Man o' War: The Story of the Mostest Hoss

Updated: Mar 29


Man o' War. Photo by 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.

Early Life (1917):


March 29th, 1917 is a date forever etched into horse racing history as this is the date in which a high-strung but beautiful mare named Mahubah gave birth to her second foal, a colt by Fair Play that would be named Man o' War.


The foal was the vision of August Belmont Jr, though a foal that August hardly got to see grow up; the 65 year-old joined the United States Army and was off to serve in France during World War I. The foal was named Man o’ War by August’s wife - a tribute to her husband.


Man o' War was a handsome colt. He was completely chestnut aside from an unmistakable star and stripe on his head. Perhaps that in itself was another nod to August and his commitment to the United States. The Belmonts were going to race Man o’ War themselves but decided to liquidate their racing stable in 1918. Man o’ War was sold to Samuel D. Riddle for $5,000.


Two-Year Old Season (1919)


Man o’ War gleamed in the barn of trainer Louis Feustel. He was a big and strong colt with nerves that he had inherited from his dam and fire that he inherited from his sire. He walked with his head high and practically leaped when he ran. Man o' War covered tremendous amounts of ground with every stride and exuded talent and charisma.


Man o’ War was understandably favored in his debut race and proved his talent by soaring home 6 ½ lengths ahead of the field. He must have relished the attention given to a winning racehorse because afterwards he simply refused to be beat.


The young colt was back on the racetrack three days after his debut to win a 5 ½ furlong race by 3 lengths on a muddy Belmont track. Twelve days later, he won his first stakes race - the Youthful. Two days after that, Man o’ War carried 130 pounds to victory in the Hudson Stakes. Finally, Man o’ War won the Tremont Stakes.


Though raced rigorously, Man o’ War was just simply not tired yet! He shipped to Saratoga Race Course for the track’s prestigious Summer meet. There he defeated Upset by two-lengths in the United States Hotel Stakes despite stumbling at the start and carrying 130 pounds.


Man o’ War was entered into the Sanford Memorial Stakes after his victory in the United States Hotel Stakes. He was the odd-on favorite, but things did not go as planned. The start had been delayed for several minutes because horses kept breaking through the barrier. Because of this, the starting assistant started the race before all of the horses were completely ready. Unfortunately for Man o’ War, he was one of the horses that was not ready. He was circling and some accounts say that he was completely turned around when the the field took off. Regardless, Man o’ War started later than every other horse in the race. In addition to this, jockey Johnny Loftus was unable to get Man o’ War into a good position, leaving Man o’ War to lose by a neck to the aptly named Upset.


The Sanford Memorial Stakes would be the only loss of Man o’ War’s career. Though he was defeated, he had shown his true grit and guts. He was a fighter in the truest sense. No respect was lost for Man o’ War on that day.


Man o’ War got his revenge ten days later in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes, beating Upset by two lengths and tying the stakes record. One week later, Man o’ War was entered in the Hopeful Stakes. This time it was he who was to blame for a slow start - he broke through the barrier several times, delaying the race by twelve minutes. When the race finally started, Man o’ War won it by an easy six lengths.


Finally, Man o’ War won the Belmont Futurity by 2 ½ lengths. His two-year old season was an amazing one. He had shown supremacy over his crop. Man o’ War was able to perform at his fullest capacity in races just a few days apart. He had also shown his ability to win with high weights.


Man o’ War was a monster. As he wintered in Glen Riddle Farm, he grew even bigger, even stronger, and even tougher. He would return to races ready to run.


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.

Three-Year Old Season (1920):


Samuel D. Riddle saw it unnecessary to run his horse in the Kentucky Derby when the Preakness Stakes would be practically running in his backyard just a few days later. Man o’ War went into the race as the fresh and ready favorite and practically cantered home to a 1 ½ length win.


He made his next start in the Withers Stakes, where he won by 2 lengths and set an American of 1:35 ⅘ for a mile.


Only one horse, Donnaconna, dared to face Man o’ War in the Belmont Stakes. The competitor was simply no match for Man o’ War - the big chestnut colt flew home to set a new world record for 11 furlongs.


Man o’ War easily defeated his single rival in the Stuyvesant Handicap ten days later while shouldering 135 pounds. His next start came in the Dwyer Stakes where he would be challenged by John P. Grier and the only horse to ever defeat him, Upset. The race was a tough one for Man o’ War, but he still managed to win by two lengths.


Afterwards, Man o’ War equaled the track record during his win the Travers Stakes. He then faced just one horse, Hoodwink, in the Lawrence Realization Stakes. Man o' War won by about 100 lengths, set a new world record, and beat the American record by 4 seconds.


People were simply too afraid to put their horse against Man o’ War. He faced just one horse in the Jockey Club Gold Cup; Man o’ War defeated his competitor by fifteen lengths under tight restraint, setting a new American record for 12 furlongs.


The Potomac Handicap served as one of the final races of Man o’ War’s career. He was assigned 138 pounds, meaning that he would be carrying 24 pounds more than the second highest weighted horse. Man o’ War had to repel to rivals during his stretch run, but he was still able to win by 1 ½ lengths.


Man o’ War left the Potomac Handicap with a swollen tendon. However, the colt was able to recover to face American horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, in a match race. The race was so highly anticipated that it became the first race to ever be recorded start to finish.


Man o' War defeated his foe by seven lengths and became the highest money earner the sport had seen at that time. He had run 21 times, suffering just one defeat. He had set multiple track records, world records, and American records. He was a champion.



Retirement and Stud (1921-1947):


The weight that Man o’ War would have had to carry as a four-year old did not sit right with Samuel D. Riddle. Instead of putting 140 pounds on his horse’s back, Riddle retired his great steed to Hinata Farm near Lexington, Kentucky. In 1922, Riddle took Man o’ War to Faraway Farm. 500,000 people signed the guest book there and it is estimated that 1.5 million people visited Man o’ War during his retirement. He was a celebrity and a living legend. Those who saw him stand proudly with that signature “Look of Eagles” had their breath taken away.


According to American Classic Pedigrees, Man o’ War’s first crop produced three Champions: American Flag, Florence Nightingale, and Maid At Arms. He is well-known as the sire of 1938 Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The list of his great progeny is long but includes names like War Relic, Crusader, Battleship, and Hard Tack. He sired 62 stakes winners from 381 named foals.


Man o’ War’s best friend was his groom Will Harbut. Harbut took great pride in showing off Man o’ War to crowds. Harbut and Man o’ War died just months apart, both of heart problems. It is often said that the death of Harbut saddened Man o’ War so greatly that his old heart couldn’t take it.


He was 30 years old. The life he lived was long and the legacy he left will live on forever. Man o’ War is regarded as one of the greatest racehorses of all time. Some will even call him The Greatest. The question of whether or not Man o’ War would have beaten horses like Secretariat is asked time and time again and the answer will never truly be known.

Regardless of this, Man o’ War is a hallowed name in horse racing.


“Folks talk about ‘second Man o’ Wars’. There ain’t any second Man o’ Wars. This is the greatest hoss of them all. 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.” - Will Harbut, Man o' War's best friend



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