Man o’ War’s 100th Birthday – Let’s Celebrate!

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Man o’ War. Foaled March 29, 1917, this large chestnut horse was dubbed the Horse of the Century, that’s the 20th Century, with his incredible 20 wins out of 21 starts. Man o’ War was bred by August Belmont, Jr. and sold at auction as a yearling for $5,000 to Samuel D. Riddle. His name originally was My Man o’ War, named by Belmont’s wife since her husband had gone off to serve in World War I. The auctioneer dropped the “My” and his name became Man o’War.

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His two-year-old race year in 1919  started out with 6 consecutive wins. Here’s an example of the grueling pace race horses of the early 20th century faced. He started his career at Belmont Park with wins on June 6th, 9th, then another win on June 21st at Jamaica Racetrack followed by two wins at Aqueduct on June 23rd and July 5th. He had a short break before heading up to the Saratoga Race Course, then the premier racetrack in the nation, for four races on August 2nd, 13th, 20th and 23rd.

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Man O’ War’s only defeat  

It was during his Saratoga appearance that he met his only defeat by a horse named “Upset” during the Sanford Memorial on August 13th. In 1919, there were no starting gates. Horses lined up at a wide ribbon, they would turn around once to line up and then the ribbon would rise up. At this race, Man o’ War’s first jockey Johnny Loftus was late in turning the 16.2 hand horse around in time for the start. He was not off to a good start, back by four lengths. It was a short race, just 6 furlongs, and by the time Man o’ War caught up, he managed to pass every horse but one. He came in second only by a neck’s length. Had the race been another furlong, he would have won.

The 1920 race season was the start of his undefeated 3-year-old career. By now carrying 138 pounds, more than any other horse he competed against, and a new jockey Clarence Kummer, his first race was the Preakness Stakes. His owner did not enter him in the Kentucky Derby because he thought a mile and a quarter was too long a race to start off the season.  Back then the term “Triple Crown”  had not been formally coined or commercialized.  Big Red’s next win came at Belmont Park on May 29th in the one mile Withers Stakes. It’s amazing that Riddle entered him in a race between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. But then again the Belmont Stakes was only a mile and 3/8th, not the marathon mile and half of today.

But it didn’t matter, Man o’ War went on to win the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths. A record not broken for 53 years until Secretariat came along in 1973 with a 31-length victory. Big Red had 11 races in 1920, including big stakes races such as the Travers Stakes and the Jockey Gold Cup. He also broke the record for the longest win in a race of 100 lengths in the Lawrence Realization Stakes at Belmont Park just a week before the Jockey Gold Cup. By the end of the season nobody wanted to race against him, and his record-breaking 28-foot stride, so a match race was set up with the 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in Canada on Oct. 12th. It wasn’t much of a race as Man o’ War led from the start, won by 17 lengths, and took 6 seconds off the track record. And that’s with iron horseshoes! It was the first time a horse race was filmed in its entirety.

Racing Retirement

As with all great racehorses, Man o’ War went off to stud in Kentucky. But his retirement was different. He had become a national sports hero. All his races were broadcast on the growing medium of radio.  Everyone in America knew about this horse. He was so famous people traveled to see him. He had an African-American groom Will Harbut who cared for the horse and coined the term, “De mostest hoss that ever was.” He sired 64 Stakes winners, including War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner. By 1926 he was named the top sire. In 22 seasons at stud he produced 379 live foals. Even American Pharoah has Man o’ War in his pedigree 17 times.

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Man o’ War and his longtime groom Will Harbut

When Man o’ War passed away on November 1, 1947 at the age of 30, the country mourned. When he died, Faraway Farm called the Associated Press to announce, “Our big horse just died.” He died of a heart attack, but his longtime groom Harbut had suddenly passed away one month earlier, and many said that Man o’ War died of a broken heart. He was embalmed and lay in state for two days so all his fans could come and visit him one last time as he lay in a custom made coffin lined with black and yellow silk, Riddle’s racing colors. His funeral was broadcast on the radio.

He was laid to rest near a life-size bronze statue of him on Faraway Farm. Over the years, fans flocked to pay their respects. In the 1970’s the grave and statue were moved to the newly opened Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington where fans still come to visit. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest horse ever, the park has restored the bronze statue and planned yearlong events around history’s most famous racehorse.

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A print of this painting by Robert Amick of Man o’ War hung in my childhood bedroom and fostered my love of Thoroughbred horses

Horses Parading Around ~ Including American Pharoah  

Horses and parades go together like peanut butter and jelly! This partnership began millennia ago when horses were paraded around to celebrate battle victories. More recently, the Horse Guard Parade, those beautiful black horses of the British monarchy stabled at the Royal Mews in London, codified the daily practice of ceremonial parades in 1745. There is even a type of horse in America called the Parade Horse. This breed is used in a sport the celebrates the Southwestern tradition where stylishly dressed ranch owners would ride into town on their high-stepping horses in saddles dripping with silver.

Today, I rode in my first parade, a mounted costume parade through the streets of downtown Danbury. Hosted by Happy Trails Farm, nearly 20 horses — and one donkey — ridden by a costumed clown, giraffe, queen of hearts, cowboy, ghost, Game of Throne’s winter, and even a pair of horseflies, paid homage to Halloween and horses. Dressed as Downtown Abbey’s Lady Mary out for a hunt my trusty steed Oz and I proudly marched across busy city intersections and bustling suburban woodlands with ease. He was such a good boy! And it was his first parade too.

Oz waits to head off on his first parade!

Oz waits to head off on his first parade!

But, the best part of the day was watching the spectators stare in awe at the horses. People came out of their apartments to wave. Others stopped their SUVs to watch the horses stroll down the cityscape. Dogs hung their heads out of car windows to get a glimpse, or bark a greeting. Many residents came to the curb to take photos of horses in their ‘hood. One man shouted, “You made my day!”

American Pharoah’s Post Parade

His remark reminded me how rare it is today to see a horse on any given day. On Halloween this year most people who saw horses, saw them in a different kind of parade, the iconic ‘post parade’ of Thoroughbred racing.The ‘post’ is the starting point of the race. It’s name comes from the early days of racing when only a post at the rail marked the beginning of the race. It’s why today, horses have ‘post’ positions, not starting gate positions. Before each race, the horses are called to the ‘post’ by a bugler playing some form of First Call. Once played, jockeys mount up, leave the paddock area and ‘parade to the post’ in front of the grandstand. It’s this pre-race parading that gives fans and bettors a good look at their favorite horses.

American Pharoah in the Post Parade at Saratoga Race Course

American Pharoah in the Post Parade at Saratoga Race Course

After his post parade, millions of TV viewers watched Triple Crown Champion American Pharaoh make history with his Breeder’s Cup Classic win at Keenland Race Course in Kentucky. A new achievement in America’s oldest sport was born, the racing grand slam — winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the Classic. As a huge AP fan, I cheered him on as he pulled away at 6 and half lengths. Announcer Larry Collum screamed,  “He’s a horse of a lifetime!” as he crossed the finish line in a track record of two minutes. Jockey Victor Espinoza turned and smiled for the finish line camera to mark the end of AP’s triumphant racing career.

For most viewers of this historic achievement, sadly, television or social media will be as close as they ever get to see, not only a horse of a lifetime, but a horse in their lifetime. American Pharoah reignited the sport of horse racing and I’m hoping that with it the preservation of the horse, all horses, has truly begun. No longer are horses the mainstay of transportation. No longer do they pull plows for farmers to create food. No longer do small stables offering riding lessons or backyard barns to keep a pony for the children dot the landscape. There just aren’t as many opportunities for people and horses to cross paths and connect in the modern world. In cities we may occasionally see carriage horses, mounted police officers, or those in parades! In the suburbs, apart from secluded private farms, horses are even harder to spot in daily life.

I don’t want the horse to disappear from the landscape. We need horses in our lives. If you have never been in the company of a horse, go find one today, bring them a carrot, and say hello. They will change your life. They are magnificent animals with a deep, historic bond with humans. Oz and I may have done our post parade while following a black horse ridden by a bumble bee, but we were happy to share the beauty of horses with others. AP’s trainer Bob Baffert said it best about his charge — and all horses — when he called him, “a gift from God.” Let’s cherish them all.