Man o’ War – First Year

Born of Royalty

Feelings were mixed when he went to the Saratoga sales. Sam Riddle already passed up buying him months before. Recovering from distemper, he was on the thin side with a dull coat. Questions arose about one of his hooves and if it could withstand the demands of racing. Despite all of this, a few saw through all that could be considered wrong and saw all that was right.

Bred by August Belmont II, Man o’ War was born on March 29, 1917 at the Nursery Stud just before midnight. His coat was chestnut, and he was tall from the moment he hit the ground standing three and a half feet high with a wide girth holding the biggest of hearts and most powerful of lungs with the capacity to run at any distance. His dam was Mahubah and his sire was Fair Play. Several foals were born at the Nursery Stud that year, so Man o’ War didn’t necessarily stand out, but he was noticed.

Mahubah was a nervous yet gentle filly like her sire Rock Sand who won the English Triple Crown. She was a bay mare with a long body and strong hindquarters perfect for speed and distance. She only raced five times winning one race and placed second making a total of $390 in her racing career. Belmont never raced fillies that he intended to breed for long. He raced them to see if they showed any promise, and then retired them for breeding saving their energy for their foals. She was bred to Fair Play five times having five foals, which is why everyone refers to her as Fair Play’s wife. The most famous of her five foals were Masda, My Play, and Man O’ War. After her fifth foal, she became barren. Mahubah and Fair Play are buried next to one another in Kentucky.

Man o’ War got his chestnut coat from his sire Fair Play as well as his unusual white blaze that ran crooked down his face. Fair Play’s sire was Hastings who was quite the racehorse in his day, and known for his fiery personality.

Louis Feustel, Man o’ War’s future trainer, used to be an exercise rider for August Belmont II. He knew what Man o’ War would be like after having to work with Hastings, Fairplay and Mahubah, but Hastings really showed Man o’ War’s hand.

“I was assigned to gallop him [Hastings] an easy half mile one morning. Two miles later, with him going like a runaway locomotive, somebody picked us up. I was never allowed to get on him again. And that was alright with me,” said Feustel.[1]

The 1896 Belmont Stakes winner, is said to have bit and rammed other horses during races. When Hastings retired, his nasty temperament worsened. They say Hastings became so hard to handle that he refused to wear a halter, and his groom carried a big stick at all times whenever he went in to handle him. Finally, it became so dangerous to work with him, they built a fenced path for Hastings to walk from his stall out to his paddock to minimize handling.

Hasting’s son Fair Play would have been considered a great horse if he didn’t have to compete against Colin who ran undefeated in 15 starts beating Fair Play several times. They say Colin had another gear, that when threatened by another horse, he switched into that gear and could leave everyone behind with ease. During Colin’s third year, he bowed one or maybe two tendons. After Colin was hurt and healing, Fair Play easily won many major races setting several records.

One of the most exciting Belmont Stake’s ever run was what turned out to be a duel to the end between Colin and Fair Play in 1908. Colin three weeks earlier beat Fair Play in the Withers Stakes by two lengths at a cost. Rumors spread that he bowed a tendon in one of his forelegs. After a work, it was said he pulled up lame. On the day of the Belmont Stakes, he appeared in the paddock with his legs wrapped. Some stories say his trainer, James Rowe, didn’t believe that Colin should race, however other versions state he and his owner James R. Keene insisted he was sound and not in pain. A veterinarian also backed up Keene’s statement. There he stood in the paddock with Fair Play ready to duel again. Fair Play was up to the challenge hot with excited energy kicking the sides of his stall demanding to hit the track.

It was a stormy day, and the track became a thick, deep mud. The rain came down so hard nobody could see the race as it progressed. However, two horses with hearts of champions emerged fighting it out down the stretch. It seemed that Colin despite his bad leg would win the race easily by three to five lengths. However, there was a different finish line for this race, which was 150 feet away from the normal finish line. When Colin’s jockey, Joe Notter crossed the standard finish line, some say he began to ease Colin up forgetting they still had more race to go. Others say that Colin’s leg began to falter or he started to tire. Whatever the reason, Eddie Dugan and Fair Play did not forget. Fair Play charged on fighting with each stride narrowing the distance between him and Colin. Colin feeling Fair Play gaining tried to gain momentum, which is challenging for a racehorse to do once they begin to slow. Notter immediately began to ride Colin hard as he heard Fair Play’s thundering hooves closing in. Fair Play would not give up. Colin won by maybe three feet, but it was Fair Play’s fight to the end that caught the eye of all. That heart, that fight, and the desire to win, Fair Play gave to Man O’ War.

When New York tracks shut down due to new laws prohibiting gambling, Colin and Fair Play were shipped off to England to race. Colin suffered another injury and was retired to stud in England. Fair Play raced six times never winning a race. Racing on turf was not his thing, and his attitude quickly soured. Hasting’s temperament seeped into Fair Play who was retired to stud in Kentucky where he began his new career as a successful sire for August Belmont.

Belmont became strapped with debt and embroiled in the First World War, so he decided to sell off most of his horses. At first, he was going to keep two colts one of which was Man o’ War. After some thought, he decided that would hurt the sale of his other horses if people thought he kept the best horses for himself. He decided to sell Man o’ War with the others.

Sam Riddle actually had a chance to buy the horses prior to the Saratoga Sale, but he decided against it baffling his young, new trainer Louis Feustel. Riddle decided to trust the judgment of his niece’s trainer rather than Feustel due to the fact that Mike Daly was older and had more experience. Daly found them to be unimpressive. Despite being ill with distemper, Man o’ War caught the eye of Feustel who kept him in mind when they attended the Saratoga sales.

At Saratoga interest swarmed around the Belmont yearlings, since Belmont was the premier thoroughbred breeder at the time. Again, Man o’ War interested some while turning others away.  Riddle claimed that the moment he saw him, he recognized his greatness.  This claim was disputed by others including a sworn affidavit by Jim Maddux in 1920.  According to Maddux, Riddle stated that he wouldn’t spend one dollar on Man o’ War. Man o’ War s coat was dull and rough with ribs popping out caused by the lingering effects of distemper. He also hated staying in a stall after roaming freely on pasture most of his life. Not only did they see an unhealthy looking coat but a nervous horse. Nervous horses tend to use up all of their energy before a race even starts. Another question that worried prospective buyers was would he be able to handle the boredom of being in a stall for up to 20 hours a day? Also, in his conversation with Maddux, Riddle stated that Man o’ War had a crooked foot, which his trainer, Louis Feustel pointed out to him. Feustel later denied this stating that his left forefoot was a tad narrower than his other feet. Pointing this out didn’t mean that Feustel had given up on Man o’ War at all. Quite the contrary.

Four horses were the limit on what Riddle would buy, and Man o’ War was in the top four. Feustel wanted Man o’ War, but he wasn’t sure Riddle would pay the price he might go for at the auction. Feustel went to the real boss in the family, Elizabeth Riddle, Sam Riddles wife.

Man o’ War was the seventh yearling to go up for auction. When led in, he “showed plenty of spirit in the sales paddock,” commented Kentucky Derby promoter Matt Winn. Riddle faced some steep competition in bidding. When the number climbed close to $5,000, Riddle was about to let Man o’ War go. Feustel couldn’t get him to budge.  The auctioneer kept prodding the audience for another bid when Mrs. Riddle sealed the deal by urging her husband to buy him for their trainer who showed a lot of belief in him. She told her husband that if he didn’t buy him, she would. His wife won, and Riddle put in the final bid of $5,000. Sam Riddle bought the best horse that some say ever lived, because he couldn’t say no to his wife. With that an amazing journey began.

Riddle soon began to question his purchase when it seemed impossible to get a saddle and rider on his back. According to Lou Feustel, he had problems with Man o’ War, or Big Red, from the very beginning. Like Fair Play and Hastings, Big Red rebelled against everything different. His grandsire Hastings threw every exercise boy he could until a young man named Red came along. For some reason Hastings liked him, and from then on he improved to be the fasted horse in the barn. He still was one of the meanest horses around, but luckily Feustel handled Hastings and his offspring. He was totally prepared for what Big Red would throw his way.

Feustel was a true horseman in that he knew trying to overpower a horse could ruin their spirit. Instead, it was better to walk alongside the horse with each new introduction and create the space where the horse figures out what you want while thinking it is his or her idea. When it came to someone sitting and moving on his back behind him, he challenged Feustel with everything he had.

The first time someone got on his back, he exploded with such rage that no one could catch him for fifteen minutes after. They say that he threw the exercise rider forty feet. This replayed over and over. He didn’t like the feel of the bit or the snugness of the cinch. He especially didn’t like the weight of someone on his back.

“Once or twice I really began to wonder just when and how it was going to end,”[2] commented Sam Riddle.

Feustel once said, “He was hell to break, a headache to handle, and a catapult to ride.”

Finally, along the shores of Maryland, Big Red gave in. Man o’ War realized that they weren’t going to stop trying, and he decided to finally go along with it. He was paired up with a much calmer horse named Major Treat, which helped Man o’ War focus his energy where it needed to be; on racing fast.


[1] “Step and Go Together: The World of Horses and Horsemanship,” by B.K. Beckwith 1967

[2] John Hervey “The Turf Career of Man O’ War” unpublished manuscript (1933) later serialized by Horse magazine; available through the National Sporting Library (Middleburg (1933), Virginia).

Next week I will publish a blog on his first year of racing as a two-year-old.

Author: reenchantedhorses

I'm an artist, writer, and a lover of thoroughbreds. I was born and raised in horse racing, and now I wish to help rehome them, educate people about how fantastic they are, and show what they can do.

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