A History of the Greatest Racehorse: Man o’ War

min read
A horse gallops down the track with its jockey.
BetMGM @BETMGM Jun 21, 2022, 9:58 AM

Casino and horse racing legislation bans, a short career, and the first World War could not prevent thoroughbred horse Man o’ War from becoming the greatest racehorses of the 20th century and possibly all time. Man o’ War isn’t an option in online sports betting today, but his triumphant story can still inspire you. Let’s take a look at how a horse from a farm in Lexington, Kentucky, became a record-breaking champion. 

Introducing Man o’ War

Man o’ War, also called Big Red, was foaled in March 1917 at the Nursery Stud farm in Lexington. But saying Man o’ War was a thoroughbred only begins to describe his impressive racing lineage and bloodline. His sire was Fair Play, the best stallion on the farm, and his dam, Mahubah, was the daughter of the winner of the 1903 British Triple Crown, Rock Sand. 

Man o’ War’s breeder, August Belmont Jr., was in France with the US Army fighting in World War I when he was foaled. Belmont’s wife named him Man o’ War in honor of her husband. The promising horse was later purchased by horseman Samuel Riddle for $5,000. He was taken to Maryland to be trained by Louis Feustal, who was no stranger to Man o’ War’s bloodline. Feustal had previously trained Mahubah and Fair Play. 

Despite a strong genetic start, Man o’ War’s early beginnings on the farm were not easy. At first, he was difficult to saddle, not only throwing his rider but also objecting to having his girth tightened. But soon, he started to gallop with tremendous speed. Riddle could see that Man o’ War was a triple threat. Not only did he have the size and power required to be a sprint horse, but he had the endurance to thrive in long-distance races. 

In his debut race, Man o’ War proved himself by dominating with a 6½ length lead. His career didn’t slow down from there. As a 2-year-old, he was already on a winning streak, winning most of his races with a wide lead. His impressive weight of around 1,125 pounds earned him the nickname Big Red. 

Man o’ War’s first and only defeat

By 1920, Man o’ War had already set seven track records. And his sole career loss was a testament to his fighting spirit. In his sixth race at the Sanford Memorial, the start had to be delayed for several minutes because horses kept breaking through the barrier. And even when the race did start, not all the horses were ready. Unfortunately, crowd favorite Man o’ War was one of them.

He was still completely turned around when the field took off. After they helped to put him in position, he was the last horse to start the race. Still, Man o’ War was not discouraged. He fought to catch up to the pack and miraculously only lost by a neck to a horse named Upset. Despite having his winning streak broken by a surprising defeat, Man o’ War stood out in the race and was named 1920’s Horse of the Year. 

Man o’ War’s career-defining race

Dashing his fans’ hopes and dreams, and horse racing betting odds, Man ’o War did not win the Triple Crown in 1920. His owner, Samuel Doyle Riddle, preferred not to enter his horses in the Kentucky Derby final, which would secure his Triple Crown victory. In another Triple Crown race of the same year, Man o’ War took a 20-length victory and set a new world record in the process.

But the crowd was still left unsatisfied. They were eager to see Big Red go up against the previous Triple Crown Champion, Sir Barton. With Big Red constantly winning with a huge lead, it was time to see him race against a horse that was truly up to the challenge.

The owners gave in and agreed to a match between the two champions. The resulting event would decide who the most outstanding horse in North America was. Man o’ War represented the United States, and Sir Barton represented Canada. The 1¼ mile race was set for October 12, 1920, at Kenilworth Park in Ontario. This day would mark the horse racing betting event of the century. 

The horse racing odds favored the strong Man o’ War with 5 to 100 odds. Barton’s odds sat at 550 to 100. When Barton broke first in the lead, it seemed Man o’ War’s fans were in for another surprise upset. But by the time they had run 60 yards, Man o’ War was ahead. He won the race by seven lengths and won a prize of $75,000. At the time, this was the biggest purse offered in North America. 

Accolades and achievements

Over his two-year career, Man o’ War won 20 of his 21 races. He set three world records, two American records and three track records. The record he set at Belmont Stakes in 1920 was unbroken for 20 years. His earnings from race victories totaled an unprecedented $249,465. This amount was worth $3,374,000 in 2021. 

Man o’ War was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1957. The horse race, Man o’ War Stakes, was created in 1959 in his honor. This is a popular NYRA betting event to date. 

Big Red ranked No. 1 in the top 100 US Thoroughbred champions of the 20th century and was named the greatest horse of the 20th century by the Associated Press. His career and legacy exceeded his racing years and he was named the greatest horse in racing history by Sports Illustrated in 1992, 18 years after his death. 

Retiring a champion

Man o’ War was retired from stud in 1943 when his health suffered due to a heart attack. He died four years later at the age of 30 in 1947, following the death of his longtime groom, Will Harbut. His funeral was broadcast live on NBC Radio when he was laid to rest at Faraway Farm. Today his burial site can be found at the Kentucky Horse Park under a statue of him. 

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.