August Belmont II: The Man Who Bred Man o’ War

Legends
August Belmont II was a legendary figure in American horse racing. (George D. Widener Collection/BloodHorse)

How many men in the history of horse racing can claim to have bred the greatest colt and the greatest filly of their time?

Before you answer “no one” in the assumption that such a feat just isn’t possible, allow us to introduce you to August Belmont II, whose contributions to the sport were so vast that he was one of the inaugural “Pillars of the Turf” inductees into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Belmont was destined from birth to exert a profound influence on racing. His father, August Belmont I, was a politician and businessman who got involved in racing through his friend Leonard Jerome, who encouraged Belmont to take on the role as president of a new racetrack called Jerome Park. Despite having no background in the sport, Belmont accepted, and Jerome Park came to fruition with the “Belmont Stakes” as one of its feature races.

The elder Belmont subsequently established a pair of breeding farms in New York and Kentucky and was soon enjoying success at the highest levels of the sport, even winning his namesake race with Fenian in 1869. Upon Belmont I’s passing in 1890, Belmont II—already following in his father’s footsteps at August Belmont & Co., the family’s banking house—took up the mantel of carrying on the family’s racing legacy.

Suffice to say, Belmont II elevated that legacy to an entirely different level.

For Belmont, racing was more of a hobby than a business; his work took precedence when necessary, which cost him the opportunity to campaign some of the best horses that he bred. But adopting such a viewpoint did allow Belmont to pursue racing in the most sporting of manners, and Belmont’s goal was always to breed horses with abundant stamina that could excel at classic distances. This he achieved with great success, and judging from the overall breadth and scale of his racing accomplishments, you would never guess that the sport was anything less than Belmont’s lifelong focus.

W.C. Whitney and August Belmont II
W.C. Whitney and August Belmont II (right) (George D. Widener Collection/BloodHorse)

Belmont’s initial foray into racing came in 1891 when he purchased seven mares from the dispersal of his father’s breeding stock, including one named Bella Donna that would have a lasting impact on Belmont’s breeding program. Belmont also chose to center his operations at his father’s Nursery Stud in Kentucky and soon became actively involved in managing the sport at its highest levels. He was among the founding members of The Jockey Club, the National Steeplechase Association, and the Westchester Racing Association, and also served as the chairman of the New York Racing Commission. As part of the Westchester Racing Association, Belmont—like his father—helped create a new racetrack in New York, and that track—opened in 1905—was named Belmont Park in honor of the Belmont family.

All the while, Belmont’s breeding operation at Nursery Stud was producing a steady string of stakes winners. Margrave and Merry Prince, born in 1893, were among the first, and Belmont would breed at least one stakes winner a year for the rest of his life. In fact, just 10 years after he entered the sport, Belmont arranged for Bella Donna to be bred to the stallion Octagon, a stakes winner bred by Belmont a few years earlier. The resulting foal, born in 1901, was a chestnut filly named Beldame, and she would soon stake her claim as perhaps the greatest racemare seen in the sport to that point in time.

Unfortunately, Belmont was not Beldame’s owner of record during her most notable season. As told by author Edward Bowen in “Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders (Vol. 1),” “Belmont was preoccupied with various other endeavors, including the financing of Judge Alton Parker’s unsuccessful run for president against Teddy Roosevelt…”

As a result, Belmont leased Beldame to his friend Newton Bennington for the year 1904, and Beldame proceeded to rattle off 12 wins from 14 starts, crushing fellow fillies in such historic races as the Gazelle Stakes and Alabama Stakes and beating males with authority in the Saratoga Cup and Carter Handicap, among other races. She is considered to have been the Horse of the Year for 1904, but after returning to Belmont for the 1905 season, she seemed to lack some of the spark that had made her great the year before, though she did manage to win the prestigious Suburban Handicap against males.

During the next decade, Belmont’s racing and breeding program really picked up as Rock View became the champion 3-year-old of 1913, Friar Rock earned Horse of the Year honors in 1916, and Hourless was deemed the co-champion 3-year-old of 1917. Furthermore, Belmont enjoyed a truly memorable triumph when his colt Tracery won the historic 1 ¾-mile St. Leger Stakes in England. But as with Beldame, life outside of racing intervened just before the arrival of Belmont’s greatest champion. “[Belmont] had staked much of his personal fortune in the Cape Cod Canal project,” wrote Bowen, referring to one of Belmont’s most prolonged and ambitious business pursuits, “and the advent of World War I led him to serve his country, despite his age, 65.”

Man o' War
Man o' War (Blood-Horse photo)

As a result, Belmont sold the majority of his 1917 foal crop, which unfortunately included the immortal Man o’ War. In terms of pedigree, Man o’ War was a proud product of Belmont’s breeding program; Belmont had bred Man o’ War’s sire, the talented Belmont Stakes runner-up Fair Play, and Belmont had imported Man o’ War’s broodmare sire, the English Triple Crown winner Rock Sand. Seeing Man o’ War race in Belmont’s silks would have been a fitting tribute to everything Belmont had worked for in Thoroughbred racing, but due to the sale, the horse that some still consider to have been the greatest of all time carried the silks of Samuel D. Riddle to victory 20 times from 21 starts, shattering track records and dominating the sport like few before or since.

Missing out on racing Man o’ War must have been a disappointment for Belmont, and one only exacerbated when another horse Belmont had bred and sold—Mad Hatter—went on to win two editions apiece of the Metropolitan Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup, in the process earning regard as the co-champion handicap male of 1921.

But Belmont was not discouraged, and in the last years of his life he bred several more talented stakes winners, including the full brothers Chance Play (Horse of the Year in 1927) and Chance Shot (winner of the 1927 Belmont Stakes). Both were sons of Fair Play.

Belmont passed away in December 1924 at the age of 71, leaving behind a legacy of accomplishments that few in the sport can match. Breeding Man o’ War and Beldame alone ensures that his name will live on in racing forever.


Fun Facts

  • Since the Belmont Stakes is named after his family, it’s only fitting that August Belmont II won the race on three occasions, with Masterman (1902), Friar Rock (1916), and Hourless (1917).
  • Belmont is credited with having bred 129 stakes winners, including 25 sired by Fair Play, who was North America’s leading sire by progeny earnings in 1920, 1924, and 1927. Another 13 were sired by Rock Sand.
  • Outside of racing, one of Belmont’s main business achievements was the creation of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, which built and operated the first subways in New York City.
  • Befitting of a man who helped found the National Steeplechase Association, the last stakes winner that Belmont bred was the steeplechaser Fairfield.

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