Man o’ War: The Most Famous Horse That Never Ran In The Kentucky Derby
One of the perks of writing a blog is that I get to control content. Oooh, the power! But, with great power comes great responsibility! That’s why I sometimes have an annoyingly long internal dialogue before settling on a topic. Here’s a partial transcript of this week’s dialogue:
“It’s almost time for the Kentucky Derby. But you just wrote about the Kentucky Derby. Yeah, but I love the Kentucky Derby! Hey, I could write about a famous horse that competed in the Derby. Sure ya could! Or you could write about the most famous horse to NEVER compete in the Derby—Man o’ War! Hey, I could write about Man o’ War! He was a great horse and he reinvigorated horseracing, back in his day. Plus, I really like to type the “ o’”! I would like to declare Man o’ War this week’s topic. All those in favor, say, ‘o’. O’! The o’s have it!”
Now that you have been privy to the inner workings of my creative process, I would like you to forget everything that you just read and focus on Man o’ War.
Genealogy of a Legend or Belmont’s Stakes
Man o’ War was foaled in Lexington, Kentucky on March 29, 1917. He was owned and bred by August Belmont Jr. Yes, I’m talking about that Belmont family; the Belmont Stakes was named after August Belmont Sr. Man o’ War was the second foal delivered by the high-strung dam Mahuba. Right from the start, Man o’ War was a formidable creature: He was tall, bright chestnut, and had with a star on his forehead. He took after his sire, Fair Play.
Mahuba herself had won a race before retiring to the breeding shed. You know how it is with the nervous types; she just wasn’t cut out for life at the track, even though her family tree was filled with winners. She was by the British Triple Crown winner Rock Sand, whom August Belmont Jr. purchased and imported, in 1906. The purchase price was $125,000. In today’s money, that would be well over $3,000,000! Ooh, Belmont already had quite a big at stake in this bloodline!
Fair Play had been a successful (though notoriously bad-tempered) racehorse until an injury cut short his racing career. He gained most of his fame in the breeding shed, having sired eight multiple stakes winning horses during his career. Man o’ War was in Fair Play’s seventh foal crop.
Man o’ War received his name from Mrs. Eleanor Robson Belmont, who named all of her husband’s horses. She originally chose the name My Man o’ War in honor of her husband, who enlisted for service in the Army, during World War I, at the age of sixty-five! Somewhere along the way, the “My” was dropped. (As long as she kept the “o’” I don’t care!)
Growing into Big Red
Military service inspired Man o’ War’s name and it was also responsible for a new owner. Due to his military service, Belmont made the decision to sell all of his 1917 yearlings. Samuel Riddle, owner of Glenn Riddle Farm purchased the colt for $5000 and Man o’ War was sent to his farm in Maryland to be trained by Louis Feustel, who had trained both Mahuba and Fair Play. Ah, the circle of thoroughbred life!
While at Glenn Riddle Farm, Man o’ War, well, shall we say… He grew into his own! At 3 years of age, he was a strapping 16.2 hands (about 5-foot-6) and weighed about 1,125 pounds with a 72-inch girth. His appetite also was huge, as he ate 12 quarts of oats every day, or about three quarts more than the average racehorse. He ran in big bounds as well, with his stride measuring an incredible 25 to 28 feet.
Man o’ War’s size and striking color earned him the nickname of “Big Red.” He was a fan favorite, and with good reason. People like winners and Man o’ War was most definitely a winner. During his racing career, he ran twenty-one races . . . he won twenty of them, losing only one by a nose! And he would win resoundingly . . . one race by 20 lengths, another by an incredible 100 lengths. He carried more weight than his competitors, 130 pounds, and even 138 pounds. He won under all conditions, rain, mud, drought, heat. He whipped a Triple Crown champion by seven lengths in a match race. When he retired, he held five American records at different distances and had earned more money than any thoroughbred. He electrified a nation, brought hoards of people to the race tracks to see him race and he became a national sports hero . . . he was the Jack Dempsey of horse racing!
Many people believe Man o’ War would have easily won the Triple Crown, if he had been raced in the Kentucky Derby, but he didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby because his owner didn’t like racing in Kentucky! Since the Triple Crown as such did not exist at that time of his eligibilty, the decision to not run him in it wasn’t as crazy as it sounds today.
“De Mostest Hoss that Ever Was”
When Man o’ War’s racing career ended, he was sent to Lexington’s Faraway Farm, where he proved himself to be quite the prolific stud. In fact, he sired an impressive 379 foals! Shoot! That’s an impressive number of offspring for a housefly, let alone a thoroughbred!
It was in 1930 at Faraway Farm that Man o’ War met the man who was to become his longtime groom and companion, Will Harbut. Will had a deep melodic voice, large, soft hands and an easygoing demeanor. . .the perfect counterpart to the stallion’s sour temperament. Will quickly became Man O’ War’s everything. . . the first face he saw in the morning and the last he saw at night. Will fed him, bathed him, mucked out his stall, groomed him, hand-walked him, brought him water and turned him out into his paddock. It was Will who brought him to the breeding shed or led him out to meet the steady stream of admirers who came to visit. And it was Will who reminded him to be gentle with the children that brought him a carrot or a lump of sugar and Will who admonished him to behave himself, which he did by snapping the shank and demanding, “Stand still, Red” or “Stop fidgeting, Red” or “Stop messin’ around, Red.” Harbut liked to describe Man o’ War as, “de mostest hoss that ever was”. The two pals built up quite the act and visitors flocked to see them. But more important, they developed the kind of love and trust that all horsemen hope to experience, just once in life.
When Will Harbut died suddenly, in October 1947, Man O’ War was heartbroken. The horse pined after his companion, faded and died one month later.
Man o’ War was such a beloved national hero that when he died, his body was embalmed and he lay in state for several days in a casket lined with his racing colors. An estimated 2000 people attended his funeral. It was front page news. Racing fans still visit his grave at the Kentucky Horse Park, in Lexington today. His gravesite is difficult to miss; it’s marked by a larger-than-life, bronze statue of Man o’ War. Buried nearby are some of his foals, including Triple Crown winner War Admiral.
Joseph Alvie Estes, editor of The Blood Horse, was inspired to write an epic poem about Man o’ War, which was published in the October 23,1937 issue. The full poem, entitled “Big Red,” graces a plaque at Man o’ War’s gravesite. Here are the first lines of that poem:
The days are long at Belmont.
Speed they never learn.
And it’s many a day since Man o’ War
Has looped the upper turn.
Yes, it has been many a day, but the legend lives on. So, I thank you, Man o’ War. And, by the way… Cool name!
Watch this remarkable video with documentary footage of Man o’ War!
Happy Trails, y’all!