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Man o' War at 100: Champion's legacy echoes through century
Bal a Bali got his head down to win the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile earlier this month at Santa Anita, becoming a millionaire with the latest Lazarus act in his remarkable career. The Brazilian Triple Crown winner overcame a bout of laminitis in 2014 to return to race at a high level. He was then so burned out last year that owner Calumet Farm originally planned to retire him to stud this season. But after a freshening, he returned with a vengeance.
Bal a Bali hadn’t burned out at all, but tapped into the fire he has always shown – a flame radiating down through the decades. The horse is a direct male-line descendant of the great Man o’ War, who was foaled March 29, 1917, at Nursery Stud in Kentucky. A century later, his very large hoofprints still thunder through Kentucky.
Bal a Bali will, eventually, retire to historic Calumet to do his part in propagating the line. About 20 minutes away, another historic farm sprawls across the Lexington bluegrass. On a gray February afternoon, it was business as usual at Mt. Brilliant Farm, with fragrant green hay being unloaded from a truck and mares wandering in the fields, waiting to drop their foals. Each generation carries high hopes at Mt. Brilliant, which bred 2016 Belmont Stakes winner Creator and 2011 Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro – those stakes runners contributing to the rich history of the farm that has seen more than one all-time great pass through its gates.
“Domino would have been the horse we’re talking about now if it hadn’t been for Man o’ War,” Greg Goodman said.
Goodman, a Houston native, purchased Mt. Brilliant in 1995. Seven years later, he added an adjacent 372-acre parcel of land, paying $2.1 million for that portion of the former Faraway Farm.
Samuel Riddle, who purchased Man o’ War for just $5,000 as a yearling from breeder August Belmont II at the 1918 Saratoga yearling sale and campaigned him to victories in 20 of his 21 starts, built Faraway as the permanent home for his champion; Man o’ War stood his first season at the nearby Hinata Stock Farm while construction was completed. The property was owned jointly by Riddle and Walter Jeffords Sr., whose aunt was Riddle’s wife. Later, the farm was divided into tracts. Goodman purchased his portion from Kay Jeffords, the widow of Walter Jeffords Jr.
“They were getting ready to put it on the market,” Goodman recalled. “I think I had [Kentucky real-estate broker] Bill Justice contact them. It was a great piece of property, and it connected with this piece well. I had someone that flew to New York and met with Mrs. Jeffords – she was still alive at the time – and she agreed to sell it.”
Broodmare barns on the property were beyond repair and were torn down, the old breeding shed converted into a guest house. But there was a far more valuable building still mostly intact – the four-stall stud barn where Man o’ War reigned. Goodman eagerly set about restoring it. Alongside were students from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Historical Preservation, who produced a full set of drawings of the floor plans and engineering of the structure.
“A tree had fallen through the barn, but the inside was still in fairly good repair,” Goodman said. “We had to replace, if I remember correctly, like 12 rafters, and some wood in the ceiling right there in just this one section where the tree had fallen. But the rest of it, we just cleaned up, just took it back to its natural state. Also, it had a clay floor, and we put a cobblestone floor in it, just to keep it from being a mess in there . . . I would say it’s 90 percent original.”
Another remarkable discovery was a bell sitting outside the barn on “a thing that looked like a gallows.” The old Lexington city fire bell was rung whenever Man o’ War sired a stakes winner. In time, Goodman also discovered the horse cemetery, resting place of several of Man o’ War’s outstanding daughters, as well as top broodmares he covered.
“While we were cleaning it all up, we found the headstones,” Goodman said. “We made that a lot nicer, built kind of a path back there, and built a little fountain and hung the bell back there.”
Man o’ War himself left the mortal realm on Nov. 1, 1947. In the 1970s, his remains, along with those of son War Admiral and several other progeny, were exhumed and moved to the Kentucky Horse Park, along with the larger-than-life bronze by sculptor Herbert Haseltine.
In anticipation of Man o’ War’s centennial celebration, the Kentucky Horse Park set about restoring the bronze – as, due to environmental factors, the original reddish-brown finish, or patina, meant to evoke Big Red’s coat had faded. The Horse Park tapped John Cline of Casting Arts and Technology of Cincinnati to lead the project of stripping the damage and putting a new patina on the statue. Cline, in video produced by the Horse Park, described the stripping process as “like trying to clean a battleship with a Q-tip,” and said the glass eyes in the bronze posed an additional challenge because of their delicacy.
“We had a certain amount of trepidation, if not fear, about working around those glass eyes,” Cline said.
The project was completed last year before winter set in, with the new patina applied, then covered in synthetic wax to protect it from the elements. The statue proudly stands near the entrance of the park, prepared to welcome visitors for a year-long series of events, to be fully unveiled this week.
“Man o’ War is a true American icon, born in Kentucky before going on to capture the country’s imagination,” said Laura Prewitt, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park. “Our goal is to celebrate his life and equally encourage visitors to experience all that the Kentucky Horse Park has to offer.”
Several events will be held in conjunction with the city of Lexington, which has plans to present a legacy mural of the horse downtown. Down the highway in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby Museum also has planned an exhibit.
In Saratoga Springs – where Man o’ War sold as a yearling and won several stakes, but also suffered his only loss to the aptly named Upset – fans entering the historic racetrack on Union Avenue have, since 2010, been greeted by the eighth pole from old Aqueduct, where, in the 1920 Dwyer, John P. Grier briefly headed Man o’ War before the champion drew off to win “his hardest race ever.” Across the street, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame is set to open its “Man o’ War at 100” exhibit this week. On display will be Man o’ War’s stall door, on loan from Mt. Brilliant.
The farm also will be in on the act, hosting a charity event for Race for Education in the old stud barn. Goodman also expects the usual influx of calls from “passionate people” hoping to see the barn, as Man o’ War continues to draw people to the Bluegrass State.
“Newspapers and radio were the sources of most of the population’s relationship with Man o’ War, since only a small percentage actually got to see him in person. Still, when he took the train to Kentucky to retire at stud, throngs turned out at his every stop,” racing historian Edward Bowen said. “During his career at stud, Man o’ War was a key to tourism in Kentucky.”
Traversing those winding back roads of Kentucky to WinStar Farm, passionate horsepeople also can find Man o’ War’s flame reflected in the high-headed pride of Tiznow – a direct male-line descendant. The tiger of a runner is the only horse ever to win two editions of the Breeders’ Cup Classic – by a neck and nose, respectively. The sire of champion Folklore, Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed, Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara, Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Tourist, and multiple Grade 1 winners Colonel John, Tizway, and Tough Tiz’s Sis, he is the main proponent of a line that has survived despite all odds.
Man o’ War’s “first three years at stud, he bred 50 mares total,” Goodman said. “I don’t know how many he bred in his lifetime, but it probably wasn’t more than 20 or 25 a year.”
In addition to quantity, there was a question of quality. Renowned veterinarian Dr. William McGee, who tended to Man o’ War in the final years of his life and who turned 100 himself in February, mused upon the horse’s stud career in an interview for the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History’s Horse Industry in Kentucky Oral History Project.
“I don’t think Man o’ War really had a good chance as far as broodmares, good broodmares,” McGee said. “Mr. Riddle would breed to his mares . . . and if he had friends he’d let his friends breed. I bred to him.”
Man o’ War sired 381 foals in his lifetime, according to Equineline statistics. Of those, 291 made it to the races, and 219 were winners – a strike rate of 75 percent winners from starters – with 62 stakes winners. Man o’ War led the national sire list in 1926 and ranked among the leading sires in 1937 and 1941; he was among the nation’s leading broodmare sires more than a dozen times.
Man o’ War’s most famous son was War Admiral, who swept the 1937 Triple Crown and went on to be a leading sire and broodmare sire in his own right. Man o’ War also sired Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen; Belmont Stakes winners American Flag and Crusader; champion fillies Bateau, Edith Cavell, Florence Nightingale, and Maid At Arms; and top juvenile Scapa Flow.
But Man o’ War’s most important son may have been War Relic, whose great-grandson, Florida-born In Reality, sire of Hall of Fame filly Desert Vixen, has been the most important link in keeping the line alive, via his sons Valid Appeal and Relaunch.
Valid Appeal produced successful sires Valid Expectations and Successful Appeal. The latter’s Grade 1 winners include Appealing Zophie, dam of current Kentucky Derby hopeful Tapwrit.
Relaunch sired Metropolitan Handicap winner Honour and Glory, whose progeny include champion Caressing and Put It Back, sire of Bal a Bali. Put It Back also is the sire of standout young Florida sire In Summation. Relaunch also sired Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Skywalker, sire of successful racehorse and stallion Bertrando and Grade 1 winners One Dreamer, Waquoit, and With Anticipation.
But Relaunch made his biggest contribution by siring a horse who never won a stakes – Cee’s Tizzy, who begat Tiznow. The latter is now represented by several promising young sons at stud, including Gemologist, fifth on last year’s freshman sire list; and Tourist, who joins him in the WinStar stallion barn this season.
“He has always possessed all the best attributes of Tiznow, who we’re convinced is going to be an important sire of sires,” WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden said. “We have long believed Tourist and Gemologist had what it took to carry on the sire line, and we’re seeing that now with Gemologist.”
A flicker of that flame – a flicker of hope – sparks anew with every new foal from that enduring line, the sentiments perhaps best captured in the closing lines of a poem by Joseph Alvie Estes, displayed under the bronze gaze of Man o’ War at the Horse Park.
A foal is born at midnight
And in the frosty morn
The horseman eyes him fondly
And a secret hope is born.
But breathe it not, nor whisper
For fear of a neighbor’s scorn:
He’s a chestnut colt, and he’s got a star –
He may be another Man o’ War.
Nay, say it aloud – be shameless.
Dream and hope and yearn,
For there’s never a man among you
But waits for his return.
An interesting and lovely tribute. They don't write poems in that style these days!
whats that? I hear different echoes -- Arrogreat!