Racehorses have odd names. Whether the origins are based in history, mythology, a reference to the breeder or owner, oftentimes the thoroughbreds that break from the gate and are sounded off by an announcer at auctioneer speeds leave fans in wonder, laughter and occasionally, admiration. Man o’ War is not among those odd names; his is a title that exudes power and fear, and rightfully so.
Man o’ War is well-known in the racing world, though perhaps less so to the casual fan of the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes. This incredible stallion accomplished a great deal in his 21-race career, but on this day in sports history, in the year 1920, he won the mile and five-eighths Lawrence Realization Stakes at Belmont Park by more than 100 lengths, the largest winning margin in modern thoroughbred racing history.
Born in 1917, Man o’ War’s sire (father) was Fair Play and dam (mother) was Mahubah, both of whom were part of noble pedigrees and that boasted successful racing history. He was a chestnut Thoroughbred, which while often used to refer to any pure breed horse, is actually a specific breed in itself. Man o’ War was bred by August Belmont Jr., whose father the famous Belmont Stakes are named after and who financed the construction of Belmont Park in New York, where said race is held. His owner was Samuel D. Riddle and his trainer was Louis Feustel. While his somewhat wild temperament was a challenge early on, in time Man o’ War was brought under heel and developed strong bonds with those who worked closely with him. Additionally, he loved oranges.
From the beginning, Man o’ War was a crowd and odds-on favorite, often winning his races by several lengths and rarely being challenged following the initial positioning. His 20-1 career stands as decorated and close to perfection as a horse can come, and the records he set in time and win distance dominated the sport for decades. Among those records is the aforementioned Lawrence Realization Stakes win in 1920, which warrants a greater explanation.
Horse races are described in lengths, which is to say the distance between the horses as they cross the finish line. A length is the measurement of a horse from nose to tail, approximated at eight feet. So, when Man o’ War won at Lawrence by over 100 lengths, he was roughly 800 feet ahead of the competition. Admittedly, his competition was a single horse named Hoodwink, but nevertheless such a distance against another racehorse is almost unbelievable. At the time, turf writer B.K. Beckwith described the display, stating, “it was the most astounding display of arrogant annihilation … Man o’ War was like a big red sheet of flame running before a prairie wind.” His record time of 2:40.8 stood as the world’s fastest in the mile and five-eighths until 1956 when his great-grandson, Swaps, broke it.
By the time he was put out to stud, Man o’ War had earned $250,000 ($3,818,020 in 2019) and was already regarded as a legendary racehorse. He would go on to become a leading sire, with his family line including Triple Crown winner War Admiral (another great name) and the famous Seabiscuit. In 1947 Man o’ War would pass away, and while his bloodline continues today, his legend looms over the equestrian world as the pinnacle of racing beauty. Imagine being there that day, sitting in the stands at Belmont Park, watching the greatest racehorse to ever live demonstrate its legacy in under three minutes time. What a sight.