Winner’s Name Tells the Story : Horse racing: Man o’ War suffered his only defeat 75 years ago today.
A promising 2-year-old thoroughbred, winner of the first six starts of his career, loses a race at Saratoga by a half-length.
It was a surprise, but no shock. The colt was poorly ridden. And counting on consistency from 2-year-olds is always a risky proposition.
Upset’s defeat of Man o’ War in the Sanford Stakes 75 years ago today became a landmark in racing history only after the fact--after Man o’ War took on near-mythical proportions as a 3-year-old.
And there was not a word spoken after that race, either, of Saratoga as a “graveyard of favorites,” even though Upset’s victory came later to symbolize how the betting favorites here seemed to lose so often.
“The 1919 Sanford has become an event retroactively,” said Tom Gilcoyne, librarian at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs. “Man o’ War was such a great horse afterward that everyone wanted him undefeated. Some of it was cold-blooded revisionist thinking. If Man o’ War had lost another race or two, that Sanford wouldn’t have been as important.”
Man o’ War nearly wasn’t allowed to run on ovals at all. The stable of his owner, Samuel D. Riddle, specialized in steeplechasers and for a time the handlers of the original Big Red considered making him a jumper.
His extraordinary talent convinced them otherwise.
At Saratoga in August of 1919, Man o’ War’s promise was obvious, but unfulfilled. He shared the spotlight that August with other stars, including Sun Briar, Hannibal and Upset. Big Red went off as an 11-20 favorite in the Sanford.
“He was a big strong bull of a horse,” said John H. Clark, a thoroughbred agent in Lexington, Ky. “He went where he wanted to go. He was piddling around that day, and his jockey was overconfident and put him on the post at the starting line.”
Man o’ War was nearly last off the line. Later, he twice was hemmed in by slower horses. Finally running free down the stretch, Man o’ War was gaining with every stride against Upset when he ran out of track and lost by a half-length.
“Seldom has a defeated horse become such a hero as has Man o’ War,” the New York Times observed a week later. “Having all the worst of the racing luck, and being in a pocket twice after getting away from the post almost last, he was coming so fast at the end he would have won in another stride or two.”
Man o’ War’s jockey, Hall of Famer Johnny Loftus, took the blame for the defeat.
Man o’ War got revenge 10 days later in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes at Saratoga. Bettors again installed him as an 11-20 favorite. Upset went off at 6-1.
The race was never close. Man o’ War passed Ever Gay in the first furlong and stayed in front. Loftus outran the early traffic and, rounding the final turn in the clear, he made sure Man o’ War was tight to the rail down the homestretch.
“With a gigantic stride he loped away from his rivals, and when there was no possible chance of losing, Loftus eased him up,” wrote Ed Curley of the Knickerbocker Press.
At the finish line, Loftus, looking back nonchalantly, had slowed Man o’ War to a walk. That allowed Upset to narrow the gap to two lengths at the finish line. Man o’ War’s winning time was 1:12 for six furlongs--slower than he had run in the Sanford.
And Man o’ War won easily despite carrying 132 pounds to 125 for Upset and 115 for the rest of the field.
Riddle, who said he had turned down an offer of close to $100,000 for a colt he paid $5,000 for in 1918, sensed the place Man o’ War was to hold in racing history.
“He is a great race horse, probably one of the greatest we have seen in a decade,” Riddle said after the Grand Union Hotel Stakes. “I look for great things for him as a 3-year-old. He will always remain my property. I feel that a great horse like this is in a way public property.”
Man o’ War’s incredible exploits as a 3-year-old are what he is best remembered for.
Virtually no one would race against him nor bet against him. He was unbeatable, and everybody knew it.
He carried as much as 135 pounds in handicap events, routinely giving up 10 or even 20 pounds, but still no one would race against him. Eight horses lost to Man o’ War in his 1920 debut, the Preakness. In the last 10 races of his career, he ran against only 15 other horses. Six times, there was only one opponent.
“He ran out of competition,” Clark said.
Three times that year he was a 1-20 or 1-25 favorite. Four times he went off at 1-100.
He won both the Preakness and the Belmont in 1920, but Riddle skipped the Kentucky Derby that year. An often contrary person, Riddle knew he had the best horse in the country and figured he did not need the Derby to prove it, Clark said.
In October of 1920 at Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario, a race was arranged with Sir Barton, a brilliant 4-year-old who had become the first Triple Crown winner in 1919. Man o’ War, a 1-20 favorite, shattered the track record for 1 1/4 miles by six seconds and won by seven lengths in what would be his last race.
Riddle retired the colt to stud in Kentucky in 1920. Although Riddle often lined up unpromising mates for him to breed, Man o’ War still managed to sire a Triple Crown winner, War Admiral, in 1937.
Man o’ War died at 30 in 1947 in Lexington. About 2,000 attended his funeral, which was broadcast nationwide on radio.
Riddle once was offered $1 million for Man o’ War by a Texas oil man. He declined.
“Many people have a million dollars,” Riddle said. “But only I own Man o’ War.”