03/24/2017 3:14PM

Chasing Man o' War's ghost

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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. 
– Note from a childhood friend

For me, there is one Big Red and he was born a hundred years ago, on March 29, 1917. If others of the same nickname preceded him, they were simply opening acts. Anyone since? Call them Big Red all you want, but, to me, they are imposters.

Man o’ War looked as if his entire life’s performance was accompanied by the sound of trumpets.

He won 20 of 21 races, and the one time he was upset is legendary.  The powerhouse chestnut son of Fair Play out of Mahubah 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 chart footnotes 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”. . .

:: Chasing Man o' War - the photo blog

Man o’ War was truly the stuff of dreams – so grand that even 100 years after his birth, as other greats like Domino, Whirlaway, and Citation fade into the background, he remains the benchmark for greatness. In fact, when the Blood-Horse published a list of the greatest horses of the 20th century, he topped the list.  In 1999, The Associated Press voted Man o’ War as the best 20th century racehorse, besting runner-up Secretariat by a 4-1 margin. In 1992, a similar poll by Sports Illustrated resulted in an “all-time greatest” honor for Man o’ War.

In 100 years, will Ruffian and Secretariat still be spoken of with the reverence they are now?  I don’t know, but I’m certain Man o’ War will.

A lifelong passion

When I was young I could whinny and run with the best of ’em, and, with my Man o’ War blood, no one on our 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 countless childhood hours poring over books by C.W. Anderson and Walter Farley as both beloved authors paid homage to Man o’ War with reverent words and inspiring illustrations. They wrote of his strength, speed, intelligence, and legendary strong spirit. Any racing book I could get my hands on inevitably featured captivating photos of “the mostest horse.”  Even books about the Kentucky Derby – in which he didn’t run – featured Man o’ War photos.

I spent hours studying photos of him. The images – from his foal photo through his final portrait – reflected his high-headed pride and smoldering power. He was different from mere mortals.

I wrote “books” about him in my pre-teen years, with block letters on lined notebook paper, using photos I’d clipped from magazines and carefully taped in place. I remember my grandmother viewing me disapprovingly when I proudly showed her a drawing I’d done of Man o’ War “at stud.” To me, being “at stud” simply meant he was no longer a racehorse.

My favorite photo is a C.C. Cook image of Man o’ War at the height of his racing career, as high-headed and proud as a deity should be, glancing toward who knows what.

In fact, many Man o’ War photos are among my all-time favorites. How grand he was – although that word doesn’t seem nearly strong enough. And what was he looking at in those countless times he seemed oblivious to the man holding his lead shank?  Unlike many famous Thoroughbreds, Man o’ War seemed to clearly understand he was the greatest.

I’ve been photographing racehorses for nearly a half-century, but, if I could go back in time and photograph one thing, it would be him.

Pilgrimages for Big Red

Although I was born in the wrong era, unable to photograph Man o’ War, I long ago decided to visit spots where he raced, posed for admirers, courted mares, and breathed his last. I’ve devotedly chased his ghost for decades.

Some tracks where he raced still exist – Belmont, Aqueduct, and my home track, Saratoga.  There are conflicting stories as to which barn he resided in at Saratoga, but I’ve never found any absolute proof. Still, it’s easy to imagine him on those ancient grounds walking to and from his morning exercise, fussing while being bathed, and losing to Upset in the Sanford but winning other races, like the Travers, with authority.  It’s also humorously easy to envision him running loose for 15 minutes, as the legend goes, after dropping his exercise rider one morning.

:: Man o' War at 100: Champion's legacy echoes through century

As far as other tracks, fellow Man o’ War worshipper John Shirreffs recently showed me a superb photo of Red being walked at Belmont that reflects, with no way to pinpoint an exact spot, some barn near the first turn. I’ve also stopped at Havre de Grace, where the kind folks with the Maryland National Guard – they acquired the property after the track closed decades after Man o’ War raced there – allowed me to look around. No one I spoke with knew Man o’ War raced there.

Also in Maryland, Glen Riddle Farm – owned by the Riddle and Jeffords families – was home to Man o’ War several times before, during, and just after his racing career.  Horses were long gone from the property by the time I first visited in 1998, but they could be felt in the empty paddocks, abandoned barns, and on the old racetrack. 

Standing on that old track, thick with weeds, one could easily envision a young Man o’ War’s early matches with the Jeffords’s highly touted Golden Broom – before their racing careers began. And in the Riddle barn shed row in 1998, the imagination could easily morph the criss-crossing raccoon tracks into Man o’ War’s hoofprints.

A rickety old, oversized arch with a barely visible “MAN O’ WAR” written across the top was supported by the dense overgrowth surrounding it.  Other buildings stood in various stages of neglect, some with abandoned buckets, hay bales, even X-rays. Old halters were strewn around a long-abandoned tack room, their pedigree nameplates boasting sire names like Count Fleet and Alsab.

Glen Riddle is gone now, replaced by an expensive gated community and golf course named GlenRiddle.  The rickety arch is gone, too, although a new one was built in his honor.  A rusty starting gate from after Man o’ War’s time and one barn – renovated and converted into a golf clubhouse in the mid-2000s – remain. I’ve visited since then, but, for me, the ghosts have galloped away.

I also don’t see ghosts at the place of Man o’ War’s birth, Nursery Stud in Kentucky. Long since developed, there isn’t a hint of August Belmont’s old Lexington-area farm anymore. Even a roadside historical marker, which marks the area where Man o’ War was born, doesn’t evoke them.  And if there are any whispers of Man o’ War around the Spendthrift Farm property once called Hinata Farm, where Red originally entered stud, I haven’t found them.

His ghost certainly remains at the two Faraway Farm stallion barns in which he lived, however. From 1922 until late 1936 or early January 1937, Man o’ War reigned in a stallion barn that is now part of Mt. Brilliant Farm. It stood dormant for many years as nature slowly took over.

When I visited in 1998, Man o’ War’s stall stood empty, its door to his adjacent paddock hanging open at an angle, and the entire barn suffered from photographically interesting neglect. On the interior stall door, “MAN O’ WAR” could faintly be seen, reflecting where countless tourists had rubbed their fingers across long-gone raised letters. Old gravestones hidden in weeds behind the stallion barn included some of Man o’ War’s dates and daughters (Christmas Star, Furlough, Creole Maid, Ace Card, Edith Cavell, etc.) and his early nemesis Golden Broom.

I love that sacred barn, where so many Man o’ War photos I’d studied were shot.  Standing in his empty stall, it’s easy to imagine the greatest of all racehorses haughtily checking out his countless admiring visitors, having his red-gold coat rubbed to a shine by devoted groom Will Harbut, and awaiting – perhaps impatiently, knowing of his smoldering ways – his turnout time.

In the early 2000s, the barn was lovingly restored after being purchased by Greg Goodman of Mt. Brilliant Farm. Goodman even had Man o’ War’s old stall door restored and moved to his office – a replica was put in its place.

As Goodman told Daily Racing Form’s Glenye Cain Oakford in 2010, “It was one of the reasons we wanted to buy that property.  It’s exciting to be able to be a steward of that part of horse racing’s history. It’s a great honor to be able to take care of that land during our time.”

Big Red’s final home is just up the road at Man o’ War Farm. The fact that he lived there for more than a decade has been somewhat lost to time, but Man o’ War resided in the front left stall. There are no outward signs of his reign there, no words visible on the door.

But here you can stand in his stall or in that barn’s aisleway where Red ceremonially lay in repose before being buried. Or in the nearby yard on a quiet day, where Man o’ War was originally buried. Or just walk on the farm driveway next to the stallion barn, where Harbut posed his immortal charge countless times for photos. It’s hallowed ground. 

Now there is the Kentucky Horse Park, where Man o’ War’s remains were moved in the mid-1970s. He was buried at a spot of honor near their entrance. His grave is surrounded by a moat and beneath Herbert Haseltine’s oversized Man o’ War statue.

Maryjean Wall wrote about Man o’ War’s exhumation in The Lexington Herald in 1977: “The old gravesite was torn up more than necessary when someone failed to research sufficiently the exact location of the grave, forcing construction men to dig around to find it. . . . Someone neglected to clean out the casket completely, leaving behind a bone and some tail hairs.”

Turf historian Jim Bolus wrote in an article that those items were returned for his reburial.

Several other graves from Man o’ War Farm, including those of his sons War Admiral and War Relic, were moved as well.

For more than 30 years – mornings, afternoons, at sunsets, and at night when his statue is lit by spotlights – I’ve trekked to the Horse Park to dream and to take photos, near the mortal remains of my biggest equine inspiration.

Red’s unfading image

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. The photo was accompanied by an article explaining that it was believed to be the last photo taken of Man o’ War alive.

The story chronicled Lexington photographer James W. Sames’s visit to Faraway Farm on Oct. 29, 1947. 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’d also brought along color film, a rarity at the time. As he told 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 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 . . .”

Man o’ War died three days later, on Nov. 1, 1947.

The photo is mesmerizing – one of only five color photos I’ve seen of Big Red, two of which are so faded that their true color is lost.

The aged stallion is set in a muted backdrop of grass and bare trees. His straight legs show very solid bone, although his fetlock hairs could use trimming. Ribs show through his coat of red, gold, and yellow. 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. What is he looking at?

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.

(An issue of the Blood-Horse published after his death 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 that color photo from the magazine and took it with me to college. I even called Sames to inquire about a print – in 1948, he’d made limited-edition prints and priced them at a then-hefty $100. He still had some but, still at $100, they were out of my price range. 

In the late 1990s I again looked up Sames, and he agreed to a visit. His Old Frankfort Pike ranch house was nicely landscaped and very tidy. Sames was tidy as well, a tall gentleman who stood straight and spoke the same way. He had no children and enjoyed sharing stories of his earlier years. Imagine, he’d lived my dream of photographing the greatest of all racehorses!

When he pulled that color print of Man o’ War out of a drawer, I was floored. Perfection.

He said a man once offered to buy the original, along with its rights. He told me the price he’d been offered, and I said I thought it was worth more. He said that, were I interested, he’d sell it to me for that same price, because he wanted it to go to a person who understood its true worth. Oh, and he had others, too. Was I interested?

By the next morning – I don’t recall 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 gray file-cabinet box of 4x5-inch negatives. Included were images of champions like Citation, Whirlaway, and War Admiral.

Far most importantly to me, there were approximately 50 images of Man o’ War at various times during his later life – with his best friend Will Harbut, posing with veterans, in his barn, being led to his paddock, on his 28th birthday, and more. There is that last portrait of him, in bright color, and more than 20 black-and-white negatives of his burial, including him lying in his casket. 

Even after Man o’ War’s death, Sames chased him, trekking out to Huffman Mill Pike many times to photograph Haseltine’s statue at Red’s gravesite. Included were photos of the statue’s unveiling in 1948.

As Sames lived my dream in taking those images, I plied him for information. I can’t remember his exact words, but I remember that his stories about photographing Man o’ War reflected a depth of feeling far greater than anything else he’d photographed in his half-century thereafter.

I’ve had all of his negatives professionally cleaned, placed in archival holders, and housed. I’ve made some into postcards, greeting cards, and prints, with future plans for the others.  Like Goodman, who preserved Man o’ War’s old stallion barn, I feel it is exciting to be able to be a steward of this part of horse racing’s history. It’s a great honor to be able to take care of these negatives during our time.

Countless words have been written about Man o’ War. On Nov. 2, 1947, the headline of the Louisville Courier-Journal read simply: “Man o’ War, Greatest of Thoroughbreds, Dies.”

Yet mere words cannot sum up what made him a benchmark by which all Thoroughbreds are still measured. It was more than his brilliant racing career, his stud career in which he sired 16 percent stakes winners, his fascinating smoldering and imperious ways, and his legendary friendship with Will Harbut. Countless writers have tried to explain what made him great, but none has come close to succeeding. I wouldn’t dare try.

The brilliant, famed turf writer Joe H. Palmer wrote, “He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else . . .

“. . . even when he was standing motionless in his stall, with his ears pricked forward, and his eyes focused on something above the horizon which mere people never see, energy still poured from him. He could get in no position which suggested actual repose, and his very stillness was that of a coiled spring, of the crouched tiger.”

For those of us not so honored to see Man o’ War – some estimates say 1.5 million folks visited Faraway Farm during Big Red’s reign – there were these beautifully simple words spoken by Kentucky horseman Ira Drymon at Man o’ War’s funeral service – a service attended by an estimated 2,000 mourners and broadcast live on NBC Radio – “He touched the imagination of men and they saw different things in him. But one thing they will all remember was that he brought exaltation into their hearts.”