“It was a dark and stormy night” [Bulwer-Lytton from Paul Clifford or more popularly from Snoopy]. Not really. It was a clear and cool night when seven-year-old Mahubah ushered her second of five foals, and first son, into the world on March 29, 1917.
Born with a white star and stripe on his forehead, it was his bright chestnut color that earned him the nickname “Big Red”. His registered name was given to him by the wife of his owner to honor her husband who had gone off to serve in France during World War I. One hundred years ago today Man O’ War was born.
When August Belmont, Jr. and his wife Eleanor decided to disperse their racing stable in 1918, Man O’ War was sold to Samuel D. Riddle of Maryland. Images of Man O’ War show him standing still and behaving but in reality he was said to be fiery, spirited and overly energetic. Riddle described his training, which proved to be a challenge, like this “He fought like a tiger. He screamed with rage and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled safely”. Ok, so potential danger aside, once focused, he won and won and won and won and won and won and lost and won and won and won and won and won and won and won and won and won and won and won and won and won and won – phew! That race record was for only two years and includes being the odds-on favorite in every start of his career; nine wins at 2 (the first five coming in the span of 29 days!); being named Champion two-year-old Colt in 1919; going back and forth with his nemesis Upset (his sole loss); won the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in 1920, beat the first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in the first race ever filmed in its entirety, and final start of his career, in the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup in Ontario, Canada; being named Champion three-year-old Male Horse and being voted Horse of the Year in 1920 – wow! It comes as no surprise that Man O’ War was ranked #1 in the Top US Racehorses of the 20th Century; was the AP #1 Horse of the 20th Century; was named by Sports Illustrated and the #1 Greatest Horse in racing history; and ESPN ranks Man O’ War #84 on their list of the top athletes of the 20th Century. Additionally, in 1959 the Man O’ War Stakes was created in his honor and he was inducted into the US Racing Hall of Fame in 1957!
Upon retirement from racing, his stud career produced 381 named foals. Not a great amount considering the number of foals produced today, but his direct offspring include the likes of 1929 Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen, 1937 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year War Admiral and 1938 Horse of the Year Seabiscuit (a grandson of his through Hard Tack). If you go deep into his pedigree (and if you have ever read any other post I have written, you know I have) you will find Man O’ War many times, both on top and bottom. His female line influence today is noted through his amazing daughters as broodmares and includes Nijinsky, Sword Dancer and Kelso, just to name a very few. His male line influence today is noted through his strong sons as stallions and includes American Flag, Raise a Native and War Relic, also to name a very few.
Upon retirement from stud duties, his adoring groom Will Harbut extolled his many accomplishments to the estimated 1.5 million visitors who came to see him at Faraway Farm. Harbut is credited with stating that his horse was “the mostest horse” – few, if any, would disagree.
Man O’ War died after a second heart attack in 1947 at age 30. His funeral was broadcast over NBC Radio and his casket is lined in the black of gold racing silks of Riddle. After an initial burial at Faraway Farm, his remains were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. His gravesite is marked by an amazing statue by sculptor Herbert Haseltine and is located in a place of honor at the entrance to the park. Having visited it in person, I can tell you it is beautiful and inspiring.
Today we remember the excellence of Man O’ War. How appropriate that he was born under the Fire element. It seems fitting to apply the notion that those born under that element are “Spirit in Motion” [Henrick Gullfoss]. I wonder out loud if any thoroughbred will ever be able to come close being called the greatest racehorse ever – a tall order and not one I’m willing to take.
Today the thoroughbred community applauds his accomplishments on the track with his record of 20-1-0 and off the track through his blood that continues to pulse through the stars of this generation.
Today the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame opens an exhibit to pay tribute to his life and legacy.
Today we honor the first Big Red – being the first seems more than fitting when speaking about Man O’ War.
Today we celebrate 100 years of his birth. Happy Birthday Man O’ War!