By: Ron Hale
80 Years Ago -- March 29, 1917
The calendar said that Spring had arrived in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, but in the dark hours, just before midnight on March 29, 1917, it would have been hard to convince the birthing crew at Major August Belmont's Nursery Stud, about three miles from Lexington. A cold, damp winter fog hung over the barn as the mare Mahubah gave birth to a chestnut colt.Early the next morning, the following entry would be made on page 939 of the Nursery Stud daybook: "Mch 29, 1917--Mahubah foaled ch colt by Fair Play. Star, narrow stripe from right of star down center of nose. Height: 42. Girth: 33."
August Belmont II, from the aristocratic, racing family of Belmonts (Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes, originated at Jerome Park in New York, were named for his father), was in New York at the time. He received a telegram that afternoon: "Mahubah foaled nice chestnut colt."
Belmont, now in his sixties, normally would have been deeply absorbed in the affairs of his beloved Nursery Stud, but he had become heavily involved in the United States efforts in what was then known as the Great World War. Too old to serve in the infantry, he was given the rank of major and put in charge of securing and training horses for service in the military overseas.
As a breeder, Belmont liked to take chances -- to do the unconventional. In the case of the chestnut colt foaled on March 29, 1917, Belmont had bred and raced both his mother, Mahubah, and his father, Fair Play. He knew it would make for some "hot" blood -- Fair Play being by the "crazy" Hastings -- but he felt he could produce a runner.
Never before had Major Belmont sold his yearlings, but in 1918, he planned to be aboard helping with the war effort, so he decided for the first time ever to sell 21 of the Nursery Stud yearlings privately -- saving only six fillies to be used as broodmares. Failing to obtain a single fair price for the whole group, the major decided to sell the 21 yearlings at the Saratoga auction.
Meanwhile, several hundred miles away at Glen Riddle Farms in Glen Riddle, PA, Louis Feustel was training for the owner of the small farm, Samuel D. Riddle. Feustel had grown up and worked in earlier years for August Belmont at Nursery Stud.
At age 85 in 1969, one year before his death, Feustel would recall for Turf & Sport Digest how he pleaded with Riddle to purchase all of the yearlings that Belmont was going to sell. He particularly liked three, including Mahubah's colt. But, on the advice of a neighbor named Mike Daly, who was known to be a consummate judge of horseflesh, Riddle declined.
A month and a half later, on Saturday, August 17, 1918, the 21 Nursery Stud yearlings came up for auction at Saratoga.
Riddle attended the auction and was the successful bidder on two of the three Belmont-consigned colts that Feustel had liked. When Mahubah's colt came up for bid, Riddle declined to bid until he was prodded by his wife. Feustel recalls her saying, "Come on, Sam. Sit down. I'm going to buy this colt for Louie because he likes him best of all."
Riddle got the colt for $5,000. To put this bid in perspective, the average price for all yearlings sold at Saratoga in 1918 was $1,107. Six yearlings that year went for higher than $5,000. The highest-priced yearling of 1918 was $15,600 for a colt called Switch. (His name was later changed to Golden Broom.)
When Riddle got his three horses to his Pennsylvania farm, Feustel began the chore of breaking them.
While Mrs. Belmont had already named the colt in her husband's absence prior to the yearling sale, the son of Mahubah was in his early months of training called simply, "Mahubah's colt," Feustel said. "He was a tough horse to break. A tough horse to saddle."
"You had to tighten his girth a little bit, let him walk around, then tighten it another hold, and let him walk around. You couldn't tighten the girth all right away or he'd jump right up and out of the stall," Feustel recalled.
Feustel's brother used to work around the barn and, because of his red hair, he was often called "Red." Feustel said that everyone around Glen Riddle began calling the chestnut son of Mahubah, "Red," too. As time went on, and the horse grew to be more than sixteen hands, he began to be called, "Big Red."
In the Spring of 1919, the colt was trained and schooled at Havre de Grace and Pimlico, but Feustel brought him along slowly and the horse did not make his debut until mid year.
Feustel remembers being really concerned the day before Mahubah's son made his first start. The chestnut colt, who had been working in great style and had captured the fancy of the clockers, suddenly finished five lengths back of his stablemate, Dina Care, in a morning exercise
(Note: Depending on which sources one uses, Dina -- or Dinna -- Care won the morning exercise by from one-half length to five lengths. History, even told by people who were there, has a way of changing over time.)
The exercise rider said he was just trying to get everyone higher odds the next day so he let Dina Care beat him easily. Feustel was not sure and stayed concerned until the following day.
His concern was unfounded. On June 6, 1919, Mahubah's son finally made it to the racetrack. In a maiden race on Belmont Park's straight course, he ran five furlongs in :59, winning as he pleased, eased up by six lengths. He was odds-on at 3-5.
(Note: This was not the famous Widener Course--a straight course that cut diagonally across the main Belmont course from 1928-1958--but simply a long chute off the stretch, the right side or Clubhouse side of the stretch, because the horses ran clockwise at Belmont in 1919.)
This was the first time Mahubah's colt's name would appear on a racing program. It didn't mean much to racing followers that day, but soon it would.
The name of the chestnut colt by Fair Play-Mahubah by Rock Sand: Man o' War.
Before Big Red was finished racing in October of the following year, he was a legend. The discussion for years among horsemen as to who was the greatest horse of the young century -- Colin or Sysonby -- would never come up again. The answer now, was neither.
The legendary racing historian John Hervey ("Salvator"), writing in the inaugural volume of "American Race Horses" (1936) said that Man o' War's "renown is not confined to his own land. It has circled the globe and there is no doubt that he is the most widely famous horse in the world."
In the sixteen months between June 1919 and October 1920, Man o' War rewrote the record books. His victories included the Keene Memorial Stakes, Youthful Stakes, Hudson Stakes, Tremont Stakes, United States Hotel Stakes, Grand Union Hotel Stakes, Hopeful Stakes, Belmont Futurity, Preakness Stakes, Withers Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Stuyvesant Handicap, Dwyer Stakes, Miller Stakes, Travers Stakes, Lawrence Realization Stakes, Jockey Club (now the Gold Cup) Stakes, Potomac Handicap and Kenilworth Park Gold Cup.
He was odds-on in all 21 of his races -- three times being quoted by bookmakers at 1-100. He won the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths and the Lawrence Realization by 100 lengths. He beat the best horses of his time, including John P. Grier and Triple Crown winner Sir Barton.
Man o' War's time records included:
New World Record, Dwyer Stakes, 1 1/8 miles
New World Record, Belmont Stakes, 1 3/8 miles
New World Record, Lawrence Realization, 1 5/8 miles
New American Record, Jockey Club Stakes, 1 1/2 miles
New American Record, Withers Stakes, 1 mile
New Track Record, Kenilworth Park Gold Cup, 1 1/4 miles
New Track Record, Potomac Handicap, 1 1/16 miles
Equaled Track Record, Travers Stakes, 1 1/4 miles
On nearly a dozen occasions, the interior fractions of his races were completed in times that would have broken American and/or world records.
His records stood the test of time. His 1-1/2 mile American record stood for 17 years.
He didn't just take a tick off time records, he obliterated them. Up against Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, Man o' War took more than SIX full seconds off the track record for 1 1/4 miles at Kenilworth Park.
He won easily over tracks labeled fast, good and sloppy.
He won at distances from five furlongs to 1-5/8 miles.
He won on straight courses and on both clockwise and counter-clockwise courses.
He carried and won with 130 pounds five times as a TWO-year old.
At three, he won with 131 pounds in the Miller Stakes, 135 pounds in the Stuyvesant and 138 pounds in the Potomac.
He gave extreme weight concessions to the competition. In one race, the second high weight carried 32 pounds less.
At three, he consistently gave major weight concessions to, and beat, older horses.
He retired as the greatest money-winning Thoroughbred ever.
Writing in the 1947 volume of "American Race Horses," another legendary racing writer and historian, Joe Palmer, said of Big Red:
"He did not beat, he merely annihilated. He did not run to world records, he galloped to them. He was so far superior to his contemporaries that, except for one race against John P. Grier, they could not extend him. In 1920 he dominated racing as perhaps no athlete -- not Tilden or Jones or Dempsey or Louis or Nurmi or Thorpe or any human athlete -- had dominated his sport."
In 23 years at stud, Man o' War produced 64 stakes winners, including Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year War Admiral. The fillies he sired became outstanding broodmares who foaled 124 stakes winners.
At the time of the chestnut colt's retirement from the track, Riddle was offered $1 million for him. He turned it down. It would be more than 35 years before any Thoroughbred would be sold for that amount.
From 1921 until three months before his death in 1947, Man o' War would be visited in Lexington, KY, first at Riddle's Hinata Farm and then at his nearby Faraway Farms, by estimates that ranged from a low of 1.5 million to more than 3 million people. These were people who came from all over the world to this small town in the middle of nowhere and traveled the tiny country road -- Russell Cave Pike -- to reach the farm. All for a glimpse of a legend.
Following Man o' War's death at age 30 on November 1, 1947, Joe Palmer wrote, "The old days now at last were dead, the last link snapped. The American Turf had lost, and perhaps would never have again, a single living symbol, a breathing, high-headed, fiery horse which meant, 'Racing!' to every man of racing, and to every wandering tourist from Portland, or San Diego or Athens, Ga."
Palmer added, "For Man o' War was, if not more than a horse, then more than a horse had ever been before." To which I would add, "or after."
In memory of the greatest Thoroughbred of the 20th Century --and the millennium -- on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of his birth.
© 1997, Ron Hale