Commentary: Big Red

At the horse’s burial service, master of ceremonies Ira Drymon, a Kentucky horse breeder and farmer, said, “I would like, however, to think of this, not as a funeral in the usual sense, but as a celebration…”

Sixty years ago, on Nov. 1, 1947, the horse that elevated racing to a nearly unreachable level died. Man o’ War lay in state and his public gazed upon him one last time. Through the Claiborne Farm Web site, I’ve often listened to the recorded national radio broadcast of his funeral held at Faraway Farm (, and the eulogies given by men who had seen the magnificent champion. Charles Sturgill, president of the Board of Commerce of the City of Lexington, said the chestnut son of Fair Play—Mahubah, “…was a living symbol of our great outdoor life.”

Joe Estes of The Blood-Horse shared a story about meeting a minister, apparently from Minnesota, who, without introducing himself, raised his hands, and said, “I have just put these two hands on Man o’ War.” At the end of the ceremony I heard a bugler play “Taps.”

At Churchill Downs and other racetracks, people stood and flags were lowered to half-mast. In Tokyo, the horse was made an honorary colonel of the U.S. Army 1st Calvary Division.

Man o’ War was a horse for a lifetime and for a century, indeed the “mostest hoss” that ever was, a remark forever inscribed in racing lore by his beloved groom. In 1919-20, he won 20 of 21 starts, carried 130 to 138 pounds nine times, set eight American or track records, and left nearly all opponents in his wake.

Nicknamed “Big Red,” he was often described in grandiose terms, and accorded the respect due for a great and gorgeous beast with supreme talent and devastating power.

Along with his God-given gifts, Big Red must have had an intense will, and certainly the character to confront tough challenges. These were evident in the lone Sanford Memorial loss to Upset, his Dwyer Stakes battle with John P. Grier, and the Potomac Handicap, when he conceded 331⁄2 pounds, 30 pounds, and 24 pounds to speedy Blazes, Wildair, and Kentucky Derby winner Paul Jones, respectively.

Despite his overwhelming dominance, Man o’ War wasn’t immune to malady or trauma, whether due to a slight bout of colic as a youngster brought on by his voracious appetite (the condition would recur and worsen in his old age), or to a contused tendon of the foreleg in competition. Big Red had been tested and shown he was not only great on the outside, but equally so on the inside. However, even a horse like this had limits. The extremely high imposts expected of the colt as a 4-year-old were unacceptable to owner Samuel Riddle. Man o’ War’s career was over.

Riddle and trainer Louis Feustel were good stewards of Big Red. At least once the owner had to be coaxed to allow a rider to give the horse his head. The feeling was not to expend more energy than necessary. Records weren’t a priority. From the beginning Riddle had also been concerned that 11⁄4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby was too much to ask of a horse in the spring of his 3-year-old year. Consequently, America’s biggest star didn’t run in what would eventually become its biggest race. Man o’ War went on to become a leading stallion, and may have received some consolation after his great son War Admiral won the Run for the Roses and ultimately the Triple Crown, a feat the sire undoubtedly could have accomplished had he been given the chance.

Man o’ War’s legacy is at the highest mythical proportions, and he remains the yardstick by which all American Thoroughbreds are measured. One eulogist, Claiborne Farm’s A.B. Hancock Jr., the president of the Thoroughbred Club of America and director of the National Association of Thoroughbred Clubs, remarked, “We will never lose the influence he has brought to us,” a statement as true today as it was 60 years ago.

Was Man o’ War the greatest Thoroughbred racehorse of all time?

I don’t know, but I do believe this: he was the “mostest hoss.” Will Harbut said so, and that’s good enough for me.

John L. Califano is a racing enthusiast and works for the Washoe County Library in Northern Nevada.