This year, I got to learn about and then chronicle twelve horses from a variety of eras that embody the best that racing has to offer: fillies that fly, horses of tremendous heart, and stories that give us new perspectives on historic moments. Click on the caption to visit each and find more great pieces at Past the Wire.
Thank you to Jon and Nick for the chance to work on these pieces.
By early November, 1919 had become a year of mixed blessings for jockey Johnny Loftus. He had been aboard Man o’ War for all of his victories — and his lone defeat. Loftus had ridden winners for a number of racing’s top stables and trainers, everyone from Sam Hildreth to H.G. Bedwell. He had won a Kentucky Derby on Sir Barton but also lost the Dwyer Stakes to Purchase, who Loftus also had ridden to victory that year. Loftus had been set down for rough riding, yet he also had served as trainer Louis Feustel’s go-to rider for a fractious and challenging Man o’ War. With the year winding down, Loftus was looking forward to 1920, possibly his final year in the saddle. Years of fighting his weight left the jockey ready to consider what’s next. In the meantime, he was ready to finish out 1919 on a high note.
The Autumn Handicap on November 5th would prove to be anything but.
Gnome was a horse on a hot streak. Coming off a win in the Champlain Handicap, the chestnut colt counted the great Exterminator amongst those he had beaten at Saratoga that August. Now, still the beneficiary of a break in weights, Gnome faced the barrier alongside Sir Barton.
Sir Barton had started August with a track record in the Saratoga Handicap at a mile and a quarter. He had then run that distance again at Fort Erie, winning easily, but now he was back at Saratoga for this race, the Merchants and Citizens Handicap. Again laden with 133 pounds, Commander Ross’s champion horse stood at the barrier, Gnome to his left and Jack Stuart to his right. Ahead lay a mile and three-sixteenths. One more race, another step closer to a potential meeting with the juggernaut that was Man o’ War.
Ninety-nine years ago, Sir Barton and Gnome met on the Saratoga oval for a record-setting performance, a finish so close that only the judges could determine the winner. Luckily photographer Charles Cook snapped the combatants as they battled to the wire.
A world record, a close finish, and a die cast for a match race. Read more about Sir Barton’s turn in the Merchants and Citizens Handicap in Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown (Chapter 13).
After Book Tour Part I took me around the Commonwealth, I had a blissful week at home recovering before I headed back to Kentucky for the tremendous honor of participating in the Keeneland Library Lecture Series and then buzzing over to Baltimore for Preakness weekend, where I had a signing on Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico and then got to yell “Riders Up!” for the Sir Barton Stakes on Preakness Day. It was a whirlwind week of traveling, one that I will definitely never forget.
When I started researching Sir Barton’s career, I knew I had to start with the individual races themselves before I worked to connect the dots between them. The best place to find all of the details of his starts was the Daily Racing Form, the source of form charts and articles about the previous day’s races and other news going back to 1894. The only problem? The Keeneland Library is five hours away! Yikes! How was I going to do this research? Cue the Daily Racing Form archive.
One of the perils of writing is the inevitable cuts that one has to make in order to meet a word count. Commander Ross’s purchase of the filly Constancy is one of those interesting moments that occurred during Sir Barton’s career, but, since Sir Barton himself is not part of this story, this tidbit had to go. However, I wanted to share this with you here on the blog as Constancy became one of the first mares Sir Barton covered when he retired to stud duty at Audley Farm in Virginia.
One of the features of Saratoga’s August meet was the showcasing of juvenile talent; Man o’ War was the flashiest and most dominant of the juveniles, but other stables had their own hopefuls on display as well. Ross’s juveniles included colts King Thrush, Trench Mortar, Irish Dancer, and Royal Jester as well as fillies His Choice and Bryngar. King Thrush was the first of the Ross juveniles to run at Saratoga, finishing third in the Flash Stakes on August 1st and then faced Man o’ War in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes, finishing fourth behind the big red colt. With the exception of Bryngar and His Choice, none of Ross’s other two-year-olds ran at Saratoga, leaving the stable light on horses to challenge the big red colt – until Ross made a deal with Arthur B. Hancock that brought the filly Constancy into the fold.
The 20th century had two Big Reds: Man o’ War and Secretariat, both horses so dominant that they topped the list of the century’s greatest horses at numbers one and two. Both red chestnuts captured the hearts and imaginations of the people who watched them. Both inspired writers and verse to encapsulate their equine greatness, with multiple books devoted to their stories. These Big Reds stood at the top, their brilliant performances their legacy to the sport of horse racing. Behind those thrilling moments, though, lie their catalysts, the horses who might have finished second but drove those Big Reds to bigger and better. Among those were horses like Sir Barton and Sham.
Abram Michael (A.M. or Abe) Orpen started his working life as an apprentice to a carpenter, a career path his mother set him on, but a near-death experience prompted the young Orpen to set his sights on a different path. He walked away from carpentry and into entrepreneurship, starting his own brickworks and lumber business, and then buying the Alhambra Hotel, a popular gambling saloon, in Toronto. There, he learned how bookmakers worked and, through hard work and innovation, he survived the transition from bookmakers to pari-mutuel betting, understanding that the money to be made now came from owning the tracks. He used the knowledge gained in running the Alhambra into his ownership of first Dufferin Park in Toronto and then Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario.
By September 1920, Man o’ War had no competition left. He had faced all of the best three-year-olds in races like the Preakness, the Dwyer, and the Travers Stakes, and beaten them all. In the process, he had demonstrated overwhelming superiority, winning by many lengths and setting records nearly every time he went to the barrier. Of course, he had not run against older horses — yet.
What if? Fans asked. What could he do against his elders? Speculation abounded about which of the older horses racing could possibly be Man o’ War’s better.
Over the last century, Man o’ War has dominated the lists of the best horses of the 20th century, claiming the imaginations and hearts of racing fans everywhere. His burnished red coat and distinctive blaze are well known to even the most casual of fan alongside tales of his titanic speed and overpowering wins. As a fan of Walter Farley, I read his novel about Man o’ War; falling in love with racing meant that I had heard those same stories of his dominance familiar to anyone who loves thoroughbreds. When I started working on Sir Barton’s story, I knew I would have to delve deeper into the careers of both my horse and his big red rival. One of the first books I picked up to research the match race and all that lead up to it was Dorothy Ours’s Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning. What I found in Ours’s book was more than a recounting of Man o’ War’s exploits: it was an exploration of the rich context that both created and benefitted from the champion that set the standard for every horse that followed in his wake.
From the first, this book sets up the stories of the people behind the moments that made Man o’ War. She opens with glimpses at Johnny Loftus, H.G. Bedwell, August Belmont, Louis Feustel, and Samuel Riddle, introducing you to these major players with context that helps you understand how small decisions play into big moments. Johnny Loftus’s honesty, steadfast in the face of unsavory influences, is part of his fame and fortune, but also contributes to his downfall. Ours’s anecdote from the first chapter pays off later in the book, when you see just how much it matters that Loftus was honest almost to a fault. Man o’ War’s story is not just the speed records and overwhelming dominance that he displayed under rider. It is also in these behind-the-scenes glimpses into the people who decided when and where he would run.
In the 1920 Lawrence Realization, Man o’ War set a world record for a mile and five-eighths, besting the old record by nearly two seconds. Owner Samuel Riddle had originally ordered that the colt would run freely only during that last quarter mile, but his wife Elizabeth persuaded her husband to let Man o’ War run as he wished throughout the entire thirteen furlongs so that the crowd could see what the colt truly could do. While Samuel Riddle might have been the face that people saw, his wife’s influence, brought to the fore by Ours’s storytelling, was as much of a force behind this great red racer as her husband.
Anecdotes and details like these are what makes Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning an essential read for any racing fan, whether you are new to the game or have loved racing for years. We all know the legend, but Ours gives you more than that. She gives you the rest, the moments and memories that made Man o’ War and his time so essential to the history of this sport. The richness she adds to his story is why I wanted to make this book the first one I would profile in my countdown to the publication of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. In addition to the fountain of information Ours’s work became for my book, it also provided an engrossing reading experience I have been happy to return to over and over.