The “mostest Hoss”

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In 1920 William T. Waggoner of Fort Worth, Texas, possessed a string of racehorses, hundreds of thousands of acres of prime cattle land dotted with oil wells, and the firm conviction, apparently born of experience, that everything has a price. That year a lustrous chestnut colt was running away from the nation’s best three-year-olds with ridiculous ease, and it occurred to Waggoner that this colt was the greatest thoroughbred that he or any other American horseman had ever seen or was ever likely to see. Waggoner wanted him in the worst way, and he offered $500,000 to the colt’s owner, Samuel D. Riddle, of Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania.

Riddle had paid $5,000 for the colt at the Saratoga Yearling Sales and had long since reached the same conclusion about him. Riddle rejected the Texan’s offer.

Waggoner must have been prepared for the initial rebuff. A textile manufacturer, Riddle was, after all, a wealthy man too. But Riddle was a Scot, a near man with a dollar. Playing upon this weakness, Waggoner raised his offer to $1,000,000. Again, Riddle turned him down.

“Well, how much then?” asked Waggoner.

“The colt is not for sale,” insisted Riddle.

Waggoner signed a blank check and gave it to him.

 
 

“You go to France,” said Riddle, “and bring back the sepulchre of Napoleon from Les Invalides. Then you go to England and buy the jewels from the crown. Then to India and buy the Taj Mahal. Then I’ll put a price on Man o’ War.”

Man o’ War was truly a horse without price. As no other horse before or since, he fired the imagination of the American public. When he came upon the scene as a two-year-old in 1919, thoroughbred racing was suffering. Antigambling legislation inspired by Governor Charles Evans Hughes had closed down racing completely in New York in 1911 and 1912, and a number of other states had followed suit. Many of the smaller stables had liquidated their stock, the big stables had shipped their horses to race in Europe, and the bottom had fallen out of the thoroughbred yearling market. No sooner had the ban been lifted, and the racetracks reopened, than World War I loomed. In 1919, purses and attendance were at record lows.

But once Man o’ War began racing, his name on a track program was certain to fill the grandstand. In time, policemen had to be assigned to prevent souvenir hunters from snatching hairs from his mane and tail, and his thundering hoofs became as much a part of the Golden Age of Sports as the crack of Babe Ruth’s bat or Bill Tilden’s whistling serves.

Man o’ War looked the part of a superhorse. At two he was lithe and leggy. At three he filled out into a magnificent animal, standing nearly 16.2 hands (about five and a half feet) at the withers, weighing 1,100 pounds, with a 72-inch girth. He had keenly alert eyes, flaring nostrils, and a white star on his forehead.

“Even when he was standing motionless in his stall with his ears pricked forward and his eyes focused on something slightly above the horizon which mere people never see, energy poured from him,” wrote sportswriter Joe H. Palmer. “He could get in no position which suggested actual repose, and his very stillness was that of the coiled spring, of the crouched tiger.”

 
 

John Hervey, a turf historian, saw Man o’ War as a horse “of heroic proportions with no surplus flesh anywhere.” Watching him in the paddock at Belmont Park, Long Island, before the running of the Withers Mile in 1920, Hervey wrote, “His beautiful head with its long star was held proudly and the long sinewy neck was curved like that of a war horse. The powerful quarters with their great bunches of muscles were the acme of power. …”

Quick, powerful, and fiery as he was, “Big Red,” as he was nicknamed, was nevertheless amenable in the stable. He did have his idiosyncrasies, however. He was a prodigious “doer,” as horsemen say, consuming great quantities of oats and hay. To thwart his tendency to bolt his feed, his groom, Frank Loftus, placed a bit in his mouth at mealtime.

When feeling frisky, Man o’ War would steal up behind his exercise boy, Clyde Gordon, snatch his hat in his teeth, and prance around his stall with it in a game of “keep away.” At times he showed signs of anxiety. When lying down he sometimes bit his hoofs, an equine habit similar to chewing one’s nails. To help quiet him down, a big hunter named Major Treat was placed in a stall next to him, and to ease Big Red’s jitters on race days, Gordon would mount Major Treat and accompany Man o’ War to the paddock and thence to the post. Man o’ War developed such a strong attachment to Major Treat that if he returned to his stall after a workout or a race and found Major Treat gone, he would snort angrily and slam the walls of his stall with his hoofs.