The legendary thoroughbred racehorse Man o' War, informally christened 'Big Red' by horse racing fans, was foaled at the Nursery Stud in Lexington, Kentucky, shortly before midnight on 29 March, 1917. His dam, or mother, was Mahubah, a bay daughter of the English Triple Crown winner Rock Sand. Bred in England, Rock Sand won that country's most coveted trio of races, the Epsom Derby, the 2000 Guineas and the St Leger Stakes in 1903, and then made headlines again in 1906 with his $125,000 pricetag when purchased by August Belmont II, who imported him into the United States.
Man o' War's sire, or father, was the leading sire Fair Play, a golden chestnut sired by Hastings, the infamously bad-tempered Belmont Stakes winner of 1896, and 'out of'1 Fairy Gold. The winner of England's Woodcote Stakes for two-year-old fillies, Fairy Gold was a daughter of the 1880 Epsom Derby winner Bend Or. Foaled in 1905, Fair Play was owned and bred by Major August Belmont II and during his racing career he was trained by Andrew Joyner. He was best known for his rivalry with Colin, to whom Fair Play finished second in many game efforts, including the 1908 Belmont Stakes. Colin was the last American champion to retire undefeated until Ogden Phipps' Personal Ensign duplicated the accomplishment in 1988, and Fair Play was the only horse to ever challenge him.
When the two retired to stud, it was Colin who found himself to be overshadowed, for his stud record paled in comparison to that of his old rival. In addition to Man o' War, Fair Play sired the accomplished horses Display, Mad Play, Chance Shot, Chance Play, Mad Hatter, My Play, Ladkin, Chatterton, Stromboli, Masda, Sands of Pleasure, and countless others, leading the American Sires List in 1920, 1924 and 1927.
Man o' War's Early History
Man o' War was so dubbed by Mrs Eleanor Robson Belmont, who traditionally named all of her husband's horses, including Mahubah, whose name is Arabic for 'good tidings'. Mrs Belmont originally wanted to call Mahubah's colt 'My Man o' War' in honour of her husband's participation in World War I. When she sent the registration to New York, the first word was dropped and he was officially named Man o' War.
Major Belmont had planned on racing the colt in his own colours, as he usually raced the horses he bred, but in 1918 Belmont decided to sell his yearlings2, feeling that his involvement in the war in Europe would prevent him from racing them. Therefore, after an attempt to sell them as a package failed, Man o' War and the other Nursery Stud youngsters were sent to Saratoga's yearling sale in August of 1918.
Man o' War's Purchase
The highest priced yearling at Saratoga that summer was a blaze-faced chestnut colt named Golden Broom, purchased by Mrs Walter M Jeffords for $15,600. Her cousin, Samuel Doyle Riddle, a textile manufacturer and former rider on the northeastern hunt circuit, paid a moderate $5,000 for Man o' War.
The reasons for Riddle's purchase have been greatly debated, with numerous individuals claiming to have influenced the decision. What is known is that trainer Louis Feustel wanted a Fair Play colt, and also admired Man o' War's dam, Mahubah, having trained her for Belmont. It was said, probably with at least some truth, that Riddle felt that Man o' War would surely make an excellent hunter, if he was not a successful racehorse.
It was also said that Sam Riddle liked the way the colt's coat shone 'like gold in the afternoon sunlight', although this poetic legend seems at odds with claims that Man o' War was not prepared for the sale as carefully as his stablemates. Belmont had considered holding Man o' War back from the sale, but had decided that keeping the best colt for himself might make a bad impression on potential buyers.
The actual bid was made by Riddle's friend Ed Buhler, the uncle of the great artist Richard Stone Reeves. One of the finest painters of thoroughbreds in racing history, Reeves was always awed by the fact that his uncle had bought Man o' War, and when he was commissioned to paint the great horse, he said, 'I had gathered reference material since I was a boy. It was almost as if I had been practicing all my life for that one painting.'
Training the Horse
Louis Feustel, who had galloped Hastings, had worked for August Belmont II under Andrew Joyner during Fair Play's racing career, and had trained Mahubah himself, became Man o' War's trainer. Ex-jockey Harry Vitotoe broke him to saddle. Man o' War proved to have inherited some of Hastings' fire, and was said to be a very difficult horse to break, fighting every step and repeatedly dumping Harry. As Samuel D Riddle recalled:
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.
While this description was possibly an exaggeration, it was well known that Man o' War threw his rider while still at Saratoga, and enjoyed at least 15 minutes of freedom before he was captured.
The first time Johnny Loftus got on him, Man o' War reputedly threw the jockey about 40 feet. But according to his owner, 'tossing Johnny was the last bad move Man o' War ever made', for once he began galloping with the stable pony, Major Trent, and the other yearlings, Man o' War quickly became the most highly regarded horse in the barn.
The Riddles and Jeffords shared a training track between their two farms in Maryland, and every year the two stables matched their most promising young horses against each other in order to give them some racing experience before their first season on the track. That year, Man o' War met Golden Broom in the trials and the high priced Saratoga yearling won the short sprint. Man o' War, being the bigger horse, had trouble breaking fast enough to beat the smaller, quicker colt, but once the big chestnut learned how to handle his long legs, it was an entirely different story.
Man o'War's Racing Career
On 6 June, 1919, Man o' War began his racing career with a six length win at Belmont Park. It later seemed appropriate that the great horse made his first start there, since the historic track was built by his breeder, who named it in honour of his father, August Belmont I.
Three days after 'breaking his maiden', or winning his first race, the first time out, Man o' War went on to win the Keene Memorial, beating Colin's son On Watch by three lengths. He covered the sloppy five and a half furlongs3 in 1 minute 5.6 seconds.
Next came the Youthful Stakes at Jamaica. Once again, On Watch failed to catch him, and Man o' War was the winner by two and a half lengths. It was only two days later that he went to post at Aqueduct in the Hudson Stakes, and despite an impost4 of 130 pounds the story was no different. The big chestnut son of Fair Play won by a length and a half, and was quite obviously not running his hardest. In the 5 July Tremont Stakes, also at Aqueduct, and also under 130 pounds, an extra furlong proved no challenge. Man o' War easily beat Ralco by a length.
After a month off, Man o' War went to post at Saratoga for the US Hotel Stakes. For the third time he carried 130 pounds. 'Big Red' wired the field, and HP Whitney's Upset could only get within two lengths of him. Man o' War's brilliance in these early juvenile stakes prompted comparisons to Colin and Sysonby, great thoroughbreds of the past.
Then, on 13 August, 1919, Man o' War met Payne Whitney Stable's Upset and his old rival Golden Broom, who had since won the Saratoga Special, in Saratoga's Sanford Memorial Stakes. After a substitute starter sent the field off while he had his hindquarters to the barrier, Man o' War was working to make up lost ground when his rider, Johnny Loftus, suffered an error in judgment, going to the inside, and the champion was boxed in. When he finally found racing room, it was a moment too late. The living legend had been upset by Upset, losing by less than a half length and carrying 15 pounds more than the winner, who in the race of his life had covered the six furlongs in 1 minute 11.2 seconds. Willie Knapp, who rode Upset, described the race:
We'd passed the quarter pole and were going to the eighth pole, I guess it was, and I heard something right behind me and I knew it was 'Big Red' coming at me now. I looked back and there he was. Johnny Loftus was riding like a crazy man and he yelled at me, 'Move out, Willie! I'm coming through!' So I yelled back at him, 'Take off! Take off me, bum, or I'll put you through the rail!' Then I set down to riding and we won.
Stable employees claimed that Man o' War had nightmares for weeks after his only defeat, and he never lost again. Golden Broom developed a quarter crack, which is a crack located between the horse's toe and heel, and was retired for the year after finishing third in the Sanford Memorial.
Man o' War got even in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes, beating Upset by a length with the highly-regarded Blazes third. He also won the Hopeful Stakes by four lengths and finished the season with a two and a half length victory over John P Grier in the Belmont Futurity. In 1920, Johnny Loftus was denied a renewal of his jockey's licence, possibly as a result of the controversy following the Sanford Memorial, and therefore Man o' War had a new regular rider in Clarence Kummer.
Man o' War's three-year-old career began with a win over Upset and Wildair in the 1920 Preakness Stakes. To the great disappointment of racing fans, he had been kept out of the Kentucky Derby because Samuel Riddle disapproved of three-year-olds being asked to run a mile and a quarter so early in May. After setting a new American record of 1 minute 35.8 seconds for the mile in the Withers Stakes, 'Big Red' took the Belmont Stakes by a stunning 20 lengths, breaking Sir Barton's American record in the process. Man o' War's time for the mile and three-eighths was 2 minutes 14.2 seconds.
The next time he ran, Chicago O'Brien expressed his confidence in Man o' War's greatness by betting $100,000 against Tom Shaw's $1,000 that once again the big chestnut colt would prevail. 'It's a crazy bet, I don't mind giving you a grand, but any horse can fall down,' said Shaw. Even with an impost of 135 pounds, Man o' War managed to keep his footing and rewarded the faithful gambler by easily scoring an eight length victory in the Stuyvesant Handicap. He had successfully given 32 pounds to the runner-up Yellow Hand.
After the Stuyvesant, Man o' War was once again challenged by a horse from the Payne Whitney Stables, this time in the form of Whisk Broom II's son John P Grier. The trainer from Payne Whitney, James Rowe Jr, referred to Man o' War as 'that red lobster' and refused to believe that he, or any other horse, was invincible. He had been aiming John P Grier at the Dwyer Stakes, and was hoping to beat the champion again. John P Grier stayed with Man o' War for over a mile, even pulling ahead once, and when 'Big Red' caught Grier and drew clear to win in record time, he broke his game opponent's heart. The pole where Man o' War passed Grier was preserved at Aqueduct, called the 'Man o' War Pole' in honour of the event. Man o' War's time of 1 minute 49.2 seconds for the mile and an eighth was a new American record.
John P Grier did at least partially recover, and later beat the champion filly Cleopatra in the Aqueduct Handicap while conceding 16 pounds to her. He also won the Edgemere and Annapolis Handicaps, and was widely considered the second best three year old of 1920.
After the Dwyer, Man o' War won the Miller Stakes by six lengths and in the Travers Stakes he beat Upset by two and a half lengths, with John P Grier third, and covered the mile and a quarter in 2 minutes 1.8 seconds without any difficulty, despite high weight of 129 pounds. The Whitney horses carried 123 and 115 respectively.
No one dared challenge him in the Lawrence Realization. Mrs Jeffords finally agreed to enter a horse, provided he was not beaten too badly. Samuel Riddle didn't consider this a problem, saying:
We never lifted a jockey to his back that we didn't tell to hold the horse down, so as not to win by too wide a margin.
Yet despite his rider's choking hold, Man o' War beat Mrs Jefford's colt Hoodwink by more than 100 lengths, setting a new world record of 2 minutes 40.8 seconds for a mile and five-eighths. He then finished the regular season with record setting wins in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which he won by 15 lengths in 2 minutes 28.8 seconds, and the Potomac Handicap. Many horsemen consider the Potomac Handicap to be 'Big Red's greatest race. He carried a record 138 pounds to set a track record of 1 minute 44.8 seconds for the mile and a sixteenth and beat an all-star field which included Kentucky Derby and Suburban Handicap winner Paul Jones as well as the top horses Wildair, Blazes, and Bonnie Miss.
Then, in his final effort, Man o' War met 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in an $80,000 match race run at Canada's Kenilworth Park in Windsor.
His Greatest Race
The so-called 'Race of the Century,' run on 12 October, 1920, was a weight for age event, contested over a mile and a quarter. Being the older horse, Sir Barton carried 126 pounds, while Man o' War carried 120. During the week leading up to the race, the condition of each horse was questioned. Louis Feustel worried about a slight filling in Man o' War's tendon while rumours spread that Sir Barton was training poorly. In response to an article in Chicago's Evening Post, Sir Barton's trainer H Guy Bedwell issued the following statement:
Sir Barton is doing all I have asked him in his work for the race. He is ready to run as fast as he has in the past and I look for him to render a brilliant account of himself. I am making no predictions, but I believe Sir Barton will not disgrace himself in the most pretentious effort of his successful turf career.
Also responding to the rumours surrounding the race, Samuel D Riddle had 24-hour guards posted around Man o' War's stall. Newspapers had speculated that gamblers might try to drug or even poison the champion, and whether the stories had any truth to them or not the owner wasn't taking any unnecessary chances.
The day of the big race, JKL Ross, the owner of Sir Barton, replaced his regular rider, Earl Sande, with Frank Keogh, explaining that Sande had developed a nervous stomach, but many speculated that he was taken off the older champion because he had stated that Man o' War was the best horse he had ever ridden after substituting for Clarence Kummer in the Miller Stakes that summer.
Man o' War acted up at the start, allowing Sir Barton to break on top, but the older horse held his lead for only 60 yards before Man o' War passed him. As the New York Times reported:
He actually galloped the Ross colt dizzy in the first mile and drew away so easily in the final quarter of a mile that he was never fully extended.
Despite his lack of effort, he took 6.4 seconds off the track record and beat Sir Barton by seven lengths. After the race, a story circulated that the stirrup leathers on Kummer's saddle had been cut, but the rumour was never proven.
The Kenilworth Gold Cup was not only the 'Race of the Century,' but it was also the first entire race to be filmed. Even though the great horse had outrun the Triple Crown winner, set numerous track records, and set world records that still stand today, Man o' War had never been fully extended, and he was retired without ever having the opportunity to display his full potential.
A Horse with Character
Like all horses, the great Man o' War had his quirks. His grandsire Hastings, who won the 1896 Belmont Stakes, was said to be one of the most unmanageable horses in history, and was famous for biting other horses during races. Although some of Hasting's fiery temperament was passed on to his grandson, Man o' War refrained from biting his competition, and he chose to chew his hooves instead, a habit which baffled those associated with the legendary horse.
The great turf writer Joe Palmer, of The Blood-Horse, called him 'as near to living flame as horses get,' and most American horsemen consider him to be the greatest racehorse in American turf history. When Samuel Riddle was offered a million dollars for Man o' War, he answered that 'lots of men have a million dollars, but only one can own Man o' War.' Offered a blank cheque, he again declined, saying:
You go to France and bring back the Tomb of Napoleon. You go to India and buy the Taj Mahal. Then I'll put a price on Man o' War.
Every year, thousands of visitors flocked to Faraway Farm in Kentucky to see the legendary horse and hear his famous stud groom, Will Harbut, tell stories about the champion. He always introduced his charge as 'the mostest horse that ever was' and insisted that Man o' War had never been beaten. When a guest asked about the race with Upset, Will Harbut always replied that since he himself hadn't seen it, the story of the 1919 Sanford Memorial 'must have been a lie'.
Man o' War's Legacy
As a sire, Man o' War's success was phenomenal. Despite the fact that the number, and some said the quality, of the mares he covered was extremely limited, 'Big Red' managed to sire such champions as:
Crusader, whose wins included the 1926 Belmont Stakes and two runnings of the Suburban Handicap
American Flag, winner of the 1925 Belmont Stakes
Clyde Van Dusen, the 1929 Kentucky Derby winner
Bateau, the filly who won the 1929 Suburban Handicap
Most famous of all, War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner
One son, Scapa Flow, soon brought honour to the colours of Mrs WM Jeffords, the owner of Golden Broom and Hoodwink, by earning the 1926 Juvenile Championship. His wins that season had included the Futurity Stakes. The Jeffords also raced Bateau and a number of other stakes winners by Man o' War.
Blockade, three-times winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup, and Battleship, winner of the 1938 Grand National at Aintree, proved that the 'Man o' Wars' could jump as well as they could run. Apparently Samuel Riddle's first evaluation of Man o' War as a potential hunter was correct. 'Big Red's offspring not only jumped well on the steeplechase course, but also with some style, as evidenced by the titles won by Holystone in the show ring.
Man o' War passed away on 1 November, 1947, after suffering a heart attack. More than 2000 people attended the funeral, which was broadcast by radio. The great stallion was the first horse to be embalmed, and is now buried at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
In total, 'Big Red' won 20 of his 21 races over two seasons, earning a record $249,465. He was inducted into the American National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1957.
For more information on Man o' War and other champion thoroughbreds, please visit one of the following sites:
- The Unofficial Thoroughbred Hall of Fame
- Official Hall of Fame
- Blood-Horse Magazine
- Thoroughbred Heritage
- Thoroughbred Legends