“He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else.” — Racing writer Joe H. Palmer
In the Bluegrass State, the name Man o’ War connotes greatness, and rightly so, as the racehorse given that name is considered to be one of the best—if not the best—of all time. Among his central Kentucky namesakes are a car dealership, golf driving range, church, gym, Harley-Davidson dealer and, perhaps most fittingly, a broad boulevard that forms a half-circle on the south side of Lexington, ending—or beginning, depending on your route—at the entrance to historic Keeneland Race Course. As testament to Man o’ War’s heritage, the Kentucky Horse Park and those of us who have a passion for Thoroughbreds are celebrating his 100th birthday this year.
Foaled on March 29, 1917, at Nursery Stud near Lexington, he was the son of stakes winner and prominent stallion Fair Play and Mahubah, a winning daughter of English Triple Crown victor Rock Sand. He was bred by August Belmont II, a name well-known in the upper echelons of racing. The Belmont Stakes, the third leg of racing’s Triple Crown dubbed “The Test of the Champion,” was named in honor of August Belmont I. As a founding member of the Westchester Racing Association, the younger Belmont was involved in the construction of Belmont Park on Long Island, New York.
But perhaps August Belmont II’s most enduring legacy is a remarkable chestnut colt foaled on an early spring morning. Belmont owned both Man o’ War’s sire and dam, and if not for a twist of fate, he might have retained ownership of the future star. On April 6, 1917, the U.S. entered World War I, joining allies Great Britain, France and Russia. At age 64, Belmont valiantly volunteered to serve his country and was commissioned as a major in the U.S. Army Air Service. While he was stationed in France, his wife, Eleanor, named the young colt Man o’ War to honor her husband.
The following year saw Belmont still overseas, and he decided to sell the majority of his yearling crop, retaining only several fillies to enhance his broodmare band. Man o’ War was among those sold at the Saratoga (New York) yearling sale in August 1918. He was purchased for $5,000 by Pennsylvania businessman Samuel D. Riddle. The price was neither overly high nor low for the sale. Conflicting reports list the average price for the sale as $1,107 and $1,038, with the sale topper bringing a hefty $15,600.
Man o’ War was turned over to Riddle’s trainer, Louis Feustel, following his purchase. There are varying accounts of the colt’s temperament as a youngster, but in general, it seems he was spirited. In The Jockey Club’s Racing in America (1866-1921), historian Walter Vosburgh quoted Riddle on breaking the yearling: “Man o’ War fought like a tiger. He screamed with rage, and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled with safety.” Another account, a John Hervey manuscript cited in Edward L. Bowen’s book Man o’ War, quoted Riddle similarly: “No wild animal ever fought its captors more desperately … Once or twice, I really began to wonder just when and how it was going to end … What made him finally submit? Brains.”
As a 2-year-old, Man o’ War quickly demonstrated dominance over his contemporaries, winning his maiden race on June 6, 1919, at Belmont Park by 6 lengths. He then trounced his peers in five consecutive races before famously finishing second to the aptly named Upset in the Aug. 13 Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga Racecourse. It was the first—and last—loss of his racing career.
Owner Riddle held a strong belief that the 1 1/4- mile distance of the Kentucky Derby was too demanding for a 3-year-old so early in the year, so Man o’ War made his seasonal debut in the Preakness Stakes on May 18, 1920. The Preakness, today run at 1 3/16 miles, was a 1 1/8-mile race when Man o’ War romped to a win over Upset and seven others. Man o’ War so dominated his races in the late spring and summer—including the Belmont, Dwyer and Travers Stakes—that by the time the 1 5/8-mile Lawrence Realization Stakes rolled around on Sept. 4, horsemen were fully aware of the futility of their charges competing against him. The Lawrence Realization attracted only one other starter, Hoodwink, who was defeated by an incredible 100 lengths as the brilliant Man o’ War destroyed the world-record time for that distance by more than four seconds.
He came to be known as “Big Red,” as did another flashy, reddish chestnut colt much later—1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Man o’ War closed out his 3-year-old season with three more wins, including the Potomac Handicap under 138 pounds, a staggering weight compared with the 126 pounds carried by male competitors in today’s Triple Crown races. His final contest on the racetrack was at Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario, in a match race against Sir Barton, the previous year’s Triple Crown winner. (The Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, collectively, were not to be known as the Triple Crown until 1930, when Gallant Fox swept the three races and Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton coined the term. Sir Barton wasn’t officially recognized as the first American Triple Crown winner until 1948.) Man o’ War prevailed by 7 lengths over Sir Barton and ended his racing career with 20 wins and one second-place finish from 21 starts, with earnings of $249,645.
After pondering various options for Man o’ War, who is cited along with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey as athletic stars who kicked off the 1920s with flair, Riddle opted to retire him to stud in Kentucky. However, he first showed off Big Red to visitors to the Rose Tree Hunt Club in Media, Pennsylvania, close to Riddle’s hometown of Glen Riddle. In their book Man o’ War, Page Cooper and Roger L. Treat recounted how the beloved racehorse was received by the public:
“Man o’ War’s immediate destination was Glen Riddle … but it was a slow journey south, for it had no sooner started than it was transformed into a triumphant procession. At every stop along the way, crowds gathered to see the champion, and he obligingly stuck his proud head out of the van door in answer to their cheers. At last, the caravan reached Pennsylvania. Before going to Glen Riddle, Red and the former show horse, Major Treat, stopped at the Rose Tree Hunt Club in Media, where Mr. Riddle’s neighbors and friends had planned a welcome befitting royalty. As the van drew up to the club track, the thousands of people who had been waiting ringed around.” Among those fans was Dempsey himself.
Man o’ War’s first season at stud was at Hinata Farm near Lexington. The following year, he was relocated to nearby Faraway Farm. Owned by Riddle; his wife’s niece, Kathleen Jeffords; and her husband, Walter Jeffords, Faraway was off Huffman Mill Pike just outside of Lexington.
Big Red stood at Faraway from 1921 until 1943, when he was pensioned from stud duty due to a heart condition. He lived out the remainder of his years at the farm, dying in 1947. As a sire, he produced 64 stakes winners from 386 registered foals, and his progeny included such notable runners as Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen, English Grand National Steeplechase winner Battleship and Triple Crown winner War Admiral, who lost a match race in 1938 to the popular Seabiscuit, himself the son of Man o’ War-sired Hard Tack.
Throughout his life on Faraway Farm, Man o’ War enjoyed the adulation of what has been estimated to be more than 1.5 million visitors. He had been at stud around 10 years when Will Harbut entered his life as his new groom and became his best friend. The two were remarkably close, and Harbut was Big Red’s most enthusiastic promoter, introducing him as “the mostest hoss that ever was.” Harbut thrilled Man o’ War’s admirers with stories of his famous charge, and reportedly, when a visitor inquired about the horse’s only defeat, the groom replied that he hadn’t seen the race, and the story of his loss “must’ve been a lie.”
Harbut suffered a stroke in 1946 and died on Oct. 3, 1947. The bond between Harbut and Man o’ War was so close that in Harbut’s obituary, The Blood-Horse magazine listed among his survivors his wife, six sons, three daughters and Man o’ War. Big Red died less than a month later of a heart attack—or perhaps, as some say, a broken heart.
Man o’ War was celebrated in death as he was in life: in grand fashion. His body was embalmed and placed in an enormous casket. More than 2,000 mourners paid their last respects as he lay in state within the open casket. His funeral, which was broadcast over national radio, included nine eulogies.
Man o’ War was buried at Faraway Farm, and a regal bronze sculpture of the beloved horse, created by Herbert Haseltine, stood above his grave. In 1977, the great horse’s body was exhumed and, along with the impressive statue, moved to the Kentucky Horse Park, where yet many more thousands pay tribute to him each year.
Celebrating Big Red
To commemorate the 100th birthday of Man o’ War, the Kentucky Horse Park has scheduled a yearlong celebration of the life of one of our Commonwealth’s greatest sports heroes.
The festivities kick off on March 29, Big Red’s birthdate, with the opening of an exhibit at the park titled Man o’ War: The Mostest Horse That Ever Was. “We took the name of the exhibit from Will Harbut, the man who took care of him most of his life here in Kentucky,” said International Museum of the Horse Director Bill Cooke. “There are so many pieces of history with the Man o’ War exhibit that racing fans will be thrilled to see.” The exhibit continues through Nov. 1, the date of Man o’ War’s death in 1947.
“Man o’ War is a true American icon … smashing records and setting the bar that all other Thoroughbreds are measured by,” said Kentucky Horse Park Executive Director Laura Prewitt. “We are excited to announce not only an amazing exhibit but also numerous events that will be held here at his final resting place, the Kentucky Horse Park, and throughout central Kentucky.”
In addition to the activities at the Horse Park, area horse farms will offer Man o’ War-themed tours, and a mural of Man o’ War will be painted in downtown Lexington.
“The story of Man o’ War is truly a remarkable one,” said Prewitt. “Our goal is to celebrate his life.”
For information on the birthday celebration activities, visit kyhorsepark.com.
Man O' War's Makeover
In preparation for Man o’ War’s centennial birthday celebration, his iconic statue at the Kentucky Horse Park was given an extensive overhaul planned years in advance. The sculpture had been exposed to the elements since 1947, which had greatly affected its original patina.
“The first step in the process is basically to remove all of the old finish on the sculpture,” explained John Cline, in a Kentucky Horse Park video. Cline took on the project with his team from Cincinnati’s Casting Arts and Technology. “The process is fairly time-consuming and actually a rather delicate process, sort of like trying to clean a battleship with a Q-tip.”
The crew used a pressurized pot with a cleaning medium and needed to pay careful attention to every square inch of the sculpture, with the only thing removed being layers of wax that had been applied over the years to protect the sculpture, plus the original patina beneath.
“One of the unique features of the sculpture of Man o’ War—his eyes are made of glass—so we had a certain amount of trepidation, if not fear, of working around those glass eyes because we’re using these large propane torches and putting out 500,000 BTUs of heat,” Cline said. “If we overheated the eyes or heated them and then inadvertently quenched them, it was a very high likelihood that they could shatter.
“Once we had Man o’ War stripped of the old finish, it became clear that a couple of extra steps would be needed in order to achieve that reddish tone. The first step was to take him from a relatively bright, clean bronze finish and turn him green.” This was achieved by using propane torches to heat the casting and applying cupric nitrate.
“At some stage, Man o’ War was actually completely green,” he continued. “We then applied a second chemical, which was known as ferric nitrate.” They once again heated the surface of the casting and applied multiple layers of the ferric nitrate to achieve the color of the final product.
“The final step was to apply a layer of synthetic wax,” Cline said. “And so the wax layer that we apply is a blend of two synthetic waxes that are designed to resist the ongoing reaction of the bronze with the atmosphere.”
The result is a rich, deeply saturated reddish-brown that should retain its color for years to come.