The “mostest Hoss”

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A certain amount of resentment and jealousy attended Riddle’s good fortune in acquiring Man o’ War. A man approaching sixty, Riddle had about him the air of the full-time gentleman-sportsman; he could be pompous and blustery on occasion. But there’s a saying in the horse business that the expert is the man who is right once, and Riddle knew a good horse when he saw one. Furthermore, Man o’ War’s best interests always came first with him, and that is why Big Red did not compete in 1920 for what later became institutionalized, through publicity, as the tempting American Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. It was Riddle’s belief that early May was too soon in the year to ask a soft-boned three-year-old to run a mile and one quarter, so he did not enter Man o’ War in the Kentucky Derby, preferring to start with the Preakness at a mile and one eighth later in the month.

After Man o’ War was his, Riddle had him broken at Saratoga before shipping him to his Glen Riddle Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Before many months had passed, Riddle knew that his first impressions of Man o’ War had been right. In the early spring of 1919 Riddle shipped him to Belmont Park to get ready for the juvenile classics. The colt’s speedy workouts were soon the talk of the backstretch.

Unlike most fast-moving thoroughbreds, which run economically close to the ground, their hoofs shaving the turf, as it were, Big Red rolled along with tremendous jack-rabbitlike bounds, his stride measuring nearly ten yards. From a distance he appeared to be floating in slow motion. Only when spectators turned their field glasses on the horses running in the dust behind him was it possible for them to get a true sense of the blinding pace he was setting.

Feustel picked the sixth race on June 6, 1919, for Man o’ War’s debut, a five-furlong test for maiden two-year-olds over a straight course. In the paddock, beneath the wide-spreading chestnuts and oaks, the immemorial pageant repeated itself, owners and trainers leaning down to give last-minute instructions to cocky little men in shimmering silks. With his straw boater, bristling mustache, and florid complexion, Samuel D. Riddle looked every inch the expectant owner; Feustel fitted the role of the confident young trainer; and Johnny Loftus, in Riddle’s black and yellow silks, was very much the bantam rooster.

As the bugler blew “First Call,” Feustel told Loftus not to break the colt at the barrier: “Wait until they get out of your way, Johnny, then let him go after them.” At the start, Loftus let his six opponents break ahead and then gave chase. Before a hundred yards had been covered, Man o’ War was up with the leaders. At the first furlong pole Loftus gave him free rein, and in a few strides the race was all but over. Man o’ War dashed out in front; Loftus, looking for possible contenders and fearing someone might be sneaking up on the rail, turned to his left and to his right. With no horse close by, he began to pull up and was standing straight up in the stirrups at the finish line. Man o’ War had raced the five eighths of a mile in fifty-nine seconds, finishing five lengths ahead of his closest rival. As the Morning Telegraph reported next day, Big Red “made a half-a-dozen high-class youngsters look like $200 horses.” With his first race, Big Red set a pattern that he was to follow, almost without exception, throughout the remaining twenty races of his career. In the two years that he ran, he won twenty of his twenty-one races. His margins of victory ranged from a single length in two victories as a two-year-old to one hundred lengths when he won the Lawrence Realization at Belmont Park in September of 1920, defeating the only other horse in the race, an animal named Hoodwink.

Although today’s two-year-olds rarely carry more than 122 pounds, Man o’ War was handicapped at 130 pounds on six occasions. When three, in the Potomac Handicap at Havre de Grace, Maryland, he carried 138 pounds on a heavy, cuppy track and whipped the ears off a field of thoroughbreds.

As a three-year-old, Man o’ War set North American records for the mile (1:35 4/5); mile and one eighth (1:49 1/5); mile and three eighths (2:14 1/5); mile and onehalf(2:28 4/5); and mile and five eighths (2:40 4/5). All but the record for the mile and three eighths have since been eclipsed, which was to be expected. For one thing, racing surfaces today are considered a good two seconds faster per mile than they were in his day; for another, thoroughbreds now wear aluminum shoes, faster by far than the steel shoes worn by Man o’ War and his contemporaries. The lone record survives because a mile-and-three-eighths race is now infrequently run on a dirt (as opposed to grass) track.

To this day, an air of mystery surrounds Man o’ War’s only loss, in the Sanford Memorial at Saratoga on August 13, 1919. By that time Big Red boasted a string of six easy victories, all under jockey Johnny Loftus.

The morning of the race, Willie Knapp, who was to ride a colt named Upset from the Harry Payne Whitney stable, was sitting with Jim Rowe, Whitney’s trainer, on the steps of Rowe’s cottage. “You know, Mr. Rowe, we got a chance to beat Man o’ War this afternoon,” said Knapp.

As Man o’ War had beaten Upset soundly in their last race, Rowe replied, “Willie, you’re the craziest man I ever heard of.” Man o’ War was in at 130 pounds, along with Golden Broom, owned by Mrs. Walter M. Jeffords, Mrs. Riddle’s niece. Upset was to carry 115 pounds. Donnacona, The Swimmer, Armistice, and Captain Alcock completed the field for the six-furlong sprint.