The horse voted best of the 20th Century on at least two polls was foaled 100 years ago on March 29.
Various elements helped create the pride of place Man o’ War earned and retains. His very name, of course, bespeaks a form of glory, it being mankind’s persistent instinct to find that quality (glory) in one of his most regrettable activities (warfare). Related is that the United States had recently emerged from World War I as a great force among the earth’s nations. A bustling energy was in play, and sports had its part. Indeed, the decade of the 1920s, which Man o’ War helped introduce, produced immortals in other sports such as baseball’s Babe Ruth, boxing’s Jack Dempsey and football’s Red Grange.
Over the years, there were other ancillary elements to maintain the public’s awareness of a single Thoroughbred. Man o’ War’s stallion groom, Will Harbut, added his own ingredient, leaving spellbound thousands of visitors to the horse at Faraway Farm in Kentucky with sonorous and loquacious description of the champion’s great racing triumphs. The popular magazine Saturday Evening Post featured Man o’ War and Harbut more or less snuggling with each other on the cover of a 1941 issue.
A quintessential ingredient of Man o’ War’s soaring fame, of course, had been his prowess on the racetrack. He raced at two and three in 1919 and 1920 and won 20 of 21 races. His earnings of almost $250,000 set a record for any racehorse to that time.
Bred by August Belmont II, a pillar of the Turf of his day, Man o’ War was a son of the noted stallion Fair Play, and his dam, Mahubah, was by an English Triple Crown winner, Rock Sand. Belmont was 65 when he accepted a commission in the United States Army and went to Spain as a Major with the mission of helping procure supplies for the Allied Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Reluctantly, he sold most of his yearlings of 1918 and included Man o’ War, despite his veteran horsemen’s sense that the colt might be special.
The colorful sportsman Samuel D. Riddle paid $5,000 for Man o’ War at Saratoga and for the rest of his life celebrated the attendant prestige of being the owner of “Big Red.” The racing career of Man o’ War was a parade of spectacular moments: Victories by as many as 100 lengths, a 14-race winning streak, amazing crowds, elaborate praise in headlines. Man o’ War did not, however, win or even run in the Kentucky Derby, although it recently had achieved exalted status when the filly Regret won it in 1915 and her prominent and fashionable owner, Harry Payne Whitney, declared it the greatest of races. Owner Riddle did not allow trainer Louis Feustel to prepare Man o’ War for the Derby in the belief that 1 1/4 miles was too much to ask of a 3-year-old in the spring. (Late in his life, Feustel ran a tavern festooned with photos of Big Red and enjoyed the number of customers relating their memories of having seen the idol win the Derby!)
Even his one defeat added legends to the saga of Man o’ War. He got into a sequence of racing luck setbacks in the Sanford Memorial midway through his 2-year-old season and lost to a colt named Upset. This promulgated loose talk that his jockey, Johnny Loftus, was in on a fix (almost certainly wrong) and resulted in a widely held belief that the event was the precedent for a surprising sports result being called an “upset” (definitely wrong).
That the Associated Press and the BloodHorse polls of 1999 still anointed Man o’ War as the best horse after eight decades of succeeding champions had flaunted their riches on the stage of the Turf speaks to the warp and woof of an exceptionally compelling career. When one considers the careers of the other great horses, it is possible to nitpick any of them. In many cases there are achievements one did which the others did not:
Eleven horses of the century won the Triple Crown, whereas Man o’ War did not, and his reputation produced a long sequence of two- and three-horse races. One the other hand, Man o’ War had a winning streak of 14 races while a latter day “Big Red,” Secretariat, for example, had a maximum streak of 10 wins (even including a victory from which he was disqualified). Citation won the Triple Crown and had a longer streak of 16 wins, but he never came close to Man o’ War’s achievement of winning under 138 pounds, and Citation lost more often than he won in his two comeback seasons after his best days. Great weight carriers such as Kelso, Forego, Discovery and Exterminator had careers far longer than Man o’ War’s two seasons, but they developed late enough that none won any of those glamorous spring classics as 3-year-olds.
Man o’ War also became a great stallion as well as a tourist attraction for Kentucky. One of his best sons, War Admiral, won the Triple Crown in 1937. Even today, Man o’ War’s direct male line of descent is with us, perhaps most prominently in the form of 2001 Horse of the Year Tiznow and his sons.
Racing is a world of opinion, and by definition opinion and fact can diverge. Still, if one harbors the thought that some horse other than Man o’ War was the best of the 20th Century, he/she might be prepared to be accused of sacrilege.