Louis Feustel and Man o' War: The Unbeatable Team

Life works in funny ways. For trainer Louis Feustel, many years of working for August Belmont Jr. and working with horses like Mahubah, Hastings, and Fair Play led him to the greatest horse he had ever known - Man o’ War.


This is their story.

Louis Feustel and Samuel Riddle, the trainer and owner of Man o' War. Keeneland Library Cook Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

Louis Feustel

Louis Feustel was born on January 2, 1884 in Lindenhurst, New York. Louis went to work for August Belmont Jr. when he was ten years old. He earned one dollar a month plus room and board and clothes. He sent the dollar home to his family.


Louis’ time working for August Belmont Jr. allowed him to get up close and personal with Man o’ War’s ancestors. He was given the chance to gallop Man o’ War’s grandsire Hastings one morning, but that experience was short-lived. What was supposed to be an easy half-mile work had turned into Hastings running away with the young boy upon his back until somebody caught them.


“I was never allowed to get on him again. And that …was alright with me,” Louis recalled in the book Step and Go Together by B.K. Beckwith. “He scared me almost as much as the first horse I rode for Belmont.”


Louis would later handle Man o’ War’s sire Fair Play when he was a yearling. He also broke and trained Mahubah, Man o’ War’s dam.


Given this, it is no surprise that Louis Feustel wanted Man o’ War.


Man o’ War

August Belmont Jr. began scaling down his stable in 1914, just one year after Louis Feustel had trained Rock View to victories in the Brooklyn Derby and Travers Stakes. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. entered World War I. Though Belmont was 65 years old at the time, he decided to join the United States Army and was sent to France.


August Belmont had left his farm in the hands of his wife, Eleanor Robson. Eleanor decided to name a very special colt in honor of her husband. She chose the foal by Fair Play out of Mahubah and named him “Man o’ War”.


The Belmonts wanted to keep this colt, but in 1918 decided it would be best to liquidate their stables. Man o’ War was entered into the Saratoga Yearling Sale.


[Video: Watch this quick, two-minute video on the life of August Belmont Jr., the man who bred Man o' War]


Two Worlds United

Louis knew Man o’ War since the day he was weaned. He knew that he absolutely had to train this horse, but he would have to convince his current employer Samuel D. Riddle to buy him at the sale. Feustel had been training horses for Riddle after Belmont went to the war.


The problem was, Samuel Riddle didn’t want Man o’ War. But Louis knew a soultion - all that he would need to do was convince Mrs. Riddle. “Finally, in desperation, I turned my sales talk on Mrs. Riddle,” Louis explained in Step and Go Together. “We all went up to Saratoga and she says to him {Sam Riddle} ‘You’ve got to buy him. The big red one. Lou thinks he might be good. Just buy him for Lou’s sake if nothing else.’ Man O’ War was really more Mrs. Riddle’s horse than Sam’s.”


Samuel Riddle agreed, putting him $5,000 for Man o’ War. It would turn out to be one of the best purchases of his entire life.


Louis Feustel had his work cut out for him with Man o’ War., though. The colt had inherited incredible bloodlines, but had fire coursing through his veins. He had gotten a strong competitive spirit from his grandsire Hastings. The same horse that ran away with Louis when he was a young boy was also known to ram into other horses and bite them during races.


Man o’ War’s Fiery Personality Gives Louis Training Difficulties

When Man o’ War first arrived in Louis' barn, he was nearly impossible to train. He was very difficult to saddle and would dump his exercise riders any time he got the chance. It was once written that he was loose at Saratoga Race Course for fifteen minutes before someone could catch him!


“He fought like a tiger,” recalled Samuel Riddle. “He screamed with rage and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled with safety.”


But once he was settled enough to race, he was explosive. Man o’ War dominated all but one of his ten races as a two-year old. He quickly earned the nickname “Big Red” and began to attract a huge fan base at a time when race track attendance was faltering because of gambling being outlawed.

Man o’ War became such a sensation that he and Louis had to have security. Police officers and Pinkerton guards were with the horse everywhere he went, protecting him from fans who would try to grab hairs from his mane and tail. They were also protecting him from more serious dangers like assassination plots.


It quickly became clear to Louis that Man o’ War would need a very tough jockey. He once gave the leg up to Earl Sande in the Miller Stakes (1920) and Sande decided that Man o’ War, though talented, was not the horse for him. “After the race Sande came up to me and he says, ‘You’ll never get me on his back again. He damned near pulled my arms out of their sockets,” Louis said in Step and Go Together.

Man o' War, undated. Photo from the Keeneland Library Cook Collection. This image is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library

Man o’ War would often chew on his hooves while lying down, a sign of anxiety. He would also get very nervous in the paddock before a race due to the large crowds and music. He would jump around and expend huge amounts of energy before the race even began. In order to help soothe his steed’s anxieties, Louis put a retired Hunter named Major Treat in the stall next to him. Man o’ War quickly bonded with the horse and Major Treat would accompany him wherever he went.


Major Treat would soothe the anxieties of Man o’ War all the way up to the post. As soon as his best friend retreated back to the barns, Man o’ War would again begin to act up. He would get restless at the start, often breaking through the barrier. This very nervousness cost him the only race of his career.


At two-years old, Man o’ War was entered into the Sanford Memorial Stakes and, as always, he was the heavy favorite. During this time there were no starting gates but simply a piece of webbing called a “barrier” that horses stood behind. Several horses had broken through the barrier, delaying the race and only adding to Man o’ War’s anxiety. In an attempt to calm him down, jockey Johnny Loftus was spinning his horse around behind this barrier, a common tactic used before the start of the race.


The problem was, the bell rang before Man o’ War was turned back around. Some say the race started when he was sideways. Others say he was completely turned around. Either way, he started late and had to make up for the lost time while carrying the highest weight in the field. He ran his heart out, but the bad start caused him to be boxed during the race and he was checked multiple times. Man o’ War lost the race by a nose to the aptly named Upset.


By three-years old, Man o’ War had grown into a 16.2 ½hh beast. His had filled out to 1,100 pounds with a 72-inch girth. The colt’s bones were strong and he was capable of covering 28-feet of ground with a single stride. He would eat his food so quickly that his groom Frank Loftus had to put a bit in his mouth during feed time to force him to slow down.


Man o’ War was regal. Even in his stall he would be giving the “Look of Eagles”, carrying his head high and looking off into the distance so dramatically. Man o’ War was quite funny too. He would often sneak up behind his exercise rider, Clyde Gordon, and snatch his hat right off his head. He would then prance around in his tall, flinging the hat around in a game of keep away.


[Video: Old footage of Man o' War]


In 1920 he won races such as the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He won the Lawrence Realization by 100 lengths and even beat 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup, which was essentially a match race.


Louis’ expert guidance had given Man o’ War a real chance to shine. He was undefeated as a three-year old. Man o’ War could have raced as a four-year old, but both Louis and Samuel Riddle agreed that the high weights he would be forced to carry would not be good for the horse.


The decision was made to retire him safe and sound to Hinata Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Two years later he was moved to Faraway Farm.


“It was a sad day for me when I took him back to Kentucky for retirement. It was cold and miserable when I unloaded him from the railway car. There were a lot of people around wanting to strip the blanket off him and take pictures. I guess I wasn’t very polite to ’em. I told ’em to get the hell outta there. When I took him to the van it was so old and rickety that I said to Miss Dangerfield, 'If you don’t get him something better than this to ride in, he’ll knock the sides out of it and end up in the road pulling it himself.' She didn’t like it but I was mad. I hated to see him go.” - Louis Feustel, Step and Go Together


Life after Man o’ War - Louis Feustel

Louis’ relationship with Riddle began to decline in 1921, so the trainer went back to working for August Belmont Jr. August had began to rebuild his stable after returning from the war and Louis trained Ladkin to a victory in the International Special No. 2 in 1924.


Belmont died that very year, again leaving Louis on his own. Louis went on to train for Bernard Ritter and later Elizabeth Graham Lewis.


He finally retired in 1950 after training horses for forty years. He and his wife settled in Pasadena, California. When she passed away in the late 60s, Feustel moved to Chicago to live with his son. It was there that he passed away on July 7, 1970 at eighty-six years old.


“I’ll still say, though, that the best man I ever knew was August Belmont, and Man o’ War was the best horse.”


Life after the Track - Man o’ War

It is estimated that three million people came to Faraway Farm to see Man o’ War during his retirement. The stallion’s best friend and groom Will Harburt would emerge from the barn with Man o’ War. The stallion’s chestnut coat would sparkle like gold in the sunshine as he stood stoically, gazing off into the distance as Will Harburt went on his famous spiel.


“Folks talk about ‘second Man o’ Wars’. There ain’t any second Man o’ Wars. This is the greatest hoss of them all,” Harburt would preach. “Nobody will ever know how good he was—there wasn’t anything to run with him. There ain’t ever been anything like him and maybe there won’t ever be again.”


Samuel Riddle restricted Man o’ War to breeding 25 mares a year. In 1943 he suffered a heart attack and was pensioned. He had sired 381 named foals; 62 became stakes winners. Among his best progeny were horses like War Admiral, War Relic, Hard Tack, Battleship, and more.


[Video: Footage of War Admiral, Man o' War's Triple Crown winning son]


Harbut passed away in 1947 from a heart attack, his obituary listing Man o’ War as one of his survivors. Harbut’s death sent Man o’ War into grief. He had lost his best friend, his greatest companion. It is said that this grief led to the death of the great horse who too suffered a heart attack just one month after Harbut.


It took 13 men to lift Man o’ War from his stall. 2,000 people attended his funeral just two days later. Everyone else listened to the broadcast on NBC. Nine eulogies were given and a moment of silence was held at 3:00 p.m. at all racetracks.


The U.S. Calvary First Division placed a scroll with a black ribbon on Man o’ War’s stall and made him an honorary colonel. 3,000 members of Japan’s calvary paid their respects to Man o’ War with military honors.


Bulgers dressed in Samuel Riddle’s black and yellow silks played Taps, bidding a somber farewell to one of the greatest horses to ever grace a racetrack. Big Red’s body is gone, but his soul remains with racing fans forever.

[Video: Watch this incredible tribute to Man o' War, including old footage and a poem]


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Sources:

The Vault Horse Racing

Racingmuseum.org - Louis Feustel

August Belmont Jr.

Racing Museum Man o’ War

American Heritage

Horse Network

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