Who Was Man o' War?

Mary McMahon

Man o' War was an American racehorse who is widely regarded as the greatest thoroughbred racehorse of the 20th century, as well as one of the finest sires. In addition to setting numerous track records, the horse also sired an astounding 64 stakes winners, and over 200 assorted champions and broodmares. Many horses on tracks around the world are related in some way to Man o' War, although had his breeding been better managed, his relatives would be much more abundant.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

He was born in 1917 on Nursery Stud Farm, out of the mare Mahubah who had been bred to Fair Play. His bloodline can be directly traced to the Godolphin Arabian, part of the founding stock of the thoroughbred breed. Fair Play was known for being a temperamental, difficult to manage stallion, and Mahubah could be a handful as well; these traits certainly manifested in Man o' War, who was known for being a stubborn horse. His owner and breeder, August Belmont, was deployed overseas to fight in the First World War, and Belmont's wife named the colt “My Man o' War,” after her husband. The “My” was dropped by the time he was a yearling and the Belmont farm was liquidated.

After Man o' War was sold, he was brought to Glen Riddle Farm for training. In his first year of racing, the horse won 9 of the 10 races he was entered in, with Johnny Loftus aboard. The conditions in the single race that Man o' War lost were less than ideal: there was a problem at the starting gate which led to the horse facing backward when the race began. Despite this, he surged ahead, losing to Upset by around half a length. In his second year on the track, the horse won all 11 races he ran in.

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During his racing career, Man o' War won the Hopeful, Futurity, Belmont, and Wither Stakes, among others. He also took the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and was named Horse of the Year in 1920. On the track, the extremely large, muscular horse with the brilliant red coat outshone most of his competition, often loping in for the finish after pulling far ahead of the competition. Many racing fans had high hopes for Man o' War's future racing career, which were dashed by a decision to retire him, out of fears that he would be forced to carry excessive amounts of weight in handicap races as a four year old and beyond.

One of the few famous American races which Man o' War did not run in was the Kentucky Derby. The Derby was not as important in 1920 as it is today, and the horse's owner disliked racing in Kentucky, so he chose not to enter the horse in the field. Later on, Man o' War handily beat the horses of the Derby field in other races, indicating that he probably would have dominated the race, had he been entered.

In addition to siring numerous famous stallions such as Hard Tack (sire of Seabiscuit), War Admiral, Crusader, and Battleship, Man o' War also sired numerous fillies, many of whom went on to become popular broodmares. He died in 1947 at age 30, shortly after his long-time groom passed away. The horse is buried at Kentucky Horse park, where a large statue of him stands watch.

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