Man o’ War, regarded as one of the two or three best racehorses in the history of the sport in North America, will be honored by the Kentucky Horse Park with a year-long series of events in 2017 celebrating his 100th birthday anniversary.
The celebration will start on March 29, the date Man o’ War was foaled. It will be anchored by an exhibit titled “Man o’ War: The Mostest Horse that Ever Was” at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, and also feature a variety of events held at the Horse Park and around Central Kentucky that will be announced on March 29.
“Man o’ War is a true American icon, born in Kentucky before going on to capture the country’s imagination by winning 20 of 21 races,” said Laura Prewitt, executive director at the Kentucky Horse Park. “Our goal is to celebrate his life and equally encourage visitors to experience all that the Kentucky Horse Park has to offer.”
The scheduled Man o’ War events will include a legacy mural of the horse known as “Big Red” painted in downtown Lexington as well as special Man o’ War-themed tours of the region’s horse farms. At the International Museum of the Horse, the exhibit will showcase never- before-seen artifacts from Man o’ War’s racing career and his post-retirement fame. The title of the exhibit refers to a phrase uttered by his longtime groom Will Harbut, who cared for the horse during his retirement and thrilled fans who came to Kentucky to visit Man o’ War with stories of his greatness.
Man o’ War was a force to be reckoned with on the racetrack, and his popularity among fans of horse racing during the early 20th Century was just as impressive. Bred at Lexington, Ky. at Nursery Farm by industry titan August Belmont II, the already- and aptly named Man o’ War was sold when Belmont dispersed all of his yearling breeding stock and joined the Army to fight in World War I. Purchased for $5,000 by Samuel Riddle, the chestnut son of Fair Play would make his first start for trainer Louis Feustel on June 6, 1919 at Belmont Park and subsequently put together two of the best back-to-back racing years in history.
“Man o’ War was unusually impressive from the time of his first start,” said Ed Bowen, racing historian, author of the Man o’ War volume in the Thoroughbred Legends series and a former editor-in-chief of BloodHorse. “By the time he was defeated by Upset in his seventh race, he had been an odds-on favorite, as short as 1-10, in every race. It is ironic that Man o’ War’s two years of racing placed him in an echelon above his contemporaries despite his not running in the Kentucky Derby. He had an incredible aura, as compared to Exterminator and some of the other stars of the era. He was a bright, luxurious chestnut with a high head and haughty manner, and he won most of his races with a great flourish.”
In ten races during his 2-year-old season of 1919, Man o’ War posted nine wins, none coming by less than a length. His only loss as a juvenile – and for his career – came in the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, when he started slowly, was hemmed in traffic, and could not make up enough ground to defeat the aforementioned Upset, whose unexpected half-length win helped to popularize – but, contrary to legend, did not introduce – the use of “upset” in sports parlance.
Man o’ War was even better at age three, winning all 11 of his starts, this time none coming by less than a length and a half. Despite carrying high weight assignments in many of his starts that year, he set track, U.S., or world records in eight of them. Man o’ War won the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Dwyer Stakes, Travers Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup among other highlights before resoundingly defeating 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton by seven lengths in the Gold Cup match race held in Canada at Kenilworth Park (Windsor, ON). That was his final career start on Oct. 12, 1920, and Man o’ War retired with a record of 20 wins and one second from 21 races and the crown as horse racing’s all-time earnings leader with $249,965.
Standing primarily at Faraway Farm in Kentucky, Man o’ War would have a career at stud that did not quite reach his nonpareil standard of excellence on the track, but was accomplished nonetheless. His proportion of stakes winners to foals – 17 percent – far exceeded the breed average of 3 percent, and he sired the 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral among many other high-class racehorses. Man o’ War died at age 30 in 1947, and his remains were moved from Faraway Farm to the Kentucky Horse Park during the 1970s. His gravesite and the iconic bronze statute nearby are among the most popular attractions at the park.
“I think Man o’ War was the most important racehorse of the 20th Century; he was voted No. 1 in a poll conducted by BloodHorse,” Bowen said. “It is impossible to compare horses from one era to the next, but I think Secretariat probably is the horse most commonly regarded as his key challenger. Newspapers and radio were the sources of most of the population’s relationship with Man o’ War, since only a small percentage actually got to see him in person. Still, when he took the train to Kentucky to retire at stud, throngs turned out at his every stop. … During his career at stud, Man o’ War was a key to tourism in Kentucky. Even today, I would venture the guess that a large segment of the public would know you were talking about a racehorse if you mentioned Man o’ War.”