The passing of a legend prompted a special commemorative issue that chronicled the "life and death of a great horse"

The passing of a legend prompted a special commemorative issue that chronicled the "life and death of a great horse"

BloodHorse Library

BH 100: Commemorates

Special horses that deserved special issues

This feature originally appeared in the November 26, 2016 issue of BloodHorse.

Man o’ War died at a little past noon Nov. 1, 1947. Naturally, the death of a horse of such moment would be the cover story for that week’s issue (Nov. 8. 1947) of The Blood-Horse, dressed with an image of Man o’ War accompanied by his devoted groom Will Harbut and a cover line that stated the enormity of the occasion in the simplicity of its words: MAN O’ WAR There Was Only One.

An “Acknowledgments” sidebar on page 338 of that issue revealed the behind-the-scenes workings of putting together such a story in a short time: “The montage of Man o’ War and Will Harbut on the front cover of this issue was made by the noted photographer Bert Clark Thayer. It was first submitted half a dozen years ago, when there was no intimation that Will and ‘Red’ might die within a month of one another.” (Note: Will Harbut’s obituary, titled “The Most Eloquent Stud Groom,” appeared on page 90 of the Oct. 11, 1947, issue. It concluded by stating, “Will Harbut was probably the most effective public relations man a horse ever had. More than half a million person came and went while he talked. Among his survivors are his wife, six sons, three daughters,
and Man o’ War.”

“Acknowledgment is made to Joe H. Palmer as the author of the principal portion of the text (page 342) giving the details of the life of Man o’ War. The research and writing were done some years ago by Mr. Palmer when he was associate editor of The Blood-Horse. Changes and additions have been made as necessary.

“As nearly as any comprehensive account we have seen, the story sets aside the fancy and gives the facts concerning the great horse. 

“Because the limits of this issue had already been fixed when Man o’ War died, and much of the space already used, it was necessary to omit an account of his stud career and to set aside a considerable amount of material on other subjects. A summary of his record as a sire will be given later.”

The “later” came within the year in a special format, a booklet that commemorated, in Harbut’s words, “De Mostest Hoss.” A cover blurb explained “This Booklet” with the following text: “Most of the articles and pictures in this booklet appeared in The Blood-Horse issues of Nov. 8, 15, and 22, 1947.”

Thus was born a time-honored The Blood-Horse tradition of printing special commemoratives for horses that have so captured the fancy of the public that they have transcended the scope of racing, for one reason or another, to become icons of the sporting world.

Man o’ War’s mantle of greatness fell upon another magnificent chestnut horse some quarter of a century later when Meadow Stable’s Secretariat became the first horse in 25 years—since Citation in 1948—to win a Triple Crown. Titled “Secretariat,” the 28-page special supplement to The Blood-Horse appeared in June 1973, following Secretariat’s 31-length crowning achievement in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and documented Secretariat’s journey to becoming the ninth Triple Crown winner through text by then managing editor Edward L. Bowen and myriad photos. 

Barbaro’s brilliant but brief life deserved its commemorative issue, “Barbaro: Tribute to an Invincible Spirit.” More a valiant struggle to survive, against all odds, a leg injury suffered only a few strides into the 2006 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and subsequent laminitis, Barbaro’s story captured the hearts of more than just racing fans. His 80-page special issue focused the spotlight on all that was being done in the medical world and in the search for treatments for laminitis. 

Barbaro’s work on earth was done Jan. 29, 2007. One would like to believe his was not a struggle in vain and that Lady Eli’s overcoming the disease and returning successfully to racing is a happy ending that Barbaro helped provide.  

The death of popular racing star and Kentucky Horse Park resident John Henry in 2007 warranted a “commemorative collector’s issue.” This “tribute to a blue-collar hero” told this legend’s incredible story in 80 pages of text and photos. Features editor Lenny Shulman set the tone with his introduction: “Ever since throwing off the yoke of King George II in the 1770s, America has enjoyed a bond with the underdog…And so it is no surprise, the visceral attachment we feel for a being like John Henry. His triumphs on the racetrack were all the sweeter; his comfort in retirement all the more important; and his passing all the sadder because of his humble origins.”

By 2010 Zenyatta had danced her way into America’s consciousness and to the top 20 of Oprah Winfrey’s O Power List, along with a covey of human female movers and shakers. With an unblemished record of 19 starts and 19 wins until the dying strides of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), the gigantic dark bay daughter of Street Cry came up a head short of perfection. Following her retirement in November 2010, The Blood-Horse produced a commemorative collector’s issue to honor “Racing’s Queen.” And off to the paddocks she went, a four-time Eclipse Award winner that includes a Horse of the Year title, and earner of more than $7.3 million. As then editor-in-chief Eric Mitchell stated in the introduction: “Zenyatta’s place in racing history is assured, a prominent milestone in all our lives.”

While American racing waited a testing 25 years between Citation’s and Secretariat’s Triple Crowns, that was nothing compared to the “will we ever see another one” wait of 37 years before American Pharoah in 2015. The commemorative Triple Crown collector’s issue was just that, as it recounted not only the exploits of American Pharoah but the 11 other Triple Crown winners as well. When American Pharoah landed the grand slam of racing by taking the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic and retiring to stud, he became the only two-time commemorative recipient with a year-end “Salute to a Champion.”

Read more BloodHorse 100 features here.