop. No matter what I wanted, he wanted to go faster.”
Man o’ War made his first start at five furlongs on June 6, 1919. With Johnny Loftus in the irons, the chestnut colt ran away from his six rivals winning by six lengths, “cantering,” as the Daily Racing Form chart called it.
Big Red’s spirit could be bridled yet never tamed. He swept past his overmatched opposition, regularly shattering speed records. It was not just his warp speed. It was the aura. It was the oversized crowds pushing to the rail to get a glimpse of him. Ears pricked, muscles rippling beneath his copper coat, he radiated majesty, energy and power.
As his wins climbed, so did the weight as racing secretaries piled it on. By his fourth race, the giant-striding Man o’ War was lugging 130 pounds, a hefty weight for a developing 2-year-old. His lone blemish came in the Sanford Memorial. In that era, jockeys circled around and then gathered their horses in a line behind a piece of webbing known as the barrier and were off running when it was raised. Man o’ War was circling with his back to the starting line when it went up. Ten lengths behind, he made up the lost ground but finished a half-length short of Henry Payne Whitney’s Upset. He toted 15 pounds more than the winner.
The winner of nine of his ten starts in 1919, he was selected Horse of the Year. By age three, he was a strapping 16.2 hands and weighed about 1,125 pounds with a 72-inch girth. His stride measured an incredible 25 to 28 feet.
Man o’ War set an American record in the 1920 Belmont Stakes, a race he won by 20 lengths without being extended. He scored victories the Preakness, the Withers, the Dwyer Stakes, Stuyvesant Handicap and romped in the Travers, setting a track record that was not broken until 42 years later. Then he blew away his rivals in the Lawrence Realization, Jockey Club, and Potomac Handicap.
“Man o’ War did not beat, he merely annihilated,” wrote Joe Palmer.
The crowning achievement of Man o’ War’s career came in a match race against the top-rated older horse Sir Barton that would decide Horse of the Year.
Racing at Kenilworth Park in Ontario, Man o’ War kicked dust in Sir Barton’s face, whipping him by seven lengths. Despite the jockey’s broken stirrup, he took more than six seconds off the track record. He went to the post 21 times and won 20 races.
Nine decades later no champion Thoroughbred has dominated his respective era like Man o’ War. In the end, it was the excessive weight racing secretaries assigned to the handsome champion that sent him to stud. At the time of his retirement, Big Red was the greatest money-winning Thoroughbred, earning $249,465.
During 23 years as a stallion, Man o’ War produced 64 stakes winners, including Hall of Famers Crusader, Battleship and War Admiral (Riddle’s 1937 Triple Crown winner). The fillies he sired became outstanding broodmares who produced 124 stakes winners.
Will Harbut was Man o’ War’s stud groom for more than 15 years. He handled all the day-to-day duties, ushered him into the breeding shed and led him out of a small barn into his paddock to meet the steady stream of admirers (estimated at more than a million).
A visit with Man O’ War always began like this: “Folks, this is Man o’ War, the greatest horse that ever lived," said Harbut, in his rich, melodic voice. “He’s the most and he’s going to go on being the most as long as you and I can tell about it.”
When Man o’ War died at 30 on Nov. 1, 1947, his burial was a moment of national mourning. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral, which was broadcast over radio. Faraway Farm was his original burial site. Nearly 30 years later Man o’ War and his heroic-size statue (20 hands tall, 3,000 pounds of bronze) were transferred to the Kentucky Horse Park. Here at the end of the entrance drive, his grave and statue serve as a beacon and sentry to horse fans from all over the world.