Man O’ War is considered one of the greatest race horses of all time, and he was unquestionably one of history’s most beloved athletes. Today, he is interred with a wonderful monument at The Kentucky Horse Park outside Lexington.
His racing career was short (only 21 starts) and his overall earnings ($249,565) low by today’s standards, but he was an absolute rock star. A tall chestnut stallion, at 16 hands, 2 inches, he towered over other horses of the time and when he won, he won with style, his flowing red mane riding far ahead of the other horse – winning one race by more than 100 lengths – a nearly impossible task.
He was purchased at auction in 1918 for the premium price of $5,000 by Samuel D. Riddle who raised the horse in Berlin, Maryland. While it took some time to get him into racing shape, patience led to quite a surprise in his debut. In a five-furlough race against other 2-year-olds at Belmont, the fans screamed and pounded the rails as jockey Johnny Luftus tightened the reigns and slowed him to a jog at the stretch. He still won by over six lengths. The New York Morning Telegraph editor wrote that day that he “made a half-dozen high-class youngsters look like $200 horses.”
His only loss occurred at Sanford Stakes in Saratoga, in his sixth start. Starting gates were not in use, and horses were led to a tape barrier and once aligned the starter would pull the starting tape, setting the race in motion. A fill-in starter had difficulty getting the horses ready and the horses milled about. While Man o’ War apparently was backing up, the tape was sprung. Reporters at the time said Man o’ War “was almost left at the post.” By the time he had recovered he was double-digit lengths behind the pack. And even though he found himself hemmed in near the center of the pack, he eventually pulled forward and lost by only a half length.
Unfortunately, Man O’ War never won the Triple Crown Winner (winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in one year) because his owner thought it was too early in the season for a horse so young to run a mile and a quarter.
After his racing career ended, he sired more than 64 stakes champions as well as a number of other champions. In 22 seasons at stud, he sired 379 colts and according to racing historian Ken Hollingsworth, 37% of stakes winner in 1966 were this horse’s descendants. Amazing considering that this was 19 years after his death in 1947.
Perhaps the most touching story is about his death. In 1946, Will Harbut, Man o’ War’s lifelong companion and groom passed away. Man O’ War fell into a deep depression and died only a short time later of an apparent heart attack – a more scientific way of saying he died of a broken heart.