10/21/2010 1:55AM

Man o' War - the final portrait


You told me when we were friends (age 9) that you had Man O Wars blood in you....and I believed you bc u ran really fast and could whinny like a horse.

So wrote a long-lost friend who contacted me recently via Facebook.  The note made me smile. Back then, I could whinny and run with the best of them, and no one on the track team was faster. And if I was in the woods and a tree trunk lay across the path? I became Man o’ War’s son Battleship in the Grand National.

I spent hours studying photos of racehorses – most of all Man o’ War. Photographs from a foal to age 30 reflected his high-headed pride and smoldering power. Man o’ War looked as if his life’s performance was accompanied by the sound of trumpets.

For me there is one Big Red, and he was born in 1917. If others preceded him – perhaps Hanover or Salvator once carried the nickname – they were simply opening acts. Anyone since? Call them Big Red all you want, but to me, they are imposters.

Man o’ War won 20 of 21 races – and his one upsetting defeat is legendary. He set five American records, seven track records, equaled an eighth, once won by 100 lengths, carried 130 pounds or more nine times, and was odds-on in every race (that’s right – every race). The charts read “restrained at end,” “restrained in stretch,” "won under pull," "eased final 1/8," “under a pull,” "never extended," "easing late," "taken up final 1/16th," “won easing up,” “speed in reserve”… 

I thought I'd seen every photo of Man o' War, so I was thunderstruck to find a color photo of him in 1980 in The Blood-Horse, along with an article explaining the last photo ever taken of Man o’ War alive.

The story chronicled photographer James W. Sames’ visit to Faraway Farm on October 29, 1947. The farm manager Patrick O’Neill asked Sames to photograph 30-year-old Man o’ War with the farm staff and Sames obliged, snapping photos in black-and-white. But he had also brought along color film, a rarity at the time. As he told it in The Blood-Horse:

After everybody had gone, I asked Bub if he would hold Man o’ War there for me while I changed film. See, Will Harbut had suffered a stroke in May of 1946, and Cunningham Graves took care of Man o’ War after that – everybody called him Bub. I always gave Bub $5 when he would bring out Man o’ War for me to get another picture.

So I had this color film, and Bub got Man o’ War to stand, and I got one shot. Then Man o’ War backed up, and he went down on one knee, and Bub said he was tired, that he better take ‘The Boss’ back in. He had been out for about 45 minutes. Bub always called him ‘Boss.’

When he got back into the barn, Man o’ War did not want to go back into his stall. He just stood there, with his head up high, staring out the barn door down the driveway. Bub waited there a while, then turned him around and backed him into his stall.

When he got in there, he laid down right away. He didn’t drop, like he had a heart attack or anything, but he did lie down right away. Now, that was Wednesday afternoon.

On Saturday morning, Bub called me…. Man o’ War never had gotten back up; he might have, but Bub said he never saw him up again. He had been in distress, thrashing around…. It was decided that morning, Nov. 1, 1947, to put him down.

That last photograph of Man o’ War is mesmerizing. It’s one of only four color photos I’ve ever seen of Big Red - two of which are so faded that the true color is lost.

The aged stallion is set in a muted backdrop of grass and bare trees. His straight legs show solid bone, although his fetlock hairs could use trimming. Ribs show through his reddish-gold coat, his lower neck is swollen and several lumps dot his body.  His tail is still thick and, although his shoulder is not quite what it once was, his hind end is still powerfully sculpted. A simple bridle is adorned with a “US” cavalry rosette.  The sway of his back is accentuated by a high croup and higher head. 

Man o’ War’s gaze is steadfast, his nostrils distended as he soaks in the chilly autumn air. Would that we all could be so noble, and hold our heads so high, just days before our passing. The image brought tears to my eyes then. It does now.

(The Blood-Horse published a story after his death that included these lines, which the photo brings to life: And over the world the scattered million of princes and paupers who have once gone out to Faraway to see him will remember the look in his eye, the ceremonial dignity with which he held himself for their inspection. They will remember that it was hard to tell whether his coat was red or yellow, and that there were faint little spots here and there, and a wen near his shoulder, and that some of the men patted him on the neck.)

I clipped the photo from the magazine and took it with me to college, where for four years it provided inspiration.  I called Mr. Sames once during those years, inquiring about a print. He had made limited edition prints in 1948 and priced them at a then-hefty $100. There were some left.

I asked a friend for a print for Christmas but it didn’t happen.  Years passed. And then, one day, I again looked up Mr. Sames. His residence, on Old Frankfort Pike near Lexington, was a well-landscaped and tidy ranch-style home. Mr. Sames was tidy as well, a tall gentleman who stood straight and talked the same way. He had no children and enjoyed the chance to share stories of his earlier years.

When he pulled the print of Man o’ War out of a drawer I was floored. It was perfect. We talked at length, and he eventually said that, a few years earlier, a man offered to buy the original image along with its rights. He mentioned the price offered and I told him I thought it was worth more. He looked at me and said that, were I interested, he would sell it to me.  He wanted it to go to a person who understood what a treasure it was.

By the next morning – and I don’t remember how I scraped up the money – I handed him a money order. We wrote out paperwork, shook hands and I was on my way with a grey file-cabinet box of 4x5" negatives. Included were photos of champions like Citation, Whirlaway and Bernborough, approximately 50 images of Man o’ War at various times….and the last photo taken of Big Red during his lifetime.