The Greatest Horse Of All-Time Did Not Win The Kentucky Derby

Man o’ War Winner of 20 of His 21 Races

Man o' War at age 22 in 1939 at Faraway Farm near Lexington, KY. photo: AP

Man o’ War at age 22 in 1939 at Faraway Farm near Lexington, KY. photo: Associated Press

Churchill Downs is packed awaiting the 75th running of the Kentucky Derby. Here the fans watch the running of the 2nd race, in a prelude to the big race. May 7, 1949 photo: Associated Press

Churchill Downs is packed awaiting the 75th running of the Kentucky Derby. Here the fans watch the running of the 2nd race, in a prelude to the big race. May 7, 1949 photo: Associated Press

The Kentucky Derby, which will be run this weekend is the first leg of the triple crown of American horse racing. When a horse wins the Kentucky Derby, the inevitable talk begins: can the winning horse go on to take the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes? To win all three races is considered the measure of a great horse.

But Man o’ War (1917 – 1947) possibly the greatest horse of all-time never won the 1920 Kentucky Derby because he was never entered into the race.

His owner, Samuel Riddle felt it was too early in the year to run a race of that distance and he did not want to race Man o’ War in Kentucky. Had he been entered to run the odds are he would have won.

Man o” War nicknamed “Big Red” was a unique horse. He carried up to 138 pounds, an enormous amount of weight and considerably more than many other contemporary horses carried. In one race he carried 32 more pounds than his competitors.

In his amazing career Man o’ War won 20 out of his 21 races including the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

Man o’ War had won his first six races before his first and only loss which came as a two-year-old at the Sanford Memorial in Saratoga, NY on August 13, 1919.

Man o’ War’s defeat was due to a combination of many factors including a bad ride by the jockey and Man o’ War not breaking cleanly at the start because he was facing the wrong way (there were no starting gates back then). When the race began Man o’ War was still being turned around into position as the other horses broke from the post.

As New York Evening World sports editor Vincent Treanor described the race:

“In defeat, Man o’ War sparkled much more brilliantly than the winner and it seemed a shame that his string of victories was broken. Bad luck and couple of errors by (jockey) Johnny Loftus beat him. With everything equal he would have won by several lengths and escaped the whip, which Louis Feustel, his trainer, had hoped he would escape all the season.

After being almost left at the post, Loftus ran him Into a pocket In the backstretch and again the homestretch, and he was unable to do what he was capable or doing until It was too late. When he got clear sailing in the last furlong he ran like a champion should run.

Under punishment of the whip he chased after Upset, the leader, and gained. on him with every bound, but the Whitney (owned) colt had such a big lead, that his belated efforts went for naught, and he was compelled to accept his first defeat of his career and take the second end of the purse.

Man o’ War ran the race at 130 pounds and Upset received 15 pounds, running at just 115 pounds, a handicap giving Upset a huge advantage. After the race even Upset’s trainer, Jimmy Rowe, said his colt’s victory was, “a fluke.”

Man o’ War ended up finishing second by a neck to Upset, giving rise to the theory that from that point forward the word “upset” became a description for an underdog beating a favorite. There is no proof that this is true. The horse that was supposed to give Man o’ War a challenge, Golden Broom, finished third and was fading at the finish line.

Like baseball, horse racing provokes extremely subjective arguments on who is the “greatest of all time.” Some believe last year’s triple crown winner American Pharoah may be the greatest race horse ever. But ask anyone who saw Secretariat race in 1973 and there would a strong argument in Secretariat’s favor.

Secretariat was by far the most dominant horse of his era. Here is the broadcast of his incredible Belmont Stakes victory which set a track record that still stands today.

But was Secretariat the greatest of all time? He was the best I ever saw. But those who know horse racing better than I do, think differently.

An Associated Press mid-century poll taken in 1950 ranked Man o’ War as the greatest thoroughbred since 1900.

After that 1950 poll, you take into account modern horses like Native Dancer, Ruffian, Affirmed, Alydar, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Kelso and Secretariat. Has the expert consensus changed?

While some contend that Secretariat was the greatest race horse ever, many other polls and experts believe Man o’ War was the best.

Man o’ War is still acclaimed by Blood-Horse Magazine, the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated as the greatest horse of the 20th century.

In his final race on October 12, 1920 Man o’ War defeated the first triple crown winner Sir Barton for the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup at Windsor Ontario, Canada.  As the winner, Man o’ War received $75,000, up to that time the largest purse ever in racing.

Below is silent footage of Man o’ War racing Sir Barton. Man o’ War won by 17 lengths!

Man o’ War died November 1, 1947 at the age of 30. There is a statue of the great horse at his grave.

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