Man o' War came close to perfection
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
When thoroughbred racing needed a boost, Man o' War unleashed his blazing speed and came to the rescue. Though he competed for only two years, he energized a reeling sport.
While racing was legalized again in 1913, World War I soon dominated the public's attention. Attendance and purses were at record lows when Man o' War made his debut on June 6, 1919.
By the time he retired 16 months later, he was a national hero, joining Babe Ruth as the first shining stars of the Roaring Twenties. The charismatic horse's popularity had brought fans back to the track.
Man o' War went to the post 21 times and won 20 races. He won one race by an incredible 100 lengths and triumphed in another carrying 138 pounds. He whipped a Triple Crown champion by seven lengths in a match race.
He brought international recognition to Kentucky breeders and made the United States the racing center of the world. When he retired, he held five American records at different distances and had earned more money than any thoroughbred.
In a mid-century Associated Press poll, he was overwhelmingly voted the greatest thoroughbred of the first half of the 20th century.
Not only did Man o' War perform like a superstar on the track, the chestnut-colored horse (though he was nicknamed "Big Red") looked like one. At 3, he was a strapping 16.2 hands (about 5-foot-6) and weighed about 1,125 pounds with a 72-inch girth. His appetite also was huge, as he ate 12 quarts of oats every day, or about three quarts more than the average racehorse. He ran in big bounds as well, with his stride measuring an incredible 25 to 28 feet.
Bred by August Belmont II, son of the founder of Belmont Park and for whom the Belmont Stakes was named, the future champion was foaled on March 29, 1917 at Nursery Stud near Lexington, Ky. His sire was Fair Play and his dam was Mahubah, the daughter of Rock Sand, the 1903 winner of Britain's version of the Triple Crown (the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby and the St. Leger). He was 15 generations removed from the Godolphin Arabia, one of three Arab and Barb stallions considered to be the founders of the thoroughbred line.
Originally, Belmont's wife named the horse My Man o' War, after her soldiering husband, who was stationed in France during World War I, but the "My" was later dropped.
At the beginning, Man o' War's aversion to the bridle and saddle caused problems. "He's nice and he's smart, but don't ever try to force him or you'll come out second best every time," a stable boy said. "Ask him and he'll do what you want. Push him and it's all off."
Under Feustel's training, patience paid off, and the energy of Man o' War was harnessed. His debut, in a five-furlough maiden race against six other 2-year-olds at Belmont, was no contest. The fans reportedly screamed and pounded the rail as jockey Johnny Loftus tightened the reins at the stretch, slowing Man o' War to a virtual canter. But the horse still won by six lengths.
"He made half-a-dozen high-class youngsters look like $200 horses," wrote the turf editor of the New York Morning Telegraph.
Following his smashing debut, Man o' War won three stakes races, at three different New York tracks, in the next 17 days.
His winning streak was at six when Man o' War raced in the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 13. It is Man O' War's most remembered race -- because it is the only one he would lose.
Starting gates were not yet used, and horses were led up 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. Man o' War "was almost left at the post," the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.
After a slow start, Man o' War was third as the field headed for home in the six-furlough race. Blocked by close quarters, he had to go to the outside in the final eighth. Though he gamely made up ground, he missed by a half-length of overtaking the winner, who at 115 pounds carried 15 fewer pounds than the 11-20 favorite. The winner was named, rather appropriately, Upset.
Big Red, who beat Upset in their six other meetings, finished the year with easy victories in the Hopeful and Futurity, giving him nine victories in 10 races.
In 1920, Man o' War won all 11 of his races, with Clarence Kummer aboard nine times. Big Red didn't race in the Kentucky Derby because Riddle believed that a soft-boned 3-year-old should not have to run 1¼ miles in early May. Instead, he set his sights on the Preakness (Man o' War held off an Upset charge to win) and Belmont (a 20-length victory in a two-horse field).
After winning the Travers against two horses at Saratoga, only one colt challenged Man o' War in his next race. Well, it wasn't exactly a challenge as Big Red, the 1-100 favorite, defeated Hoodwink by 100 lengths in the 1 5/8th-mile Lawrence Realization at Belmont Park.
He was 1-100 again in winning the Jockey Cup at Belmont Park, and then he was saddled with the excessively high weight of 138 pounds for the Potomac Handicap. After being a bit fractious at the post, he assumed command and won easily.
Man o' War's last race was against Sir Barton, who in 1919 had become the first to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Like most match races, it was hardly competitive. At Kenilworth Park, in Windsor, Ontario, Man o' War won the $75,000 purse and $5,000 Gold Cup by defeating the older Canadian-owned horse by seven lengths.
When Riddle was informed that Man o' War would have to carry even more than 138 pounds as a 4-year-old, he retired his horse to stud. Man o' War held American records for the fastest mile, 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/8 miles, 1½ miles and 1 5/8 miles. His total earnings were $249,465, a record at the time.
Don't feel sorry for Man o' War because he stopped racing so young. He proved to be quite a stud. In 1926, his issue won $408,137, breaking a 60-year-old record. Among his 386 registered foals were 64 stakes winners, including 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, 1929 Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen and Battleship, the winner of the 1938 Grand National Steeplechase in England.
In 1921, a Texas oil millionaire, William Waggoner, offered $500,000 for Man o' War. Riddle turned him down, as he did when Waggoner increased his offer again, first to $1 million and then a blank check. "The colt is not for sale," he said.
Although Man o' War spent most of his life in Kentucky, he never raced there. He died there, though, at the age of 30 of a heart attack on Nov. 1, 1947 in Lexington.