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.
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.
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.
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.
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.