by Terry Conway
Timing is everything. It was never truer than when Sam Riddle purchased a fiery chestnut colt at the Saratoga yearling sale on August 17, 1918. In all the history of American horse racing no Thoroughbred has ever quite matched either the brilliance or popularity of a majestic horse with the most fitting name of Man o' War.
Though he competed for just two years, Man o' War was a national hero, joining Babe Ruth as the first shining stars of the Roaring Twenties.
"He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else," wrote legendary racing writer Joe Palmer.
The story began just before midnight on March 29, 1917 when Mahubah foaled a handsome chestnut colt at Nursery Stud in Lexington, Ky. The entry in their daybook read: "Mahubah foaled ch colt by Fair Play. Star, narrow stripe from right of star down center of nose. Height: 42 Girth: 33."
Man o' War
With the distinctive white star on his forehead and a deep red coat, Man o' War was born with a spirited disposition, a trait he inherited from his temperamental sire, Fair Play, the arch-rival of the fabulous Colin. Fair Play's sire, Hastings, was a hellion himself. The hot line of Hastings-Fair Play was somewhat tamed by Mahubah (Arabic for 'good tidings') who had a sweet disposition inherited from her father, Rock Sand, winner of Great Britain's Triple Crown.
Man o' War was bred by the most prominent man in racing in the early 20th Century, August Belmont. Although he was 65 years old at the outbreak of World War I, Belmont quickly volunteered to serve his country and was sent to Spain, where he secured supplies for the Allies. His wife, Eleanor, who named all of Belmont's horses, originally wanted to call Mahubah's colt "My Man o' War" in honor of her husband. However, when she sent the registration to New York, the first word was dropped and the colt was officially named Man o' War.
Major Belmont had planned on racing Man o' War in his yellow and black colors, but with his military duties expanding and keeping Belmont away from home longer than expected, he decided to sell his crop of 21 yearlings.
Belmont considered holding Man o' War back from the 1918 Saratoga yearling sale, but had decided that keeping the best colt for himself might make a bad impression on potential buyers at the sale.
Samuel Doyle Riddle owned a summer home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Wearing his trademark straw boater hat and sporting a bottlebrush mustache, Riddle was a key figure at the auction held under ancient elm trees in a picturesque paddock by the racetrack. A son of an Irish immigrant, Riddle made his fortune in the woolen mill business around Philadelphia, and gained fame as an ardent sportsman who rode on the northeastern hunt circuit and operated his racing operations out of his 1,700-acre Glen Riddle Farm.
Trainer Louis Feustel saw great potential in the rawboned colt. As for Riddle, he favored the colt saying he felt Man o' War would surely make an excellent (fox) hunter, if the racing game didn't work out.
"As soon as I saw him, he simply bowled me over," Riddle said.
Owner Sam Riddle, groom Will Harbut and Man o’ War
On the block late in the sale, the last gavel fell on Riddle's bid at $5,000 for Man o' War. In total, Riddle paid $25,000 for 11 yearlings. Later that afternoon, Man o' War and ten other horses walked up a ramp into waiting box cars headed for Riddle's other Glen Riddle Farm near Berlin, Md., where the colts began training for their 2-year-old seasons.
Feustel had galloped Hastings and had worked for August Belmont. Ex-jockey Harry Vitotoe broke Man o' War to saddle. Man o' War proved to be a challenge to train due to his nervous and fiery disposition. He fought every step and repeatedly dumped Vitotoe. The trainer's patience eventually prevailed and the gangly young colt grew into his large frame, becoming a sensational athlete.
Man o' War excelled from the time he trained at Havre de Grace and Pimlico.
On June 6, 1919, ridden by Johnny Loftus, Man o' War won his first race at five furlongs by six lengths, crossing the finish line at a canter. When a fan inquired about his sire, groom Will Harbut responded: "Who's he by? He's by hisself, and there ain't nobody gonna get near him."
Big Red swept past overmatched opposition, regularly shattering speed records. It was not just his warp speed. It was the aura, the buzz. It was the oversized crowds pushing to the rail to get a glimpse.
Man o’ War’ and his longtime groom Will Harbut
Man o' War ran only in expensive stake races for the remainder of his career. As his wins built up, so did the weight as racing secretaries piled it on. By his fourth race, the giant striding Man o' War was lugging 130 pounds, a hefty weight for a developing 2-year-old.
His lone blemish was in the Sanford Memorial Stakes. In that era, jockeys circled around and then gathered their horses in a line behind a piece of webbing known as the barrier and were off running when it was raised. Man o' War was circling with his back to the starting line when the barrier was raised. Ten lengths behind, he made up the lost ground, but then rider Loftus got the colt boxed in. Man o' War finally found running room, but finished a half-length short of Henry Payne Whitney's Upset. He carried 15 pounds more than the winner.
1920 Travers Stakes
Man o' War won nine of his ten starts and was selected 1919 Horse of the Year. By age three, he was a strapping 16.2 hands and weighed about 1,125 pounds with a 72-inch girth. His stride measured an incredible 25-to-28 feet. He set an American record in the 1920 Belmont Stakes, a race he won by 20 lengths without being extended. Man o' War also romped in the Travers Stakes, setting a track record that was not broken until 42 years later, and the Dwyer Stakes, Stuyvesant Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Finding competition was tough. In the Lawrence Realization Stakes at Belmont, no other horse was willing to go up against him until poor Hoodwink was good-heartedly entered by Mrs. Riddle's niece, Sarah Jeffords. Man o' War won by 100 lengths while setting a new world record of 2:40 for 1 5/8 miles, besting the previous record by six seconds. The time still stands as a track record.
MAN O' WAR WINS MATCH RACE
The crowning achievement of Man o' War's career came in a match race against the celebrated Canadian horse Sir Barton, the first winner of the Triple Crown. Racing in Windsor, Canada on October 12, 1920, Man o' War whipped Sir Barton by seven lengths. In his career "Big Red" won 20 of 21 races.
"He wuz de mostess hoss that ever wuz," touted his longtime groom Harbut.
In the end, it was weight that sent Man o' War to stud. He lugged 130 pounds six times as a 2-year-old and was saddled with as much as 138 pounds at age three. Riddle asked Walter Vosburgh, the New York racing secretary and
handicapper: "If I run Man o' War as a 4-year-old, how much will you put on him?" Vosburgh said coolly, "The heaviest weight a horse has ever carried."
Man o' War held American records for the fastest mile, 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/8 miles, 1½ miles and 1 5/8 miles. His total earnings were $249,465, a record at the time.
Said Harbut: "He beat all the records and beat all the horses and there wasn't nothin' left for him to do."
Riddle was swamped with promotional appearances to spotlight his great champion, including a movie deal. He nixed them all except one: a curtain call at the Rose Tree Hunt Club in Media, Pa., near Riddle's home before the horse was shipped to Kentucky to begin his stud career. On October 20 1920, 15,000 fans turned out for Man o' War's appearance at Rose Tree, where Riddle had been master of the hounds for many years. Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey and local Olympic rowing champion Jack Kelly (Grace Kelly's father) also appeared. Big Red stole the show.
Twenty-three years as a stallion, Man o' War produced 64 stakes winners, including Hall of Famers Crusader, Battleship and War Admiral (Riddle's 1937 Triple Crown winner). He also sired 1925 Belmont winner American Flag, 1929 Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen, and War Relic, the sire of Hall of Famer Seabiscuit.
Riddle turned down $1 million offer to sell his champion.
The fillies Man O' War sired became wonderful broodmares who produced 164 stakes winners. War Relic's branch of Man o' War's male line survives today. Tiznow, a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner and 2009 Hall of Fame inductee, is a sire-line descendant of Man o' War. In all, he sired 379 foals who won 1,286 races.
Man o' War died Nov. 1, 1947 of a heart attack. Man o' War's burial was a moment of national mourning with his funeral broadcast over radio and covered by the press all over the world. Faraway Farm was his original burial site. Riddle had commissioned a heroic statue (20 hands tall, 3,000 pounds of bronze) from sculptor Herbert Hazeltine, who completed it several years before the horse's death. In 1976, Man o' War and his famous statue were brought to the Kentucky Horse Park. Here at the end of the entrance drive, his grave and statue serve as a beacon and sentry to horse fans from all over the world.
Terry Conway has been a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse magazine since 2003 and to ESPN.com since 2010. He has been the horseracing writer for the Pennsylvania Equestrian publication for the past six years. Terry's work has also appeared on premier racing sites such as thePaulickReport.com and Equidaily.com