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The “mostest Hoss”
Concerning the long life, fast times, and astonishing fecundity of Man o’ War
April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
At 8:30 Man o’ War was exercised. He jogged half a mile and galloped a mile and a half three days a week. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday he was given fast workouts on the track. After that, he was walked until he had cooled off and then was bathed with a mixture of alcohol, arnica, and witch hazel to keep his muscles from getting stiff. Afterward, the bandages that he always wore except when racing were changed, and his hoofs were washed again.
Man o’ War had lunch at 11130. He took a final half-hour walk at 4, and at 5:15 his final meal of the day. He ordinarily ate twelve quarts of oats (twelve and a half on racing days)—or three quarts a day more than the average racehorse consumes when in training.
Of an evening Feustel, his stable foreman, George Conway, and the inevitable hangers-on would set up a table in front of Big Red’s stall and play cards. When they departed, Frank Loftus or Conway or some stable-hand slept on a cot in an adjoining stall, for warnings were forever reaching Riddle that “something is going to happen” to Man o’ War, and “look out for it.” As it turned out, these rumors were not without foundation.
But for all the care that Feustel lavished on Man o’ War, Riddle apparently wasn’t satisfied. He hired a private detective to watch Feustel.
Toward the end of Man o’ War’s three-year-old year, few owners were willing to send their horses out to eat his dust. On four occasions only one other horse could be found to face him at the post; on three occasions he went off at odds of 1 to 100 (even so, one professional gambler reportedly bet $100,000 on him for a return of $1,000). The charts of Man o’ War’s races in the Daily Racing Form of fifty years ago invariably read: “won easily,” “won cantering,” or “won eased up.” Nevertheless, Feustel’s archrival, Jim Rowe, was determined to defeat the champion again, this time with John P. Grier.
The crowd at Aqueduct Racetrack, Long Island, on July 10, 1920, numbered 25,000, the largest then in its history. They had come to see the Dwyer Stakes, in which only two horses were entered: John P. Grier and Man o’ War. The race was at a mile and one eighth, and Rowe had been carefully honing Grier for the test. At a mile, there were few faster horses in the country.
The Dwyer was, in effect, a match race. Before the race, Rowe went out on a long limb. “We’ll see if Man o’ War can beat a horse that can stay with him all the way,” he told reporters. “I think he’s ready to be taken, and Grier is the horse that can do it.” One tactless newspaperman noted that Man o’ War had had little trouble beating John P. Grier as a two-year-old. “That was last year,” said Rowe. “This is a different year, and an improved horse.”
Man o’ War had been campaigning hard and steadily, following up the Preakness with victories in the Withers and Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park and the Stuyvesant at Jamaica. Some people wondered whether Big Red might not have lost his edge. In addition, Grier was in at 108 pounds against 126 for Man o’ War. Eddie Ambrose, one of the nation’s hottest jockeys, would wear Whitney’s blue silks and brown cap.
All of this produced an unsettling atmosphere in the Riddle barn. Big Red’s handlers developed a case of the whammies. “Mano’ War isn’t screwed up as tight as he might be,” Feustel told Riddle. And in the paddock before the race, Riddle cautioned jockey Clarence Kummer: “Lay along with Grier all the way, and if you find you can win, don’t try to ride him out, but win by a length or two. I don’t want more made of Red than is necessary.” At the starting post in the back shoot, Man o’ War was on the rail, compact little Grier on the outside. A great roar came from the crowd as the race got under way. Many in the grandstand thought at first that Grier had been left at the post, for they could not see him, running, as he was, stride for stride on the far side of Big Red.
The two horses hit the half-mile mark in 46 seconds flat, a track record; the five-furlong marker in 57 2/5 seconds, a track record; the three-quarter pole in 1:09 3/5, a track record; the mile in 1:36 flat, a track record. No horse had ever been able to stay with Man o’ War in this fashion, and’it became obvious that one of them had to crack, and crack soon.
Kummer went to the whip, and Man o’ War regained the lead by a hair. Down to the wire they came, and then it happened: seventy yards short of the finish, Grier wilted. Ambrose smacked him once more with the whip, but when the little colt failed to respond, he eased up.
The Dwyer was the high-water mark of Man o’ War’s career. Never again would he be tested in this manner. Steam poured off his trembling body as he was walked back to the stables and sloshed with water. After Big Red had dried out, Frank Loftus tossed a black and yellow cooler blanket over him and walked him around the shed row for half an hour, occasionally feeding him a piece of sugar. Then he turned the horse loose in his stall of fresh, sweet-smelling rye straw. Man o’ War lay right down and slept for hours.
The last race of Man o’ War’s career was an unfortunate anticlimax, marked by evidence of attempted foul play. This was the match race at Kenilworth Park, Windsor, Ontario, on October 12, 1920, against Sir Barton, the four-year-old champion, at a mile and one quarter for a purse of $75,000 and a $5,000 gold cup.