- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

Upsets great and small have punctuated the sports landscape for centuries now, but never did the word have quite as literal a meaning as Aug. 13, 1919, at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York.

On that startling afternoon, mighty Man o’War, considered by most railbirds the finest thoroughbred of the 20th century, suffered his only career loss to an obscure rival named — what else? — Upset.

How appropriate can you get?

Man o’War went to the post 21 times in two years as one of the most imposing racehorses ever. His height of 16.2 hands (about 5-foot-6), weight of 1,125 pounds and chestnut coloring earned him the nickname Big Red.

Later, when Man o’War was at stud at Kentucky’s Faraway Farm and siring many future champions, longtime groom Will Harbut would tell visitors, as quoted in the patois of the day, “He was de mostest hoss.”

Of that, there seems little doubt. Eighty-four years after his last race and 57 years after his death at age 30, Man o’War remains among the greatest thoroughbreds of all time. In 1919, as a 2-year-old, he and Babe Ruth became superstar forerunners of what would be termed the Golden Age of Sport, aka the Roaring Twenties.

Man o’War was foaled in March 1917 at Nursery Stud near Lexington, Ky. Mrs. August Belmont, his owner’s wife, originally named him “My Man o’ War” after her husband, who was off soldiering in France during World War I, but the word “My” soon was dropped.

August Belmont, the man for whom the Belmont Stakes was named, decided to sell his entire 1917 yearling crop because of his preoccupation with military matters. So it was that sportsman Samuel Riddle was able to buy Man o’War for a piddling $5,000 — nearly as great a bargain as the New York Yankees’ purchase of Ruth from the Boston Red Sox for $125,000 in 1920.

At first, the colt’s aversion to bridle and saddle caused problems. Said a stable boy: “He’s nice and he’s smart, but don’t ever try to force him or you’ll come out second best every time.”

Gradually, though, the skill and patience of trainer Louis Feustel paid off. In the colt’s five-furlong debut at Belmont Park, jockey Johnny Loftus defeated six rivals so easily he was slowing Man o’War to a canter at the finish. Big Red still won by six lengths.

The 2-year-old then won three stakes races at three New York tracks over the next 17 days. His winning streak was at six, and racing fans were going out of their respective minds as the Sanford approached in mid-August.

Starting gates were not yet in use; races began when jockeys, circling around the starting line, bolted their mounts forward at a signal. When the starter’s flag fell, Man o’War was not even facing in the right direction. While Loftus turned him around, the other horses were off and running — a distinct disadvantage for Big Red in a short, six-furlong race.

Soon, though, Loftus got Man o’War onto the rail and joined Upset in challenging the early leader, Golden Broom. But the jockey found his path blocked and was forced to swing to the outside as the horses headed for home and Upset swept past tiring Golden Broom into the lead. Man o’War closed gallantly but simply ran out of track to catch his rival. Upset, at 115 pounds carrying 15 fewer than Man o’War, hung on to beat the favorite by a half-length as the unbelieving crowd gaped and gawked.

Upset jockey Willie Knapp described the race this way: “We’d passed the quarter pole and I heard something behind me, and I knew it was Big Red coming at me. Johnny Loftus was riding like a crazy man, and he yelled at me, ‘Move out, Willie — I’m coming through!’ So I yelled back at him, ‘Get off me, bum, or I’ll put you through the rail!’ Then I set down to riding, and we won.”

Afterward, some claimed Loftus had shown poor judgment — or worse — in putting Man o’War on the rail, where he was more likely to be blocked. Subsequently, the Jockey Club refused without explanation to issue him a license for 1920.

Rightly or wrongly, race stewards obviously suspected Loftus of throwing the Sanford Stakes. It seemed a bum rap to many, but regardless his short and brilliant career as a top jockey was over. In 1919, all told, he had guided Man o’War to nine victories in 10 starts, ending his career with 65 victories in 177 races (a .367 winning percentage) for earnings of $252,707.

Some stable workers claimed Man o’War had nightmares after his defeat (how would they know?), and he never lost again. Ten days later, he gained revenge in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes, beating Upset by a length. Over two years, the rivals met six times, with Big Red winning five. But it was the loss that history remembers.

As a 3-year-old in 1920, Man o’War sat out the Kentucky Derby because owner Riddle disapproved of young colts running a mile and a quarter so early in the season. But with Clarence Kummer riding, he won the Preakness Stakes and set an American record for the mile in the Withers Stakes. Then he turned the Belmont Stakes into a one-horse show, winning by a whopping 20 lengths.

Six races later, Man o’War applied a personal coup de grace. He was unopposed in the Lawrence Realization until another owner agreed to enter a rival named Hoodwink provided Big Red wouldn’t beat him too badly. Fat chance: Man o’War won the nonrace by 100 lengths.

His final effort was appropriately significant, an $80,000 match race against 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in Canada on Oct.12, 1920. Worried about rumors that gamblers might seek to poison Man o’War, Riddle had a 24-hour guard posted around the stall. The race itself was almost anticlimactic. Big Red won by seven lengths, establishing a track record.

For his career, Man o’War set two American and three world marks while earning a record $249,465 despite carrying as much as 138 pounds. When Riddle was told the horse would have to lug even more weight as a 4-year-old in 1921, he retired him to stud, where Big Red was just as successful. He sired 64 stakes winners, including 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, and fillies that foaled 124 stakes winners. One of the latter was the recently re-lionized Seabiscuit.

After Man o’War’s death of a heart attack Nov.1, 1947, he lay in state for several days before 2,000 mourners attended a funeral that was broadcast on radio. A sentimental painting done some years earlier showed him ascending into heaven as a tearful Harbut held a parted halter shank. Few connoisseurs of thoroughbred racing would dispute Big Red was indeed “de mostest hoss.”

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