The “mostest Hoss”

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Even with Major Treat in attendance, Man o’ War radiated tension in the saddling enclosure before a race, buck-jumping until his trainer, Louis Feustel, gave his girth a final tightening. The hum of the grandstand and the music of the band had a tonic effect upon Big Red as he headed postward with Major Treat alongside. But near the post, after Major Treat had slipped away, the great horse lunged and reared in his anxiety to run, sometimes breaking through the webbing barrier time and time again until it was sprung by the starter.

 

Once a race was under way, Man o’ War never proved a serious problem for jockey Johnny Loftus (no relation to groom Frank Loftus), who rode him in all ten of his two-year-old races, or for Clarence Kummer, his rider in all but two of his races at three. Earl Sande, who rode Big Red only once, was amazed at the way he ran. “I never felt anything under me like that colt in my life,” gasped Sande in the winner’s circle after the Miller Stakes at Saratoga in the summer of 1920. “Why, he is a regular machine! He strides farther than anything I ever rode and does it so handily you wouldn’t think he was running at all! He is the ereatest horse I have ever ridden.”

 

Man o’ War was foaled on March 29, 1917, at the Nursery Stud of August Belmont II in the Bluegrass Country outside Lexington, Kentucky. Belmont had inherited his passion for racing and breeding from his father, a millionaire financier for whom Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes were named.

August Belmont II served on New York State’s first racing commission and helped found the Jockey Club, racing’s governing body, which he ruled firmly for twenty-nine years, until his death in 1924. John E. Madden, one of this country’s most successful breeders of thoroughbreds, considered Belmont the most astute student of bloodlines he had ever known. It was Madden who said that the secret of producing racehorses is to “breed the best to the best—and hope for the best.”

Madden’s formula is as good as any, and it is how Belmont produced his equine masterpiece, combining as he did the bloodlines of Man o’ War’s sire, Fair Play, and his dam, who had been sired by the great English stallion Rock Sand, winner in 1903 of the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, and the St. Leger—Great Britain’s Triple Crown.

On the male side of his pedigree, Man o’ War was fifteen generations removed from the Godolphin Arabian (born circa 1724), one of the three Arab and Barb stallions that the British consider the founders of the thoroughbred line. On his dam’s side, Man o’ War traced back to the Layton Barb mare, one of the forty-odd foundation mares of the thoroughbred line.

Fair Play was a first-class animal capable of carrying high weight over a distance, but he was hampered by a fractious temperament inherited from his sire, Hastings. During a race, Hastings would try to slam into other horses and savage them with his teeth as he raced by. He was no less vicious with humans, and he went to his death unreconstructed and unloved, having left his mark literally and figuratively on many a stablehand.

Man o’ War’s dam, Mahubah, on the other hand, was a big, rangy mare with a sweet disposition that she inherited from her father, Rock Sand, whom Belmont imported in 1908 for the then-record price of $125,000.

Mr. Belmont, then, got what he hoped for from the Fair Play-Rock Sand “cross”: a big, powerful animal capable of running a distance under heavy weight with the speed of a sprinter; a colt with the fire of Fair Play and Hastings, tempered by the intelligence and gentleness of Mahubah and Rock Sand. A dream horse.

 

The United States entered the First World War one week after Big Red was foaled, and Belmont, though sixty-five years old, volunteered. He was commissioned a major and sent to France, where one of his duties was the procurement of mules for the Army. Thus preoccupied, Belmont decided to sell his entire 1917 yearling crop with the exception of Big Red, whom his wife had originally named My Man o’ War in his honor, later dropping the “My.” At the last minute, however, Belmont changed his mind and cabled instructions to include Man o’ War in the consignment to the Saratoga Yearling Sales.

The twenty-one Belmont yearlings were to go under the hammer on August 17, 1918. A few days before the sale Sam Riddle went from stall to stall, looking them over carefully. In the last stall he saw a big chestnut colt that caught his eye, and he asked the groom to lead him outside where he could get a better look at him. It was Man o’ War. Riddle later recalled: “[As] soon as I saw him in the daylight he simply bowled me over. … I couldn’t think of anything but that colt after that. …”

In 1918 Riddle was a newcomer to big-time racing, having campaigned only a few middling horses. He had acquired trainer Louis Feustel from Belmont’s entourage and had come to Saratoga with his checkbook to build the nucleus of a racing stable. He wound up buying eleven yearlings for a total of $25,000.