Benchmark for brilliance

This year racing devotees across the Atlantic will celebrate the life of Man o’ War; a century after his birth no other US-bred has come close to matching his achievements

In and around Lexington this year a series of events is being staged to celebrate the life of the horse regarded by many as Kentucky’s most distinguished equine son.

The marvel that was Man o’ War never raced in the Bluegrass State, but it was there, on March 29, 1917, that he first saw the light of day at August Belmont’s Nursery Stud, and where Samuel Riddle’s Faraway Farm was his home, as fabled stallion, pensioner and noted tourist attraction, until his death on November 1, 1947.

American racing devotees have never actually needed an excuse to remember Man o’ War, but in the year that marks the centenary of his birth and the 70th anniversary of his death it is surely appropriate that the career of such an iconic thoroughbred figure should be granted special attention. The sport needs to celebrate its heroes, and in the history of racing on the other side of the Atlantic there are few who might claim comparable heroic status.

Like many other American champions, before and since, Man o’ War had plenty of English connections in his pedigree. Five generations back in the male line he traced to West Australian, who in 1853 had become the first winner of our Triple Crown.

Three of his four grandparents were products of English studs, one being the 1903 Triple Crown victor Rock Sand, his maternal grandsire. His granddams Fairy Gold and Merry Token were daughters of Epsom Derby winners Bend Or and Merry Hampton respectively.

Man o’ War’s sire Fair Play – Fairy Gold’s son by the reputedly vicious Hastings – was himself a runner in high repute, ranked second-best only to unbeaten Colin among his contemporaries, while his dam Mahubah had raced only three times, winning once in addition to a second and a fourth. Her five products at stud were all by Fair Play, Man o’ War being the second of them.

The big red chesnut colt was not one of the most sought-after offerings in the draft from Nursery Stud at Saratoga in August 1918. But $5,000 was a respectable enough sum, a little over double the average for the whole consignment of 21 head. Ed Buhler made the winning bid on behalf of Sam Riddle, whose trainer Louis Feustel had inspected the youngster and expressed his approval. Riddle himself had felt that Man o’ War had enough bone to make a decent hunter.

So what was it about this colt that made him stand apart from all his contemporaries and gave him iconic status, to the extent that a century later he is still idolised by racefans and horsemen alike? Just about everything, I reckon.

Here was a horse whose reputation preceded him to the track, as odds-on favourite in a field of seven maidens at Belmont Park on June 6, 1919. Having won that by six lengths, he ran only in stakes races – 20 of them – thereafter, never starting at odds-against. Before June was out his record read four wins out of four, collecting the Keene Memorial Stakes at Belmont, the Youthful Stakes at Jamaica and the Hudson Stakes at Aqueduct.

He appeared only once in July, taking the Tremont Stakes at Aqueduct, conceding 15lb to the runner-up. In the first of four August outings at Saratoga he added a two-length triumph in a highly competitive edition of the important United States Hotel Stakes. Set to concede weight to all of his nine rivals, he led throughout and won readily under restraint. A colt named Upset, in receipt of 15lb, was best of the rest.

Man o’ War was six races and under two months into his career, but his performances had all drawn rave notices, and for one writer at the Thoroughbred Record magazine he was already exceptional. While granting that there were probably plenty of good juveniles who had yet to prove their mettle at the track, he was adamant that none would be able to match the colt who could already be pronounced as the champion of his crop.

That was obviously tempting providence, and just a few days later Man o’ War lost his unbeaten record in the Sanford Memorial Stakes. But if the notion of his invincibility had been extinguished, the result amply confirmed his status. After an uncharacteristically slow break, he was always playing catch-up, and though he was gaining ground in the closing stages he wound up a neck short, as old rival Upset made a 15lb concession tell in his favour.

Ten days later Upset challenged Man o’ War again in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes, but now he received only 5lb and was flattered to finish only a length in arrears, the favourite’s rider having been easing his mount down throughout the final furlong. Man o’ War concluded his campaign with two more victories, each accomplished in a canter while conceding weight all round – the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park. Upset finished fifth in both.

It had been an exemplary first season for Man o’ War, as acknowledged leader of his generation, with nine wins and an unlucky second from ten starts. But none of his achievements at two was a factor in determining his greatness and establishing the sky-high reputation that has endured for a century. A precocious sprinter does not earn such reverence.

Man o’ War’s second all-conquering campaign comprised 11 races, and there was something special about almost all his performances. He put a stop to all argument about the title of America’s greatest thoroughbred. He was the wonder of his age, and of all ages.

His season began at Pimlico in the Preakness Stakes, where he led every step of the nine furlongs, trouncing Upset and seven others. Next came the Withers Stakes at Belmont, and although the opposition failed to extend him, he set a new American record for a mile. He had only one rival in the Belmont Stakes, and while leaving him 20 lengths behind he lowered the 11-furlong track record.

He set the benchmark for quality in performance in American racing

Man o’ War was running out of credible opponents, his races were becoming exhibitions. But he remained a great draw. He might have been unbackable, but crowds flocked to witness him in action, turning in his predictable virtuoso performance. At Jamaica his sole opponent in the Stuyvesant Handicap received a 32lb concession, yet Man o’ War went off at 1-100 and trounced his hapless victim by eight lengths.

John P Grier, who had been his runner-up in the previous year’s Futurity Stakes, chanced his luck again in the Dwyer Stakes at Aqueduct, but even getting 18lb he could make no impression. The champion won in an American record time for nine furlongs.

And so it continued. He trotted up in the Miller Stakes at Saratoga, his prep for the prestigious Travers Stakes there a fortnight later, when Upset and John P Grier, both favoured by the weights, formed the opposition. They were readily repelled. After two more bloodless victories over a solitary opponent at Belmont, starting at 1-100 both times, he left New York. At Havre de Grace in Maryland, he faced three rivals, all receiving hefty concessions; usual result and a track record time.

If there was any horse who might give Man o’ War a contest, that was Sir Barton, who had won what we came to know as the Triple Crown in 1919. Several tracks vied for the honour of staging a match between the pair, and Kenilworth Park, in Canada, topped the bidding.

The much-hyped clash took place on October 12, 1920 with the senior individual asked to concede Man o’ War 6lb. On those terms it had to be a mismatch, the champion, sent off at 1-20, ending his career with a seven-length triumph and yet another track record.

Man o’ War surely was a phenomenon. He set the benchmark for quality in performance in American racing, and according to the compilers of Thoroughbred Champions of the 20th Century, the accolade was still his in 1999. And as there has certainly been no pretender to the crown since then, why wouldn’t America celebrate him again in 2017?

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