In 1920, the most promising 3 year old horse in the United States did not run in the Kentucky Derby. Later in May, that horse – Man o’ War – won the Preakness Stakes. In June, the Belmont Stakes became a match race. All the other horses, except for Donnaconna, dropped out. Man o’ War won by 20 lengths in world record time.
But we’ll never see Man o’ War’s black and yellow silks in the lineup of Triple Crown winners in the Belmont infield. His name is always there, though, in my mind. Right between 1919’s Sir Barton and 1930’s Gallant Fox. The odds were in Man o’ War’s favour had he run. In 1919 he had been named American Champion Two-Year-Old Colt.
Owner Samuel D. Riddle thought that the distance of 1 1/4 mile was too long for a three year old at the beginning of the season. It was too close in time to the Preakness, that year only ten days later. And Kentucky was a long way to travel from his home in New York. So aim for the Preakness, he decided.
Three races, not a crown
At that time, there was no reason to think you were missing the chance at a historic event. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes were just three dates on the racing calendar. It wasn’t until 1930 when Gallant Fox won all three that they became popularly known as the Triple Crown. Sir Barton, who won the three races in 1919, was posthumously honoured as the first Triple Crown winner in 1950.
Man o’ War ran 10 races as a two year old, with one loss. He ran 11 races in his 3 year old season. He won them all and set world records.
His most spectacular win was in September 1920. He won the Lawrence Realization Stakes at Belmont Park by 100 lengths. That’s a quarter of a mile in a long 1 5/8 mile race. Turf writer B. K. Beckwith said Man o’ War “was like a big red sheet of flame running before a prairie wind.”
When the 1920 racing season ended, Man o’ War retired to stud. He would be required to carry a tremendous amount of weight If he raced the next year. Under handicapping rules, he had already carried much more weight in both his racing years than any of his competitors. With every win, the weight would increase. Mr. Riddle did not want to do that to him.
“The colt is not for sale”
In 1921, Texas oil- and horseman William Waggoner offered Riddle $500,000 for Man o’ War. That’s over $6.5 million in today’s dollars. Remember, Man o’ War was no longer racing and his record as a sire couldn’t yet be known. When that offer was refused, Mr. Waggoner increased it to $1 million, then offered a blank cheque. The one-sided auction ended when Mr. Riddle said “The colt is not for sale.”
In his fifteen years at stud, Man o’ War proved to be a great sire. His foals became champions or themselves produced champions. Look at the pedigree of any Thoroughbred. You will likely find Man o’ War. His son War Admiral, also owned by Sam Riddle, won the Triple Crown in 1937. His grandson Seabiscuit defeated War Admiral in the famous match race of 1938.
The late nineteen-teens were a bad time in the USA. A World War, a flu pandemic. Even horse racing was at a low. Many tracks were closed due to anti-gambling legislation. Man o’ War brought horse racing back to life in the US, and then he brought the whole country to life. Gave people something to cheer about. On his own and through his progeny, he was a maker of legends.
“The mostest horse”
He stayed a hero long after his races made news. He died on November 1, 1947. His well-attended funeral at Faraway Farms was broadcast nation-wide on radio. A bronze statue of him was placed on his grave in October 1948. It and his remains were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington in 1977. It still stands there, magnificently by itself, a moving memorial to maybe the greatest racehorse ever.
“The death of Man o’ War marks the end of an era in American Thoroughbred breeding history…. Few will remember him as a foal, or a yearling, or even on the racetrack… But one thing they all remember – that he brought an exaltation into their hearts,” said breeder Ira Dryman in his eulogy to him. It had then been 27 years since Man o’ War had raced.
His groom Will Harbut said about him: “He’s got everything a horse ought to have, and he’s got it where a horse ought to have it. He’s the mostest horse.” Mr. Harbut died just one month before Man o’ War. They were together 17 years.
6 things you may not have known about Man o’ War is a great article in Equus.
The 146th Kentucky Derby, which should be today, is delayed for the first time since 1945. They’ll run for the roses September 5, 2020 instead. The Preakness and Belmont Stakes are postponed too, with no dates yet set. You can watch all the Triple Crown winners run the Derby in a computer simulation on NBC 3-6 pm ET on May 2nd.