The “mostest Hoss”

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In 1919, when Man o’ War had been cleaning up the two-year-old classics, Sir Barton had become the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. He was a magnificent animal, and it should have been a great race. But as so often happens in carefully arranged match races, one horse or the other fails to come up to the race in top form. Sir Barton wasn’t himself that day, and the track, dry and brick-hard, was not to his liking. Moreover, at the last minute his owner, J. K. L. Ross, of Canada, announced that his regular rider, Earl Sande, was being replaced “without prejudice” by jockey Frank Keough. No reason was given, but it was common knowledge that Ross had never forgiven Sande for saying, after his one ride aboard Man o’ War, that Big Red was the greatest horse he had ever ridden.

Man o’ War, the betting favorite, breezed home in easy fashion. But just as Big Red passed the finish line, Kummer stood up in his irons and his right stirrup leather broke, nearly causing him to fall. Had the leather given way seconds before, he might have been seriously injured or even killed. Back in the paddock, Feustel and Kummer examined the stirrup leather carefully. It had been partly severed by a sharp instrument. Who did it or why was never discovered.

Afterward, when the Jockey Club handicapper indicated that Man o’ War would have to carry even greater weights if he ran as a four-year-old, Riddle decided to retire the champion to stud. On the way south to his stud farm in Kentucky, Riddle displayed his horse to friends at the Rose Tree Hunt, outside Philadelphia. A great crowd showed up to pay tribute to the horse, Jack Dempsey and Bill Tilden among those who had journeyed to see him for the last time. And at the old Kentucky Association track in Lexington, Man o’ War was cantered around for yet another tribute.

Big Red had already given birth to the star system, which has had so much to do with transforming horse racing and breeding from a sport enjoyed by a handful of Whitneys, Wideners, Vanderbilts, and Phippses to the huge industry it is today, wherein a Buckpasser, say, can win more than $1,400,000 on the turf and then be syndicated at stud for nearly $5,000,000. Thoroughbred racing now boasts a yearly attendance of more than 40,000,000 persons at one hundred racetracks in twenty-eight states offering sixty races valued at $100,000 and up. Man o’ War’s earnings total of $249,465 would be considered peanuts today, but it was enough to make him the all-time money winner as of 1920.

During the more than twenty years that Man o’ War was at stud, hundreds of thousands of visitors filed through Riddle’s Faraway Farm to see the legendary chestnut and hear groom Will Harbut’s spiel: “He was folded March 29, 1917, at Major Belmont’s place, right over there. Mr. Riddle bought him for $5,000 at Saratoga as a yearling. … A man come here and offered a million dollars for him, and Mr. Riddles said no, lots of men might have a million dollars, but only one man could have Man o’ War. …” “Yes, sir, we turns him out every day.…”

“No, ma’am, he ain’t no trotter. …”

“Standstill, Red!” Man o’ War died of a heart attack at 12:15 P.M. on November 1, 1947, at the age of thirty. He had sired 386 registered foals, more than half of whom were winners, though none ever matched its father’s accomplishments. His funeral attracted a large crowd and in a tribute to Big Red at his death, The Blood-Horse magazine said :

Some others will remember the day he came back home to Kentucky and, under colors for the last time, was cantered along the sloppy stretch of the old Kentucky Association track, the faint light of winter gleaming on his golden coat.

The horsemen who came from all over the world to see him in his prime at Faraway will remember him vividly—the massive body, the wide sweeps of muscle, the great chest and abnormally wide spacing between his fore legs, the die-cut perfection of his legs and feet, the slight dip of the back deepening with the years, the high head, the imperial air, the feel of power and mastery. They will not look to see another like him.

But the tribute that has lasted for all the years since Man o’ War’s death was uttered by Will Harbut, who died just twenty-nine days before the champion: “He was de mostest hoss.”