Today in 1947, Man O’ War died at Faraway Farms near Lexington, Kentucky. Arguably the greatest thoroughbred racehorse of all time, he won 20 of 21 races and nearly a quarter million dollars in purses at a time when the average worker in the United States made about $600 per year. Man O’ War’s larger-than-life feats remain an important part of the lore of horse racing even sixty years after his death.
Man O’ War was owned and bred by August Belmont, Jr., whose father gave his name to the Belmont Stakes held each June in Elmont, New York. The junior Belmont joined the US Army in 1917 with the hope of serving in France during the First World War. He was 65 at the time. A new foal came into the world while Belmont was overseas, so his wife gave him the name “Man O’ War” in honor of her husband. After the war, the Belmonts sold their racing stable, and Man O’ War was sold for $5000 to Samuel Riddle.
The stallion made his racing debut in June, 1919, at Belmont Park, where he won the race by six lengths. The starting gates seen today at racetracks did not exist in the early 20th century; instead, horses were walked in a circle and then stretched out across the track in at least a theoretical straight line. A thin piece of webbing defined the starting line and when it was raised, the race was on. This method of starting a race led to Man O’ War’s only defeat, which happened at the Sanford Memorial Stakes. According to witnesses, the horse was still circling when the webbing was raised, giving the other horses an almost unbeatable advantage. Nonetheless, Man O’ War lost by only half a length. Had the race been even a sixteenth of a mile longer, we would have won. And so, at two years of age, Man O’ War had won nine of the ten races he had run.
A three year old in 1920, Man O’ War was expected to run in the Kentucky Derby, a race held yearly for thoroughbreds of that age. However, his owner did not like racing in Kentucky, so he skipped the event and moved on to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Maryland. Man O’ War won handily there and at the subsequent Belmont Stakes in New York, where he set a new track record. The Kentucky Derby, Preakenss and Belmont Stakes make up the Triple Crown of racing; had Man O’ War run in the Kentucky Derby in 1920, he most certainly would have added a Triple Crown victory to his already impressive list of accomplishments.
Man O’ War finished his career as he had begun it, in the winner’s circle. His final competition was a match race against Sir Barton, the 1919 Triple Crown winner. Man O’ War won by seven lengths. No one was surprised. He was shipped to Faraway Farm in Lexington, Kentucky to live out the rest of his years as a stud. During his two year career, Man O’ War set three world records, two American records and three track records.
Man O’ War’s life as a sire brought success as well. He fathered War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner. One of his offspring, Hard Tack, sired Seabiscuit, the too-small horse with the heart of a champion who beat War Admiral in a match race in November, 1938. Many of the great horses of the second half of the 20th century traced their lineage to this magnificant creature.