Like Jesse Owens, Man 'o War was fast. He loved to run and he loved to win. Unlike Jesse Owens – or Louise Stokes or Usain Bolt – Man o’ War was a horse, but one more human in will and determination. And no animal in the history of sports – before or since – has been compared to the greatest human athletes as often as he has.
Man o’ War’s original breeder, August Belmont (yes, of The Belmont Stakes fame), had high hopes for the fiery chestnut colt that kicked and fought with his handlers from his birth in 1917. But global events conspired against their partnership. At age 65, August volunteered to serve the US Army in WWI.
August’s wife named Man o' War in honor of her husband and the armed effort overseas. But wartime brought money trouble. The Belmont’s sold their entire 1918 yearling crop to make ends meet. Man o’ War went to the highest bidder: Samuel Riddle walked away with the offspring of champions for only $5,000. It was the greatest deal in the history of thoroughbred horse racing.
Most horses need to be coaxed and trained to run. Not Man 'o War. He routinely dumped his jockeys during morning workouts and broke free to run the track on his own. He knew what he wanted and needed to do. Riddle, too, understood that the best way to train this horse was to stay out of his way. He instructed his jockeys to use a loose rein with Man o’ War and hold on for dear life.
Man ‘o War’s career began when he was two. He won 9 out of 10 races that year. The only race he lost was mired in controversy. Some say he was facing the wrong way when the ribbon dropped and the field took off. He caught up from behind, then ran wide to pass them, finishing 2nd by only half a length behind a horse aptly named Upset.
Because World War I was then on everyone's mind, racetrack attendance was at an all time low. But Man o' War changed that. The big charismatic red horse brought fans streaming back to the track. His power, blazing speed, and incredible 28-foot stride – believed to be the longest of any horse ever – captivated and gave people hope. Man o’ War was such a sensation that police and security officers had to protect him from souvenir hunters who attempted to snatch hairs from his mane and tail.
In 1920, Man o’ War won all 11 races he started, he set seven track records, and become the richest horse in history. Big Red was so fast, he was made to carry greater and greater additional weight – called a ‘handicap.’ Track owners tried to rig the races to make his victories less one-sided. They begged Man o' War's jockeys to hold him back to give the other horses a shot, at least. But the riders only succeeded in exhausting themselves for Man o' War raged on despite their weight on his mouth. Race after race, he trounced the competition. By lengths. One time as much as 100.
To keep the crowds interested, Riddle organized an event where Man o' War would be allowed to run "as he pleased," without encouragement or restraint. That's when he set a new world record for the fastest mile raced by any horse in recorded history.
One thinks, had he known, that Man o’ War would have objected to the fact that he never got a shot at winning US horse racing's greatest jewel: the Triple Crown. Believing that 3-year-olds should not run 1¼ miles in early May, Riddle refused to race Man o’ War in the Kentucky Derby, the first event in the world's most famous equine competition. Two and five weeks later, however, Man o’ War won both the Preakness as well as the Belmont Stakes, the latter by 20 lengths, setting yet another world record.
In October of that year, Samuel Riddle retired Man o' War after a final victory against the champion, Sir Barton, ending a short but phenomenal career. There were simply no more horses left for Man o' War to face and his ‘handicap’ was getting heavier and heavier, risking injury. Summarizing 1920 in sports, The New York Times declared that Babe Ruth and Man o' War had left a permanent mark on history that year.
Riddle then tasked Man o’ War with another journey: to breed a new generation of super racehorses, which he did with tremendous success. He sired 64 stakes winners, including the 1937 Triple Crown winner, War Admiral; Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen; and Belmont Stakes winners American Flag and Crusader. He produced Hall of Fame steeplechaser Battleship, winner of the British Grand National. He is the grandsire of Seabiscuit and the great-grand-uncle of Secretariat, whose heart was found, on autopsy, to be four-times the size of a normal horse, even May o’ War.
Man o' War passed away in 1947 at the age of 30. He lived an uncommonly long life for a horse. But his two-year winning streak was never forgotten. More than 2,000 people attended Man o’ War’s funeral, which was broadcast on NBC Radio and featured nine eulogies. Even today, Man o' War remains one of the 20th century’s most remembered and admired athletes.
In his two-year racing career, Man o' War set three world records, two American records, and three track records. No other animal in sports history has been compared to the greatest human athletes as often as the willful chestnut whose white star and stripe crossed the finish line ahead of the pack in 20 out of 21 starts. He was the first of a new breed of horse. All it took was a human who understood him. Many thanks to Shena Kellewea of Port Townsend, WA, USA, for suggesting we include her favorite horse in the #HistoryHero Blast.
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