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In Kentucky, immortalizing our great race horses might as well be the official state hobby. From the life-sized Statue of Barbaro in front of The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs to the annual Secretariat Festival in Bourbon County, every legendary thoroughbred gets his due. But there has likely never been a horse more honored than a Kentucky thoroughbred on the cusp of celebrating his 101st birthday: Man o’ War. And all of his accomplishments and success were achieved despite the fact he never ran in the most famous American race, The Kentucky Derby.
About Man o’ War
Man o’ War was foaled at Nursery Stud near Lexington on March 29th, 1917 as the offspring of sire Fair Play and dam Mahubah. Both have monuments that are open to the public today at Normandy Farm outside of Paris, Kentucky. But like all North American Thoroughbreds, Man o’ War’s official birthday is on January 1st. Meaning that a big celebration of his 101st birthday is just a few weeks away. A generation before Secretariat, his signature chestnut color earned him the nickname as the original “Big Red” and his national fame at the time knew no limits. The horse racing industry often considers Man o’ War as one of the best of all time. He once won a stakes race by over 100 lengths while competing against a single horse because no other owners wanted to challenge him on the track.
Winning From The Beginning
Man o’ War won his first race on June 6th, 1919 in New York by a comfortable margin and never looked back. After winning a stunning nine of his first ten races, Big Red was such a favorite in betting, that wagering odds would sink to 1-100…in his favor! One newspaper would later list the odd pairing of slugger Babe Ruth and Man o’ War as “the greatest contributions to the history of 1920.” With accomplishments like those, you’ll see Man o’ War’s name today all over history books, plaques, monuments and even road signs throughout Kentucky. But the one place you won’t find his name is on any list that includes the 143 winners of The Kentucky Derby.
A Notable Absence From The Kentucky Derby
In fact, it wasn’t just that Man o’ War didn’t win the most famous horse race in America, his hooves never once touched the racing dirt at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, or ANY race track in the state of Kentucky. Nearly 100 years later, the decision not to race Man o’ War in his home state in The Kentucky Derby seems baffling. But Big Red’s owner, a horseman named Samuel Riddle, firmly believed that the variable weather conditions for May in Kentucky made it far too early in the year to task a horse with running 1 ¼ miles.
History shows that Riddle may not have been entirely wrong. The skies have brought snow more than once on Derby day in Louisville. And as recently as 1989, the mercury read a cool 43 degrees at race time.
The other issue Riddle faced was the length of time between both The Kentucky Derby and a similarly large stakes race in Maryland, The Preakness. A mere ten days separated the two races during a time when customized air travel wasn’t exactly an option for moving horses. The year before, Sir Barton became the very first Triple Crown winner by making the decision to compete in both the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness in a span of just five days; a feat that almost any horse owner would consider unimaginable today.
Continued Success Racing Outside Of Kentucky
Although Man o’ War may never have made a legendary Run for the Roses, he did capture victories in the other two jewels of the Triple Crown in 1920. He won the Preakness in his first race of the spring season. Then he notched a world-record setting victory at the Belmont Stakes with a jaw-dropping 20 length lead on of his closest competitor. That October, Man o’ War faced off against Sir Barton in Canada at the most anticipated race of the year. Big Red against the first Triple Crown Winner.
The result? Man o’ War won easily by seven lengths in what would be the final race of his career. The Kentucky thoroughbred trotted off into the sunset winning a remarkable 20 of his 21 races. He then transitioned from horse track to the farm and embarked on a successful stud career. Among his notable progeny are the 1929 Kentucky Derby Winner Clyde Van Dusen and the beloved War Admiral who would later go on to win the Triple Crown himself in 1937.
Man o’ War’s Legacy
Man o’ War passed away in early November in 1947 at the elderly equine age of 30. His death was reported in The New York Times with the type of pomp and circumstance that was usually reserved for movie stars and statesmen. Today, horse enthusiasts from around the world make the trip to the Kentucky Horse Park to see the two monuments that pay tribute to Big Red. Shortly after his death, his owner commissioned the beautiful Man o’ War bronze sculpture. Life-sized and ornate, the statue received a massive makeover earlier this year.
But the truly remarkable memorial is his grave. Man o’ War is believed to be the very first horse embalmed for a funeral. He was buried in a giant, custom casket that could have held a grand piano. It reportedly took thirteen men to move the 1,200 pound horse into his final resting place. Unique honors for a truly unique horse.
Plan Your Man O’ War Themed Tour
As we prepare to celebrate Man o’ War’s 101st birthday, it’s hard not to wonder. Is a once-in-a-century thoroughbred weening right now at one of Kentucky’s 450 or so horse farms? Why not? And if you take a trip with Mint Julep Tours out to horse country, maybe, just maybe, you could have a chance to say you met the next Man o’ War before he was breaking records around the country.
Mint Julep Tours offers horse farm tours and other horse-related experiences on custom tours year-round. On any custom Mint Julep Tour you can visit Normandy Farm, The Kentucky Horse Park, or other locations listed above. Public ticketed bus horse tours are currently only available the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday of Derby Week.
About the Author – Phil Kollin
Phil Kollin has been a Tour Guide & Host for Mint Julep Tours since 2015. He has hosted over 450 groups on bourbon adventures, horse tours and other custom experiences across the state. Phil is both a Louisville Certified Tourism Ambassador and a Certified Bourbon Steward through the Stave and Thief Society. Like Daniel Boone, Phil also believes that “Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.” He can usually be found wandering around distilleries while wearing fun socks.