“At the lonely hour of two on Thursday morning, April 26th, 1916, a beautiful chestnut colt was born to Lady Sterling…”
So begins writer Margaret Phipps Leonard’s obituary for America’s first Triple Crown winner in a 1938 issue of The Horse, a lovely tribute to the horse that brings us all here today.
He was foal #187-16, 187 his dam Lady Sterling’s number at John E. Madden’s Hamburg Place and 16 for the year of his birth. His coat was a shiny chestnut, like his sire and dam, and his face had a wide blaze of white that went to the right over his nose as it cascaded down his beautiful head. He almost had another name, but, like his half-brother Sir Martin, ended up with a moniker a bit more apropos for a horse with the great English sire Sterling and the English Triple Crown winner Isinglass in his pedigree.
He stood out from day one, labeled “the king of them all” by colt breaker Frank Brosche, who saw all of the young horses that came through Hamburg Place. At 15.2 1/2 hands, he might not have overwhelmed his competition with his size, but, when he got going, he could run the best of them into the ground — with one notable exception.
His record of 13-6-5 in 31 starts includes a number of stellar performances, like his wire-to-wire win in the 1919 Kentucky Derby and his stakes and track record time in winning the 1920 Saratoga Handicap. In winning the Triple Crown before it was the Triple Crown, he set the stage for what has evolved into the pinnacle of achievement in American thoroughbred racing. In the nearly one hundred years since he crossed the finish line at Belmont, only eleven others have done it, demonstrating how big of a challenge navigating those three races can be. So great and so influential was Sir Barton that he was one of the first horses inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1957.
Aside from his stats and accomplishments, Sir Barton was also a horse, flesh and blood with a personality, same as the horses that we see on our television and computer screens. John Veitch said of Alydar that his charge was “all horse,” one that didn’t tolerate hugs and possessed that something special, the drive that it took to stand up in the face of a challenge. Sir Barton possessed the same, a smart horse who was less pet and more competitor. As Phipps’s article relates, he “was not vicious, but played roughly.” Trainer H.G. Bedwell’s habit of playfully slapping him on the muzzle whenever Sir Barton had his head out of his stall led to a habit of grabbing someone whenever he or she came near; no wonder JKM Ross described the colt as he did in Boots and Saddles. I imagine that a teenager might see that sort of behavior from a horse as irascible and ‘downright evil.’ Being cooped up in a stall for the better part of the day seemed to inspire an abundance of attitude from Sir Barton.
He was also a smart horse. B.B. Jones of Audley Farm told the story of Sir Barton kicking one of his grooms and then immediately jumping over and looking at the man in apparent apology. He didn’t give his groom any more trouble after that. He also caught Jones’s little finger in his teeth more than once, but turned it loose when Jones told him to do so. Sir Barton was ‘all horse’: smart and fast with the look of eagles and a desire to run — on his terms.
Last year, I wrote a blog post (or two) in celebration of the 100th birthday of Sir Barton, the namesake of this particular website and the project I’ve spent most of the last four years writing. I live daily with Sir Barton and his connections; I’ve likely done more research on that horse, his owners, his trainer, his breeder, and others than anyone else ever has. Wherever Sir Barton went in his life, I follow in whatever way I can given the time elapsed between us. Inevitably, though, our journey intertwines with another chestnut colt, so ubiquitous in reputation that even people who may not know a thing about thoroughbred racing have heard of this horse.
As an Alabama native, I’ve had the concept of rivalries and their import burned into my brain since infancy. Alabama v. Auburn. Purple v. Gold. Federer v. Nadal. Yankees v. Red Sox. For me, as I sit here day in and day out, living and breathing the past, the rivalry between Sir Barton and Man O’War stands paramount.
We like to create rivalries if they don’t emerge naturally; they capture our imagination as we see the struggle and we identify with one or the other. We root for the one we see ourselves in and our highs and lows ebb and flow with their successes and losses. In 1920, Man O’War had bested every horse that crossed his path; even Upset, the one horse that had beaten him, had seen the back of him more than once. With no three-year-old in his class, turf writers and fans looked to the older horses to find a horse that might be able to play spoiler to Big Red.
Two names came to mind: Exterminator and Sir Barton. While Sir Barton, though, was the primary one. His performances in August, including his track record in the 1 1/4-mile Saratoga Handicap, made him the primary candidate for the job. Whether his connections liked it or not, the clamor for the two to meet became daily fodder for turf writers. Long before social media, the daily newspapers and the machinations of promoters like Colonel Matt Winn made a match race not only desirable, but a virtual inevitability.
The only problem? The competition wasn’t quite ready to be competitive. While Man O’War blazed through his three-year-old year with minor qualms about soundness, Sir Barton ran his entire career teetering on the verge of long-term lameness. When the match race was run, Sir Barton blew by Man O’War for a furlong or so, but the twenty-eight-foot stride soon eclipsed whatever lead the Triple Crown winner had. Sir Barton straggled along as best he could, but, as Hollie Hughes confirmed, the Triple Crown winner was not at 100% after his eight starts in 1920, including three in the month of August. With only a few strides, Man O’War collapsed the rivalry into his clear supremacy over Sir Barton and his career of firsts, including the first Triple Crown, an honor which Man O’War himself doesn’t have.
With the victory, Man O’War took his place as THE icon of American racing. Not until Secretariat came along did anyone ever come close to the fame that followed Big Red wherever he went. In 1920, he and Babe Ruth were chosen as outstanding athletes of the year. He was retired to stud when handicapper Walter Vosburgh told owner Samuel Riddle that he would assign Man O’War the highest weight he had ever given any horse, 150 pounds. Riddle promptly retired his champion, who had won 20 of 21 starts and, in the process, became the measuring stick by which every horse to come after him was compared — until another Big Red came along in the early 1970s.
The colt stood at Riddle’s Faraway Farm until his death in 1947. His remains were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in the 1970s along with a bronze statue emblazoned with only “Man O’War,” no other text needed. When Big Red died, over 2,000 people attended his funeral, which was also broadcast nationwide on NBC Radio. Buglers from the Man O’War Post of the American Legion, clad in the Riddle silks, played “Taps” and racetracks across the country observed a moment of silence as the world said goodbye to the greatest racehorse anyone had ever seen.
For all that Sir Barton accomplished in his career, his loss to Man O’War and their coinciding careers meant that Big Red came to eclipse his rival despite the first Triple Crown winner’s historic achievement. Sir Barton’s racing career was more mixed and not nearly as dominant as Man O’War’s. His success at stud was more muted; he did produce a number of stakes winners of his own, including Easter Stockings, who won the 1928 Kentucky Oaks. His time out west as part of the Remount Service means that his bloodlines may live on in horses of other breeds who would be descended from the cavalry horses that the Remount needed to produce.
For all that Sir Barton did on the track, Man O’War’s shadow looms larger than life and the evidence of that is everywhere, in print, in bloodlines, and in the long memory of thoroughbred racing history.
His racing record and running style might have nabbed him the moniker of Greatest Of All Time (GOAT), but his record at stud cemented it for all time. His descedents include a Triple Crown winner (War Admiral — 1937), Kentucky Derby winners, one Grand National winner (Battleship), and more. As the generations stretched on, his influence grew. Man O’War shows up in the pedigrees of horses like Seabiscuit, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alysheba, Zenyatta, American Pharoah, and more. Man O’War’s influence comes from both his sire and broodmare lines and most, if not all, of the current horses on the Triple Crown trail have Man O’War in their pedigree somewhere.
Today, visitors can visit Man O’War along with some of his progeny, like War Admiral, at the end of a walkway which compares his stride to other champions, like Secretariat. He was part of the first class inducted into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in 1957; Sir Barton was also part of that inaugural class, despite the turn into obscurity his career had taken once he left racing.
In addition to his place in the Hall of Fame, Man O’War was voted the best horse of the 20th century by both The Blood-Horse magazine, Sports Illustrated, and the Associated Press. His life has been the subject of several books, including Man O’War: A Legend Like Lightning by Dorothy Ours, an excellent and extensive biography of America’s greatest race horse. Both the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Horse Park will hold sizeable celebrations in honor of Big Red’s 100th birthday, fitting tributes to the horse that captured the country’s imagination nearly 100 years ago and hasn’t left our cultural consciousness since.
In these days leading up to Man O’War’s birthday, I’ve encountered a number of people who are excited about these celebrations. For them, Man O’War is their horse; he might have the one that piqued their interest initially and prompted the love for individual horses that we all have. I understand their ardor because I have the same for Sir Barton, but the rivalry still lives on in me. For every accolade accorded Man O’War on his 100th, I wish for the same for Sir Barton at 101. I can’t think of one without the other; Man O’War likely would have still been the greatest ever if he had never met Sir Barton, but their confrontation contributed something to his sparkle. Their one meeting certainly was enough to dull the shine on the first Triple Crown winner’s reputation over time, one of my greatest motivations for shining a light on Sir Barton again with this blog and First.
In order for a horse to remain in thoroughbred racing consciousness beyond his time on the track, he must capture the racing world in a way that leaves an indelible mark on all who saw him. Short of our Triple Crown winners, few horses remain on our collective radars once they hit the breeding shed. In a sport where the next star rises as soon as the last one exits, for Man O’War to remain such an icon speaks to his excellence on the track and off. Only a truly great horse can survive the test of time and Riddle’s Red shows no signs of ever losing his place as the GOAT of thoroughbred racing.
Happy Birthday, Man O’War, from a grudging admirer!