11/20/2017 5:13PM

Sparkman: Man o' War still the benchmark a century later

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Keeneland Library/Cook Collection
Man o' War wins the 1920 Dwyer Stakes at Aqueduct by a 1 1/2 lengths over John P. Grier.

The centennial of the birth of America’s greatest racehorse Man o’ War has been duly noted by the popular media, but it is perhaps difficult for contemporary readers to understand why Man o’ War is still so revered 100 years on from his birth. It is true that Man o’ War performed feats never seen before on an American (or perhaps any) racecourse, setting five world time records, winning the Lawrence Realization Stakes by 100 lengths, and making even his solitary defeat memorable by succumbing to the most appropriately named equine villain of all time, Upset.

What made Man o’ War something new and uniquely memorable in the world, however, were the same developments that made Babe Ruth the greatest baseball player in history. The 1920s were the first era when Americans began to enjoy unprecedented, widespread prosperity and, with it, more leisure time to enjoy sports. Equally importantly, it was the first decade that millions of people could witness at least snippets of sporting events they did not attend through the magic of that world-changing invention motion pictures. Man o’ War’s last race, a match against 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, was the first horse race filmed in its entirety.

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That fortuitous combination made Man o’ War, Babe Ruth, Olympic sprint champion Charley Paddock, boxer Jack Dempsey, swimmer Johnny Weismuller, golfer Bobby Jones, and football star Red Grange, among others, into national heroes, beloved and admired by millions in a way not previously possible.

Man o’ War’s dyspeptic owner Samuel L. Riddle did his champion no favors at stud by restricting him mostly to his own mares and those of his nephew Walter M. Jeffords and a few close friends. Man o’ War sired fewer foals than many contemporaries, and, more importantly, Riddle did not like good racemares as broodmares. English bloodstock agent William Allison bought a number of very well-bred mares for Riddle and Jeffords that contributed to his success, and Man o’ War led the American sire list in 1926 and finished second on other occasions.

Ironically, Man o’ War’s male line survived through a son of Riddle’s 1925 champion 2-year-old filly Friar’s Carse, by Friar Rock, one of the few top racemares Riddle’s champion covered. A highly talented but highly temperamental horse who fought his jockey more often than he tried, War Relic beat champion Menow in the 1941 Massachusetts Handicap, then the equivalent in prestige of a modern Grade 1.

War Relic was only sporadically successful at stud, but sired four top-class runners, champion 2-year-old Battlefield, top juveniles Relic and Missile, and top stayer Intent. Relic proved a great sire of sprinters and 2-year-olds in France, while Intent sired 1956 champion 2-year-old Intentionally, whose best son In Reality is the source of all contemporary male-line descendants of Man o’ War.

Third best behind Dr. Fager and Damascus in one of the greatest crops of American racing history, In Reality was a better sire than either of his rivals, and his line persists through his sons Relaunch, Known Fact, and Valid Appeal. Limousine Liberal, a grandson of Valid Appeal by the latter’s most successful son Successful Appeal, is one of the best sprinters of 2017 and won Saturday’s Bet On Sunshine Stakes at Churchill Downs. Unfortunately, Limousine Liberal is a gelding, and none of Successful Appeal’s best sons appear likely to carry on the line.

It is much more likely that the best recent representative of the Man o’ War male line, Relaunch’s grandson Tiznow, will pass on the line, though it is by no means certain. Tiznow’s Travers-winning son Colonel John was sold to Korea just as his offspring started winning more stakes, but Tiznow has several young sons at stud with a chance to make their mark.

The Relic line has disappeared in Europe, but 1980 2000 Guineas winner Known Fact left his mark through his champion son Warning, whose grandson Dream Ahead was champion sprinter in 2011. Dream Ahead has already sired 17 stakes winners, with his oldest foals only 4-year-olds, including Group 1 winner Al Wukair who recently retired to stud in France.

In terms of modern genetics, of course, male lines have little meaning. The Y chromosome unique to males carries only very limited genetic information beyond gender. In our memories and our mythologies, however, it is the great male racehorses and sires who wield the most powerful magic.

None have achieved more mythical status than Man o’ War.