6 things you may not have known about Man o' War

In the 100 years since the original “Big Red” was foaled, he became one of the most famous horses in history. But there are still a few things to be learned about him.
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On March 29, 1917---100 years ago this year---a chestnut Thoroughbred colt was born, sired by Fair Play out of a mare named Mahubah. Bred by August Belmont II and purchased as a yearling by Samuel D. Riddle, Man o’ War would become the most famous horse in America.

In his two-year racing career, he won 20 of 21 races, at distances from five furlongs to more than a mile and a half, often setting track and world records as he went. Even today experts rank him among the top racehorses ever, with the likes of Citation and Secretariat.

No doubt, you know Man o’ War’s name well. And even his nickname, Red. Perhaps in childhood you read tales about him by C.W. Anderson and Walter Farley. But you may not know about the woman who played a major role in his breeding career, about the horse who was his best friend, about the horse who beat him that one time….

Here are those, and some other things, you might not know about the storied life of this American turf legend.

1. Man o’ War didn’t win the Kentucky Derby.

In fact, he didn’t take part in the “Run for the Roses” at all. As Dorothy Ours writes in her book Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning, owner Samuel Riddle thought that the mile-and-a-quarter distance was too long for 3-year-olds at the beginning of their season. Instead, the 1920 Derby’s blanket of roses went to a 16-1 shot named Paul Jones.

Interestingly, Man o’ War never raced in the state of his birth. Nonetheless, he lived in Kentucky for most of his life, and Kentuckians adored him. On Man o’ War’s 30th birthday, an editorial in a Louisville newspaper stated: “May the bluegrass be tender to his taste, the turf springy to his tread, the limestone soil and the wide blue sky of his kingdom welcome to his senses for the rest of his days. He has brought honor and distinction to his native Kentucky.”

2. Man o’ War’s one “upset” was to a horse named Upset.

Man o’ War won 20 races, with one second place finish, out of 21 starts. His sole defeat came on August 13, 1919, in the Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga Racecourse. The loss was as controversial as it was shocking.

The race started badly. Modern starting gates were not yet in use in 1919. Instead, horses lined up at a tape, and the race began when the tape was raised. But getting an entire field to stand ready was often difficult, and false starts, where a horse would break through and have to be brought back, were common. In the Sanford, a horse named Golden Broom “broke through the barrier three times while Upset, which was near him, also was trying to beat the barrier,” wrote a turf writer with The New York Times on August 14, 1919. “Man o’ War acted very calmly but was on his toes.”

Reports vary---some say that Man o’ War was facing the wrong way when the starter raised the tape---but by all accounts, he left the post near the rear of the field of seven. As the frontrunners vied for the lead, Man o’ War found his stride and began to pass horses all along the backstretch.

Turning into the homestretch, Golden Broom was in the lead, followed by Upset, with Man o’ War two lengths back in third. “A few strides down the stretch Golden Broom suddenly gave up the race, and Upset raced past him,” according to the New York Times account. “Steadily Man o’ War drew up on Upset. A hundred feet from the wire he was three-fourths of a length away. At the wire he was a scant neck out of the first position and in another twenty feet would have passed the Whitney horse.”

Though defeated, Man o’ War was not discredited, wrote the Times reporter: “On the contrary, the manner in which he ran this race stamped him, in the opinion of horsemen, as the best of his division without question…. There was scarcely a witness of this race who did not believe after it was all over that Man o’ War would have walked home, with anything like a fair chance.” Man o’ War was carrying 15 pounds more than Upset.

You may have heard it said that the word “upset,” to describe an unexpected defeat in sports, was derived from this race. That isn’t true; it is easy to find that usage of the term going back decades earlier. But Upset, the horse, could not have been more appropriately named.

3. Man o’ War’s best friend was a show hunter.

In addition to racehorses, Samuel Riddle owned show horses, including a 16.3 hand gelding named Major Treat. After a leg injury ended the horse’s show career at the age of 11 in 1918, Man o’ War’s trainer, Louis Feustel, asked for the sturdy horse as his own mount.

“Major Treat could make a useful mount for the hefty Feustel when he led his charges to the track for training,” wrote Dorothy Ours in Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning. “Also, his mature presence might stabilize the fretful yearling Man o’ War. It worked. Accepted by Man o’ War, Major Treat began living in a neighboring stall.” The two horses lived in adjacent stalls and traveled together throughout the colt’s racing career and well into his retirement at stud.

4. Man o’ War’s first stud manager was a woman.

Elizabeth Daingerfield was a highly respected breeder and an authority on Thoroughbred bloodlines when Samuel Riddle chose her to manage Man o’ War’s breeding career. She had worked as an assistant for her father, Maj. Foxhall Daingerfield, who was the breeding manager for Castleton Farm near Lexington, Kentucky, owned by his brother-in-law James R. Keene. Elizabeth took over management of that farm in 1913 after the deaths of both Keene and her father.

By the time Man o’ War retired from racing, she owned her own operation at Haylands Farm and she had leased nearby properties including Hinata Farm, where the stallion would be kept for his first year at stud before moving to Faraway Farm in May 1922. Daingerfield remodeled a barn at Faraway for Man o’ War. “Man o’ War is a well-behaved animal, and no extra precautions have been taken in his stall to prevent his injuring himself,” she told reporters.

The barn would house Man o’ War, his old rival Golden Broom, and, of course, Major Treat. “Man o’ War loves equine company and he is to be kept satisfied by having his chum with him as well as another high bred animal,” wrote a reporter for the New York Times on February 2, 1921.

Daingerfield was an “eagle of a woman in the aloofness of her profound knowledge and in her utter disregard of things that usually encompass a woman’s horizon,” reported Liberty magazine in 1926.

“Those who have ever seen Miss Daingerfield in the paddocks or pastures with her charges have a picture they recall with pleasure,” wrote a New York Herald reporter, as recorded in History of Kentucky. “Mares and foals crowd about her, eager for some token of affection or recognition until her progress is actually impeded. It is the same way with the yearlings which have been reared by her; they are gentle in the extreme. One of her rules is that there shall be no blows or harsh punishment. As a result few bad-tempered horses have come from her nursery.”

Daingerfield managed Man o’ War until 1930, when she left to focus on her own farm and horses.

5. Man o’ War was a major tourist attraction.

In an era that included such legends as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange, Man o’ War stood out as one of the most popular sport figures of his time.

Faraway Farm was open to the public, and between 1922 and 1947 around 500,000 visitors signed the guest books; many more passed through without leaving a signature. “The register in Man o’ War’s stable tells the story of his fame and his greatness,” wrote the Chicago Tribune on April 4, 1937. “From practically every country on the face of the globe his visitors have come. They represent every walk of life. As accurate an estimate as can be made sets his yearly number of callers at 50,000.” In total, an estimated 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 people came from all over the world to see the great horse.

“His name is on all the road directions in this part of the country and on all the ‘Seeing Kentucky’ programs. Tourists ask first where they can find him and then where they can find Mammoth Cave,” Daingerfield told the New York Times in 1923. “It is remarkable how the interest in him continues. People from all over the country seem really proud of him.”

Man o’ War’s first primary groom at Faraway Farm was John “Buck” Buckner, who remained with the horse from his arrival at Hinata in 1921 until he left with Daingerfield in 1930. But the stallion’s best-known groom was Will Harbut, who became famous for his colorful commentaries during farm tours as well as for his affection for his famous charge.

Harbut took over care of Man o’ War in 1930 and remained with the stallion until the groom suffered a stroke in May 1946. Harbut died in October 1947, just a month before Man o’ War did.

6. Man o’ War’s funeral was broadcast nationwide by radio.

Man o’ War’s health began to decline in mid-1947. He died quietly in his stall on November 1 of that year. He was 30 years old.

The stallion was embalmed---said to be a first for a horse funeral---and placed in an oak casket lined with the black and yellow of Riddle’s racing silks. Man o’ War lay in state in his barn aisle on November 3 and then a funeral was held on November 4. Photos of the event show dense crowds--- men in suits and fedoras; women in overcoats and black gloves---pressed tight around the concrete moat which surrounded the original grave on Faraway Farm.

Nine eulogies were delivered during the service, which was broadcast nationwide by radio. Flags were lowered to half-mast at racetracks across the country, and at Churchill Downs a 7,500- person crowd stood in silent tribute as “Taps” was played in the great horse’s honor.

A bronze statue of Man o’ War by Herbert Haseltine was erected over the grave in October 1948. In 1977 Man o’ War’s remains and the sculpture were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where they remain today.

“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 many thousands will remember him as they saw him and recognized in him at once the spark of greatness,” said breeder Ira Dryman during one eulogy. “Almost from the beginning he caught the imagination of men, and they saw different things in him. But one thing they all remember---that he brought an exaltation into their hearts.”

This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #483)