By Brien Bouyea
Many of the great tales of yesteryear lost their perception of authenticity through the procession of time, as myth and reality became intertwined and the difference between fact and fiction became indistinct.
This is especially true in sports.
But the celebrated yarns spun of the immortal thoroughbred Man o' War are not tarnished by even the slightest shroud of doubt. The stunning feats of the indomitable colt dubbed "Big Red" are well chronicled in the annals of racing.
The facts, even though many of them seem too amazing to be true, are indisputable. Man o' War was the genuine article, and his impact on horse racing gave the sport a superstar savior during its most desperate hour.
Man o' War went to the post 21 times during an illustrious 16-month stretch that began June 6, 1919, and concluded Oct. 12, 1920, with six of his races - including his most infamous - taking place on the hallowed oval at Saratoga Race Course.
By winning 20 of his 21 career starts, Man o' War was as revered as any athlete in the world. He was to horse racing what Babe Ruth was to baseball and Jack Dempsey was to boxing.
In his remarkable career, Man o' War set three world records, two American records, two track records, and equaled another track standard. He won one race by an incredible 100 lengths and triumphed in another while carrying 138 pounds.
Man o’ War, Earl Sande up (photo courtesy of Saratoga Springs Historical Society)
Man o' War completed his racing career with a dominating victory over the first Triple Crown winner by seven lengths in a match race. He retired having earned more purse money ($249,465) than any other thoroughbred.
Bred by August Belmont II, son of the founder of Belmont Park, Man o' War was foaled on March 29, 1917, at Nursery Stud near Lexington, Ky. He was blessed with superior bloodlines, as his sire, Fair Play, was an accomplished thoroughbred, and his dam, Mahubah, was well thought of in breeding circles. Man o' War's grandfather was the ill-tempered 1896 Belmont Stakes winner Hastings, who routinely bit and slammed into other horses during races.
Belmont's military involvement in World War I prompted him to sell his entire 1917 yearling crop. Avid sportsman Samuel Riddle, a Pennsylvania textile manufacturer, purchased Man o' War for $5,000 on the advice of Hall of Fame trainer Louis Feustel at Saratoga's 1918 yearling sales.
It was the greatest bargain in racing history.
“As soon as I saw him, he simply bowled me over," Riddle said.
Feustel's brother used to work around the barns and, because of his red hair, he was often called "Red." Feustel said that everyone around the stable began to also refer to Man o' War by the same moniker. As time went on, and the horse grew to be more than 1,150 pounds, he became known as "Big Red."
Like his grandfather, Man o' War had a fierce temper, forcing Feustel to bring the horse along slowly in training. He was a difficult horse to saddle, and ex-jockey Harry Vitotie was routinely dumped while attempting to break Man o' War.
"He fought like a tiger," Riddle said. "He screamed with rage and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled with safety."
Man o' War displayed more of his famed "Hastings Fire" one day at Saratoga when he threw his rider and enjoyed more than 15 minutes of freedom before being captured. The first time jockey Johnny Loftus climbed aboard him, Man o' War hurtled him an estimated 40 feet.
On to the races
After cooling his temper and settling into training, Man o' War made a stunning debut in a maiden race against six other 2-year-olds at Belmont Park. Despite having Loftus tighten his reins down the stretch, Man o' War 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.
Man o' War was the favorite in every one of his races, and three times he was recorded to have odds of 1-100. This means that for every $100 dollars bet, only a dollar profit would be made. This is impossible now because limits have been set on how low odds can go.
With his power, blazing speed and incredible 28-foot stride (believed to be the longest ever), Man o' War captivated the imagination of racing fans and drew record crowds everywhere he appeared.
Man o' War became so popular that policemen had to protect him at the tracks from souvenir hunters who were always trying to snatch the hairs from his mane and tail. His notoriety attracted danger; he often got death threats. Riddle became so paranoid that he hired a private detective to stalk the horse's trainer and armed guards were always stationed around Big Red's stall.
Man o' War was also quite a character. Although he radiated a bold and intimidating presence on the track, Big Red worried between races and commonly displayed nervous behavior traits. Sometimes he would lie down in his stall and chew his hooves, like a person chewing his fingernails. He also become distraught if he lost sight of his equine companion, a fox hunter named Major Treat, who was kept around to ease Man o' War's anxiety.
A Saratoga superstar
The infusion of popularity Man o' War brought to thoroughbred racing could not have come at a more opportune time for the sagging industry. Racing had been banned in New York in 1911 and 1912 because of antigambling legislation led by Gov. Charles Hughes. Several other states took up Hughes' crusade and most of the prominent stables either folded or moved to Europe.
Racing regained its legal status in 1913, but soon the country's focus shifted to World War I. Attendance and racing purses were at all-time lows before Man o' War invigorated the sport.
Man o' War, who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1957, has several notable connections with historic Saratoga Race Course.
He cruised to victory in five races at the Spa, including the 1920 Travers, and both the Travers championship trophy (The Man o' War Cup) and the Big Red Spring at the track are named in his honor.
But Man o' War is most notoriously linked with Saratoga because of what happened on Aug. 13, 1919, in the Sanford Memorial.
It was improbable and controversial, and fittingly the horse that handed Man o' War his only defeat was named Upset. The stunning outcome gave Saratoga the moniker "The Graveyard of Favorites."
The lone defeat was an unfortunate blemish on Man o' War's record; the circumstances of the events are still shrouded in mystery.
The blame has often been assigned to the man who was filling in that day for Mars Cassidy, the regular race starter. The substitute, Charles H. Pettingill, was in his 70s and had problems with his vision. Years earlier, Pettingill almost incited a riot in Chicago when he kept the horses at the start of the American Derby for an hour and a half, forcing the race to be restarted almost 40 times.
Horses in Man o' War's era broke from a flimsy piece of webbing that was strung across the track, for the starting gate was not introduced for another decade. Man o' War, always eager to get on with the race, was infamous for breaking prematurely through the barrier. On the day of the Sanford, he broke through five times, each time having to be pulled up.
Loftus was backing up Man o' War, trying to line him up again after the fifth lunge through the tape. Without warning, Pettingill sprang the webbing, catching Loftus by surprise - and Man o' War facing sideways. Off to a bad start, Man o' War was taken to the rail behind Golden Broom and the eventual winner, Upset.
Loftus tried to get through on the rail approaching the stretch, but found himself locked in a pocket. Past the eighth pole, Loftus knew he had no choice but to swing outside. Man o' War lost valuable ground.
"He was abominably ridden," The Thoroughbred Record reported.
But he nearly won the race, getting beat by only a half-length and passing Upset as soon as they passed the finish wire.
The mystery deepened the next year when the Jockey Club refused licenses to Loftus and Upset's rider, Willie Knapp. Though both jockeys were elected some years later to the Hall of Fame, neither rode again.
Was there a conspiracy? The answer will likely never be known.
Based on his dominant past performances, Man o' War was also forced to carry 15 more pounds than Upset. Stable employees claimed Man o' War had nightmares for weeks following his only defeat.
"Given an equal chance Man o' War would undoubtedly have won the race," The Saratogian stated.
The Sanford Memorial, however, proved to be a fluke. Man o' War raced against Upset six other times and won each meeting.
As a 3-year-old in 1920, Man o' War was victorious in all 11 of his races, with Hall of Fame jockey Clarence Kummer aboard nine times. (Hall of Famer Earl Sande rode him once and Andy Schuttinger guided him to victory in the Travers Stakes). He won the Preakness with ease and prevailed by 20 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. But to the disappointment of the fans, Riddle withheld Man o' War from the Kentucky Derby because he disapproved of 3-year-olds being asked to run a distance of 1 1/4 miles early in May.
Many racing historians consider the 1920 Travers to be Man o' War's finest performance.
Big Red displayed his blazing speed and turned in a time of 2:01 4/5, which stood for 42 years until Jaipur clocked in at 2:01 3/5, carrying three less pounds.
More amazing exploits
After winning the Travers, Man o' War returned to Belmont for the Lawrence Realization. By this time nobody had much interest in racing against the spectacular champion. Only Hoodwink, at 100-1 odds, came forward to race Man o' War in this event.
Knowing Hoodwink provided no threat, Kummer set Man o' War against the clock. The mighty colt responded by shattering the previous world record for 1 5/8 miles (2:45 flat) by more than four seconds (2:40 4/5). Poor Hoodwink was left in the dust by more than 100 lengths. Man o' War's performance that day still stands as a Belmont record for that distance.
In the final display of his superiority, Man o' War met Sir Barton - the first Triple Crown winner - in a wildly hyped match race on Oct. 12, 1920, at Kenilworth Park in Canada.
Sir Barton broke to the lead, but Man o' War passed him quickly and blazed his way to a seven-length victory. Even though Kummer restrained him down the stretch, Man o' War smashed the track record by more than six seconds.
There was nothing left to prove.
At age 3 he had carried as much as 138 pounds, something unheard of today. Even as a 2-year-old, he was taxed beyond what any modern colt would be assigned, carrying 130 pounds six times.
Man o' War routinely gave extreme weight concessions to the competition. In one race, he carried 32 pounds more than any other entry.
Where else could he go from here? There was talk of sending Man o' War to England for the Ascot Gold Cup. Colonel Matt Winn telegraphed an offer from Churchill Downs for a match race with Exterminator. The Chicago World's Fair wanted to put Man o' War on exhibit. There were offers to put him in the movies.
Riddle's decision was made easy by the famous handicapper for the Jockey Club, Walter S. Vosburgh, who assigned weights that horses had to carry in New York. Riddle asked Vosburgh what weight he would put on Man o' War if he were to race at 4. Vosburgh told him it would be the highest weight ever carried, as much as 150 pounds.
Man o' War's days of dazzling on the track were through. Rather than tempt fate and risk a breakdown under ridiculously heavy weights, Riddle opted to retire Big Red after his 3-year-old campaign.
A king in retirement
Despite all the records, Man o' War was never fully extended and his ultimate potential was never known.
"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," Riddle said.
At the time of the chestnut colt's retirement from the track, Riddle was offered $1 million for him. He turned it down. It would be more than 35 years before any thoroughbred would be sold for that amount.
Although Man o' War never raced in Kentucky, he spent the majority of his life in the Bluegrass State. An estimated three million visitors flocked to Faraway Farms between 1921 and 1947 to see the legendary horse in retirement and hear his groom, Will Harbut, tell tales of the champion. Harbut became famous for the way he crafted the stories of Man o' War, and he always introduced his charge to visitors as "the mostest horse that ever was."
Harbut, however, bristled when people asked of Man o' War's only defeat. When guests inquired about the infamous race with Upset, Harbut responded that since he didn't see it himself, the story of the 1919 Sanford Memorial "must have been a lie."
Harbut's descriptions of the champion thrilled visitors from all walks of life. He would begin by escorting visitors around the barns, introducing them to Riddle's other distinguished horses. He would show them the antique fire bell that was rung whenever a horse raised on the farm won a stakes. But all these were mere preliminaries. Everyone knew what was coming.
Finally, he would arrive at Man o' War's stall and the visitors would catch their breath as the great horse was led out. One of those who listened in one day was Great Britain's ambassador to the United States, Lord Halifax, who was enamored with Harbut's tales of Big Red.
"That was worth coming halfway round the world to hear," Lord Halifax said admiringly.
Farewell to the greatest
Man o' War began experiencing heart trouble in 1943, which forced his retirement from breeding. He died of a heart attack Nov. 1, 1947, in Lexington, less than a month after Harbut's death. Legend has it Man o' War missed his friend and groom so much that he died of a broken heart.
More than 2,000 people attended Man o' War's funeral, which was broadcast on NBC Radio and featured nine eulogies.
Almost 60 years after his death, Man o' War's grave - which features a 3,000-pound bronze statue of the champion - attracts more than 7,000 visitors each year at the Kentucky Horse Park. Nine businesses in Lexington bear his name and there is a race in his honor at Belmont.
Man o' War easily bested Secretariat in a 1999 Associated Press poll for Horse of the Century and received the same honor from The Blood-Horse.
Big Red enjoyed tremendous success as a stallion. Among his 386 registered foals, 64 became stakes winners, including 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, 1929 Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen and 1925 and 1926 Belmont Stakes winners American Flag and Crusader, respectively. One of Man o' War's grandsons was the beloved Seabiscuit. Many of the greatest horses, if you look deep into their pedigrees, have some relation to Man O' War.
Big Red would have enjoyed even more success as a stud, but Riddle bred him primarily to his own mares, the majority of which lacked spectacular bloodlines.
Man o' War still exists in some pedigrees. Unbridled, the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner, has some Man o' War blood as does 2000 Preakness winner Red Bullet.
Man o War's legend has only grown as the decades have passed. Referred to as "a living flame" by sportswriter Joe Palmer, Big Red's exploits are forever engrained into racing lore.
Cassidy, who was supposed to be the starter for the lone defeat of Man o' War's career, gave perhaps the most poetic description of America's greatest thoroughbred.
"He was so beautiful that it almost made you cry," Cassidy said. "He was so full of fire that he made you thank God you could come close to him."
This story originally appeared in The Saratogian Aug. 16, 2007