Was The Fix In?

As a Two Year Old

Upset holding off a late charge by Man o’ War

All of Man O’ War’s breezes showed that he could run. At two he was running faster than the first Triple Crown Winner Sir Barton’s quick pace in the Preakness, but how would he handle the stresses of the track? His maiden, or first, race proved that he had no problems with all of the sights, sounds, people moving and shouting, or the energy and antics of other horses.

He would face five colts and two fillies at Belmont Park on Friday, June 6, 1919 late in the afternoon, however the course shrunk by one when Black Hackle was scratched. All of the horses had yet to win a race, and Man o’ War had America’s darling, Johnny Loftus, up.  Loftus recently won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness on the horse that would soon be considered the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton.

Back then there were no starting gates. Instead, they used what was called a tape or a webbing barrier. All of the horses lined up as best as they could behind this barrier, and when all horses seemed satisfactory, the barrier would be released. Often horses would break through the barrier before the start, and all of the horses would be recalled back to the starting line to try once again. Man O’ War often was guilty of this.

Even though Loftus was told to start slow, Man O’ War had other ideas. He broke so fast through the barrier, it caught everyone by surprise. He flew down the stretch while Loftus worked at reining him in. The one horse that challenged him was a filly named Retrieve. Soon daylight was sparkling between them after a quarter mile, and when they approached the last furlong of the race, Loftus let him loose. As soon as that bit pressure evaporated, he broke into a fierce run and left Retrieve and the others behind. Loftus, wanted to save his energy by standing up in the stirrups when they crossed the finish line trying to slow him down. He won by six lengths in :59 flat, which was the second fastest time at Belmont Park that spring. The Daily Racing Form said, “Won cantering; second and third driving. Man o’ War broke fast, held sway throughout, and was under stout restraint at the end. Retrieve showed high early speed, but tired in the final eighth.”

People noticed. The turf editor for the New York Morning Telegraph wrote, “He made half-a-dozen high-class youngsters look like $200 horses.”

Man O’ War ran three days later in the Keene Memorial stakes at Belmont Park winning by three lengths. He had a brief rest before running June 21st in the Youthful Stakes, winning by 2 ½ lengths. He moved onto Aqueduct Racetrack to run in the Hudson Stakes where he won by ½ a length. He stayed to run in the Tremont Stakes and won at a fast pace and “unextended” according to the Daily Racing Form.

Saratoga opened, and Man o’ War quickly displayed what everyone was talking about by winning the United States Hotel States by two lengths, and he beat for the first time his infamous foe Upset. In the Grand Union Stakes, he beat Upset again by one length. His last race in Saratoga that season was in the Hopeful Stakes winning easily by four lengths. His last race for 1919 was back at Belmont Park. With each race his popularity grew. Not even Babe Ruth or Jack Dempsey could capture the love and admiration of fans like Man o’ War did.

There was one other race at Saratoga not mentioned in the above paragraph that remains controversial for racing historians to this day; the Sanford Memorial. This was Man o’ War’s only loss. But was it bad racing luck, or was the fix in?

Before the race day even began, it started to crumble the night before. Mars Cassidy called in sick the morning of the Sanford. The night before was Cassidy’s birthday, and some say that he decided to treat a case of tonsillitis with some medicinal liquor. There was a huge party at Tom Luther’s Lake House celebrating Cassidy’s birthday, and many horse people were up most of the night. Since Cassidy was too ill to attend the races, they needed to find a replacement to start the races. Track officials chose Charles H. Pettingill, who used to be an excellent starter thirty years ago. However, his eyesight was failing, and filling in for Cassidy seemed a poor one. Only two of seven starts went off well that day.

On August 13th, Man o’ War and Golden Broom would carry 130 pounds; 15 to 17 more pounds than any of the other horses in the race. They do this to give horses with less experience or less wins a chance, thus being successful makes things more challenging and harder on a horse such as Man o’ War. Upset and The Swimmer only carried 115 pounds, while Captain Alcock, Armistice and Donnacona carried 112 pounds.

According to Loftus, Riddle told him to hold Man o’ War back at the start of the race for three furlongs before letting him loose. While trying to get all of the horses to line up ready to start the race, Golden Broom broke through the webbing three times. Despite Golden Broom’s anxiousness, Man o’ War stayed calm. Some say that when the race finally started, Loftus was circling Man o’ War and was a few lengths back from the starting line. Some say that he was facing backwards. Time and exaggeration creates a lot of different stories of this one moment. According to the exercise rider for the Riddle Barn, Clyde Gordon, Loftus said he was facing the inner rail. He was “waiting for Pettingill, the starter, to make room for him in the line at the post, when Pet got excited and pulled it.”[1] Whatever did happen, one thing is for certain, Man o’ War had the worst start in his racing career. He only beat two horses at the start; The Swimmer and Captain Alcock.

Golden Broom broke on top at a very quick pace with Upset following. Man o’ War’s bad break gave Golden Broom a full second lead ahead of him. Golden Broom quickly established a two length lead with Donnacona moving up along the outside to take over second place. A furlong into it Donnacona cut Golden Broom’s lead down to one length with Upset a head behind. Man o’ War moved into fourth place coming up alongside Upset. Loftus could have taken the lead if he would have let Man o’ War move up at this point, however Riddle said to hold him back the first three furlongs. Loftus decided to stay where he was, which proved to be a decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Upset moved ahead of Donnacona with Man o’ War in third place riding along the rail. Donnacona fell back to 4th place with his shoulders running along Man o’ War’s hindquarters. Golden Broom stayed right in front of him with Upset to his right. He was boxed in. All avenues to get around Upset and Golden Broom were slammed shut. Loftus figured that either Upset or Donnacona would fade soon giving him the opening he needed to win the race.

Willie Knapp told Sports Illustrated, “Many of the guys who rode with me wouldn’t last two races before being set down for a year these days. In my day [1918] we got a boy in a pocket and left him there. None of this business about giving racing room.”[2]

In the stretch for home Golden Broom stayed on the rail with Upset leading by a half a length. Loftus couldn’t swing out, because Donnacona would clip his rear hooves. Here comes Captain Alcock.  Finally, Golden Broom couldn’t maintain the pace with 130 pounds on his back and a crack in his hoof. He collapsed into third place. Loftus decided it was time to risk losing momentum and go around the horses to the outside, and Knapp knew that if he didn’t get on Upset, they would lose the race. While he urged Upset on, Man o’ War moved to the outside. Knapp demanded every last bit of courage and heart that Upset had as Man o’ War quickly closed in. It wasn’t enough though, and Man o’ War lost by half a length, although other say it was more of a neck. If Man o’ War would have had a few more strides to the finish line, he would have won. This became the start of the nickname, “Graveyard of Champions” for Saratoga.

Loftus took the loss hardest of all at first. Nobody could cheer him up, and Loftus went out of his way to avoid everyone. Loftus blamed his own mistakes, the bad start, and called Man o’ War the most courageous of horses. Not long after rumors began to fly that Knapp and Loftus were on the take or both had bet on Upset, and devised Man o’ War’s loss. However, Man o’ War’s odds were short, and they say that bookies would have raised the odds in order to attract more people to make a bad bet. Upset went off at 8-1 and Man o’ War went off at 1-2. Riddle wouldn’t believe that Loftus threw the race, but he did over time believe with anger that Loftus made bad choices and gave Man o’ War a bad ride. The question was why would Loftus allow Man o’ War to stay on the rail for so long when he had one chance early on in the race to go along the outside? The failure in judgment spawned many doubts as to whether or not it was an honest ride.

“He rode a good race,” Knapp said of Loftus. “When you consider the poor start and the way [Eddie Ambrose, riding Golden Broom] and me wouldn’t let him through down the stretch, Loftus couldn’t be blamed. He was a very good boy–one of the best.”[3]

Olin Gentry of Darby Dan Farm says “It was a terrible shame. I knew Johnny Loftus. He was a great rider and a fine gentleman. He never did a dishonest thing in his life.”[4]

By this time everyone assumed Man o’ War was unbeatable. In every single race up to the Sanford, he won with ease, and was slowed down by his jockey in the final yards to save energy. Big Red had thousands of fans cheering for him, following him, and anxiously awaiting each race. He made people happy and excited, and he raised the bar for American racing. Suddenly, America had the best horse in the world; not Europe, which dominated ever since the breeding of thoroughbreds began. People couldn’t believe that he could lose without a very good reason.

Also, there was a comment made by Bill Knapp to the trainer of Upset, James Rowe Sr. about how he thought Upset would beat Man o’ War that day. Many believed that meant the fix was on. However, remember that big party on the lake for Mars Cassidy? Well, Knapp was probably talking about that. Knapp went to bed nice and early the night before to be ready for the race. When he was walking to the track around 5:30 in the morning, he saw Loftus walking home from a long night out celebrating. Knapp probably thought there was no way Loftus would be mentally or physically ready for the race.

Whatever happened that day, both jockeys would have their licenses permanently suspended by the Jockey Club at the end of the season. They never issued a reason why they suspended both jockeys fueling the rumors and controversy to this day. Upset may have beaten him this time, but he never came close in their next two meetings. Nobody did.


[1] Hatton, “Delaware Park: Harmonizing Horse to Beat in Sussex Handicap Today.”

[2] “The Men They Call Boys,” written by Huston Horn for Sports Illustrated. June 8, 1964

[3] “War Stories” written by Bill Christine for the Los Angeles Times. August, 13, 1999

[4] “Classic Lines: A Gallery of the Great Thoroughbreds” by Richard Stone Reeves and Patrick Robinson 1975

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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