Not many will know or remember, but 70 years ago this week the most respected animal in thorougbred racing was laid to rest, and was done so in a manner as to immortalized forever.
File this under the heading of little-known facts, perhaps, but 70 years ago this weekend the most invincible American athlete, as he was called at the time, was laid to rest, the first in his field to be entombed in such a unique and fitting manner. He died at the ripe of age…of 30!
I’m referring to the great thoroughbred race horse, Man O’ War, who in his brief career as a two and three-year-old won 20 times out of the twenty one times he went to the post.
Man O’War was an American icon. Nicknamed “Big Red”, his dominance of thoroughbred racing at that time became so complete that other owners and trainers simply gave up running against him. They simply refused to enter races when Big Red was on the program, citing his invincibility; and for decades he became known as the unquestioned standard in horse racing – the one by which all others were compared.
His one loss, ironically, was to a horse named Upset at Saratoga Racetrack in 1919 after being turned around at the starting gate but he still managed a second place finish. Incredible, given that the horse was turned the wrong way when the race was started.
However, as a three-year-old the following year he won the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths, then went on to easily capture the Dwyer Stakes, the Travers Stakes, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Ironically, he never ran in the Kentucky Derby that year because his owner had a disdain for the state of Kentucky and refused to bow to pressure to bring him to the Bluegrass State. His retirement was nearly mandated at the end of his three-year-old season as he was deemed invincible, and damaging to the competitive future of the sport.
Disgusted, his owner retired him to stud at Faraway Farm, in Kentucky. Due to his young age, he lasted for over twenty five years. Finally a second retirement was in order after a heart condition was detected. A few years later a heart attack claimed the famous horse at age 30.
His death was national news. He was the first race horse to be embalmed, his remains were placed in an oak coffin, and hundreds of visitors streamed by to get a last look at the old champion. The burial was covered by a live radio broadcast at Faraway Farm’s horse cemetery with interment near several of his best offspring. A life size bronze statue was later erected over the grave.
In the seventy years since Man O’War, many of his offspring have risen to prominence in the racing world, including War Admiral, the Triple Crown winner in 1937. For those with a sense of equestrian history, no horse since has carried the legend, and respect, of that afforded Big Red. The last American athlete, man or animal, to have been deemed…”invincible”.