This is the centennial year of the birth of the great racehorse Man o’ War.
In 1919 and 1920, when the big horse ran – and won 20 of his 21 starts – he was not just the most successful horse of his time. He was perhaps the most compelling athlete in the nation.
Those years, immediately following World War I, have been called “The Golden Age of Sports.” Babe Ruth crushed home runs, Jack Dempsey crushed jaws, Bill Tilden crushed tennis balls, Bobby Jones crushed golf balls and Man o’ War crushed opponents, track records and the hearts of any bettor foolish enough to bet against him.
“Man o’ War went off, in his very first race, at 2-to-5, and he never started a race at even money,” says Ken Grayson, a racing fan and collector.
In 1999, Blood Horse magazine voted Man o’ War the top horse of the 20th century, ahead of Secretariat and Citation.
“He was a relatively large horse, 16.2 hands high and muscular,” Grayson says. “Brilliant red, almost copper. He looked like a champion and acted like a champion.”
Grayson says almost all horses are called “great horses” except – “except they can’t run in mud, can’t run long distances, can’t run short races, can’t run on grass, can’t run on dirt, can’t carry weight, can’t win against older horses. With Man o’ War, there were no excepts – any track, any distance, any weight, any surface, any competition, he did it all and looked great doing it.”
Grayson will share his exceptional passion for and knowledge of horse racing – and of Man o’ War in particular – when the Kentucky Derby Museum hosts a full-day Man o’ War tour and celebration on Wednesday, May 31. He will also share an incredible collection of Man o’ War artifacts that he has accumulated – the horse’s saddle, silks, colors and blanket, plus invaluable photos, newspaper clippings and old, grainy silent movie film – many things never before seen in public. He will also gladly answer as many questions as the assembled have – about Man o’ War or about all of horse racing. In addition to his collections, Grayson is a trustee and former board member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
The event includes not only a review of Grayson’s museum-quality collection, but also a tour of the track and the award-winning Derby Museum, an optional lunch at the Derby Museum Café and a guided bus ride through Bluegrass horse country to Mt. Brilliant Farm, the beautifully landscaped horse farm near where Man o’ War stood stud for 25 years until his death in 1947. (Actually, Man o’ War was at adjacent Faraway Farm, which is now part of Mt. Brilliant Farm.) Today, it’s an active brood farm and has been completely renovated by owner Greg Goodman.
“I’d say it’s the full Kentucky experience as far as thoroughbreds are concerned,” says Erik Brown, the Derby Museum vice president who organized the event. “Not only does Man o’ War tie into it, but we also have the morning workouts on the track. So, we have the racing component, the history component and the travel to horse country, where we’ll see foals and brood mares. So, you’ll see the entire thoroughbred experience come full circle. Mt. Brilliant is the quieter side of the sport, where hopes and dreams begin.”
Last year’s Belmont winner, Creator, was bred at Mt Brilliant.
When Man o’ War was there, the farm was Kentucky’s largest tourist attraction. “People would come from around the world just to see him,” says Brown. “They have a bell there, and every time one of Man o’ War’s offsprings won a stakes race, they’d ring that bell.”
That bell went off quite often. According to Grayson, “Man o’ War ended up being a great sire. His horses won $3.5 million, more than any horse up to that time. Of his offspring, 289 horses started a race, 220 won and 62 won stakes races.”
The most famous of all Man o’ War’s offspring was War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner. On Nov. 1, 1938, War Admiral met, and lost to, Seabiscuit in their famous match race at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore. Seabiscuit, foaled in Lexington, was the grandson of Man o’ War, son of Hard Tack.
Man o’ War also sired the 1929 Kentucky Derby winner, Clyde Van Dusen, and his line includes, as well, Hall of Fame fillies Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.
Interestingly, it was a match race that was one of Man o’ War’s most famous races – and his last.
On Oct. 12, 1920, Man o’ War met Sir Barton for a $75,000 winner-take-all match. Sir Barton had won the Triple Crown in 1919.
“Match races were illegal then,” says Grayson, “so a third horse was entered – and scratched the morning of the race.”
Man o’ War won by seven lengths. Both horses broke the track record.
The winning trophy, called the Man o’ War Cup, will also be on display at the tour. After the match, the cup was donated to the New York Racing Association and became the Travers Cup, the official trophy for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. The first cup winner, in 1948, was Ace Admiral, another descendant of Man o’ War.
Though born in Kentucky in 1917, retired here and died here, Man o’ War never won a race in Kentucky. He didn’t win the 1920 Kentucky Derby because he didn’t enter it. His owner, Samuel Riddle, felt the distance was too much for a three-year-old. He did win that year’s Preakness and Belmont.
But he dominated the competition. He set eight speed records, two world records, three track records. He won one race by 100 lengths, at Belmont Park.
“If you look at the charts,” says Grayson, “every race he ran, he ‘won easily,’ ‘never extended,’ ‘won going away,’ ‘had speed in reserve.’ ”
There was a train named after him, the Man o’ War Express. “One of his races at Belmont drew 25,000 for just an everyday race,” says Grayson. “When he raced, people came to see him run.”
His one loss, to the appropriately named Upset, was in the Sanford Memorial Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 13, 1919.
“It was a fluke, and there were some questions about it,” says Grayson. “Upset had more than the usual amount of money bet on him. The following spring, both jockeys – Johnny Loftus on Man o’ War and Willie Knapp on Upset – were called before The Jockey Club and their licenses were pulled ‘in the best interest of racing.’ Neither of these jockeys ever rode in another race and The Jockey Club never revealed its reasons. It’s pure speculation, but many of us still believe that the 1919 Sanford Memorial is the only logical conclusion for this action.”
This was, of course, at exactly the time the Chicago White Sox were in cahoots with gamblers, infamously losing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The odor of foul play was definitely in the sports world’s air.
When Man o’ War died, on Nov 1, 1947, it was major news, announced at halftime of the University of Kentucky football game against Alabama.
“It was front page on all newspapers and magazines,” says Grayson. “His burial, on November 4, was attended by dignitaries and covered by radio and television.
“He was the first horse buried whole, in a humongous casket that was custom-built for him. There was a tremendous crowd at the funeral. Horses generally don’t get that kind of attention.”
The Derby Museum’s Man o’ War tour will commence at 8 a.m. on May 31, at the Museum. The crowd will then go to watch the morning workouts at Churchill Downs Racetrack, then a viewing of the 360-degree “The Greatest Race” and a private gallery tour inside the temporary exhibit guided by Grayson, plus exhibit and collections experts.
There will then be a self-guided tour of the entire Museum, optional lunch at the Derby Café and, at noon, the bus will depart for Mt. Brilliant Farm.
The roughly one-hour tour of the farm will include a visit to Man o’ War’s barn. The event is scheduled to conclude at 3:30 p.m., back at the Kentucky Derby Museum.
The cost, for admission and transportation, is $99 per person. (The lunch is extra.) The tour is limited to 14 persons, because of the capacity of the bus.
However, it will be held again on August 23.
Correction: An earlier version of this article had the wrong year for War Admiral’s Triple Crown win. It was 1937.