|Sign up for KyForward news updates|
The ghost of Man O’War hovers over Lexington, but few know — and no one remembers firsthand — the details of his life. Among those who remembered him, Man O’War represented Thoroughbred racing as no single horse before or since has done.
After his retirement from racing at the end of his three year old year, for the rest of Man O’War’s long life — he was born in 1917, and died in 1947, at age 30 — he became Lexington’s number one tourist attraction. Estimates suggest that as many as three million visitors sought him out at Samuel D. Riddle’s Faraway Farm, out Russell Cave Pike, then a narrow two lane road, in a town that was then little more than an overgrown county seat.
This is the Man O’War of living memory, always accompanied by his groom, Will Harbut, who became nearly as famous as his charge. In the days when racial stereotypes were rampant, Harbut was portrayed in ways that would be considered racist today, but his own quiet dignity always shined through, even as he was aw shucksing the tourists, and posing for pictures.
Attorney and local historian Phillip Ardery, a Bourbon Countian from an old legal family, thought seeing Man O’War enough of an event that he took his bride to see the great runner just before shipping out for Europe during the second world war. One chapter of his wonderful book “Heroes and Horses: Tales of the Bluegrass” recounts the episode, complete with Harbut’s commentary.
At Man O’War’s death in 1947, he was the first racehorse embalmed, publicly displayed, and buried with a full funeral. His funeral was broadcast live by NBC radio, hosted by Lexington broadcaster Ted Grizzard, who in my youth co-hosted “Town Talk,”
Lexington’s first local television interview program, with June Rollings.
Man O’War was born at the Belmont family’s Nursery Stud, near Lexington. “Mahubah foaled nice chestnut colt,” according to a 1917 telegram sent to August Belmont II, aristocratic scion of New York’s greatest racing family — the Belmont Stakes was named for his father. The nice chestnut colt was by Fair Play, a “hot blooded” stallion — that is, one that is brilliantly fast — which Belmont had taken the chance on breeding to a hot blooded mare. He knew the temperature of both parents well, having raced them both in his stable.
In virtually any other year, Belmont would have raced this chestnut colt himself as well. But, the Great War, the one that was known as the War to End All Wars, before they numbered it, intervened. America declared war on the Kaiser’s Germany a few weeks after the colt’s birth, and August Belmont, too old at sixty for active duty, nonetheless insisted on serving, and was commissioned a major and placed in charge of obtaining horses for use by American forces in the war, a la The War Horse. Busy with his military duties, he decided to sell off his crop of 21 yearlings in 1918, rather than race them himself. While he was away, his wife named the nice chestnut colt Man O’War in his honor.
I suppose there have been worse decisions made in the history of sports than the decision to sell Man O’War, but I can’t think of one offhand. Unable to obtain what he thought to be a fair price for the group privately, Belmont placed them in the 1918 Saratoga yearling sale. Among the lookers had been Samuel D. Riddle, whose Glen Riddle Farm was based in Pennsylvania, and his trainer, Louis Feustel, who had been impressed with three of Belmont’s yearlings, including Marhubah’s nice chestnut colt.
At the Saratoga sale, Riddle bought two of the colts picked out by Feustel, including Man O’War, for which he paid $5,000. The average price for a yearling at Saratoga — then the premium yearling sale in America — was a little over $1,100. Six horses sold for more than $5,000 that year, with the sale topper being a colt first known as Switch, then known as Golden Broom, who brought an amazing $15,600.
Man O’War was not a late bloomer. He dominated two year old racing, then beginning to take hold, as no horse had ever done. He won nine out of his ten starts as a two year old, being beaten only once, by the aptly named Upset. Generations of horsemen regaled each other with tales about what really happened the day Man O’War suffered what was to be his only defeat, but the general consensus is that, in those days before automatic starting gates, the track’s starter gave the signal while Man O’War was still circling and getting into position to run. Most accounts say that he was turned entirely away from the starting mark. Despite this, Man O’War made up enough distance to come in second, beaten by half a length.
In a move many people don’t understand today, Riddle did not run Man O’War in the Kentucky Derby in 1920. As we have seen in earlier columns discussing the history of the Derby, it did not blossom overnight into the race it has become. Some accounts suggest either that Riddle did not like Kentucky racing, which in that day and time might have been wise, or that he did not believe that a horse should run at a mile and a quarter so early in his three-year-old year, an iffier prospect, given Man O’War’s record as a two-year-old.
This was before the advent of the modern Triple Crown in 1931, and no special prominence was placed on the three races that now make it up: In 1919, the year before Man O’War’s three-year-old year, Sir Barton won the three modern triple crown races, and no one noticed, or placed any particular significance on the achievement.
In 1920, the Derby and Preakness were only ten days apart, and for whatever reason, Riddle skipped the Derby and placed Man O’War in the Preakness, which had a significantly higher purse — $40,000, as opposed to the Derby’s $30,375 — and was closer to Riddle’s Pennsylvania operation.
Man O’War won the Preakness in a record time two full seconds off the previous mark, and people began to take note.
When he won the Belmont by 20 lengths at a time two full seconds faster than Sir Barton, the previous year’s winner (leaving behind Golden Broom, who had brought three times his price at Saratoga), the legends began.
No other horse would run against Man O’War. Legend? No, by the end of his three-year-old year, other owners wouldn’t bother to enter their runners against him. His last start was a match race with the great Sir Barton, then a four-year-old, who gave Man O’War no problem after the first furlong.
Man O’War won a race by 100 lengths. Legend? No, he won the 1920 Lawrence Realization Stakes, admittedly against token opposition (by that point, no serious entry would run against him), by 100 lengths. But in so doing, he set a world record at 1 5/8 miles, beating the previous time by six seconds. His track record at that distance stands to this day. This added to the legend.
Man O’War was the greatest Thoroughbred of all time. Legend? You decide. It is impossible to compare any athlete of today with a historical counterpart, and racehorses are no different, but we try anyway. Was Man O’War a greater runner than the more modern candidate Secretariat? A distinguished Blood-Horse panel, including Secretariat’s biographer, William Nack, said yes, voting Man O’War the number one Thoroughbred of the Twentieth Century, and Secretariat number two. Athletes, human or equine, of this caliber have a profound effect on their sport.
One of the things the 1920s roared at was sports. It seemed that every sport had a defining figure, someone who changed the perception of the sport as a whole. Babe Ruth saved baseball after the Black Sox Scandal, and Jack Dempsey brought respectability to boxing. Bill Tilden and Bobby Jones moved tennis and golf from the society pages to the sports pages, and Man O’War moved racing to the front burner of American sports.
Today’s racing headlines are not good. Tracks are beset by financial problems, and the new revelations about the abuses of some trainers has given the sport a black eye it didn’t need at a time it didn’t need it. I don’t remember Man O’War, but I remember Secretariat very well, and I also remember the boost that he — another nice chestnut colt — brought to our sport. Each year we have the opportunity to see another super horse, another Man O’War or Secretariat. None of the current crop of three-year-olds is a super horse, and while it’s early in the two-year-old year, I don’t see any super horses
So, we wait. Every spring as every foal drops in Central Kentucky, the owner looks in those big eyes and asks himself: Are you the one? Are you the next Man O’War? Some day, the answer will be yes, and I hope our sport lives to see it. We could use another super horse any time now.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.