Legend of Big Red

Man o' War never won the Triple Crown, but staked his claim to the title of greatest horse in history

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There was no such thing as a horse racing Triple Crown in 1920. That was the year Babe Ruth broke launched imaginations by hitting an inconceivable 54 home runs — 25 more than his own Major League record. That was the first year women had the right to vote, and their vote turned the election to Warren G. Harding. And that was the year of Man o’ War.

When you see a list of Triple Crown-winning horses, you will always see Sir Barton listed first. Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 1919 … but it wan’t called the Triple Crown then. There were not even unofficial mentions of the Triple Crown until 1923, and no horse was said to have won the Triple Crown in the Racing Form until Gallant Fox in 1930.

That said, the story of Sir Barton’s psuedo Triple Crown is pretty crazy. His first victory was the Kentucky Derby — no, really, he had never won a race before. Sir Barton was only entered in the race to quicken the pace for the other horses. He took the lead early just like planned, only no horse was able to catch him — Sir Barton went wire-to-wire and won by five lengths.

Here’s how different it was in 1919: The Preakness was just FOUR DAYS after the Derby. Sir Barton was rushed to Baltimore, again he took the early lead, again no other horse could catch him. He won the Preakness by four lengths.

About a month later — this after winning the Withers Stakes — Sir Barton rolled to an American-record-setting victory at the Belmont Stakes. And even with all that, even though horse racing was a very big deal in America in those days, Sir Barton’s Belmont victory was just not considered all that big a deal. Most newspapers did not even mention it. The New York Times and Washington Post did have stories about the Belmont performance but made no mention at all of the Derby and Preakness wins. No one had yet thought of connecting those three races.

When Man o’ War came into the 1920 racing season, he was already considered a special thoroughbred. As a 2-year-old in 1919, he had won nine of his 10 races — his only loss that year is also the most famous loss in the history of horse racing (though, interestingly, it wasn’t viewed as a big deal at the time).

At the 1919 Sanford Memorial at Saratoga, Man o’ War was called back after a false start; this was before there were gates for horse races. He was sent back, and while jockey Johnny Loftus was turing him around, the race was started. Newspapers reported that Man o’ War was at least 1 1/2 lengths behind the starting line when the race was launched by substitute starter Charles Pettingill. One account had Man o’ War facing the wrong direction at the start.

“I was the goat,” Pettingill would tell Sports Illustrated almost a half-century after the race. “That’s all there was to it. It could happen to anyone. … Heck, if a ballplayer makes an error, it’s forgotten. Why can’t they forget that race?”

In truth, Man o’ War — or Big Red, as he was called — was such a good horse, he could have overcome the bad start and still won the race. But, as it turned out, jockey Loftus ran into bad racing luck. Every move he made seemed to get cut off. In the stretch, Man o’ War gained on the leaders so quickly that Loftus would say that he had to pull up so not to run right into the back of a fading horse called Golden Broom. “It cost me the race,” Loftus said sadly years later.

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It cost him much more than just the race. As it turned out, Man o’ War lost by a neck to a horse poetically called Upset. There has been a persistent myth that the term “upset” was created that day, something I have written about before. That part isn’t true; in reality the horse actually was named Upset because the owner thought it might surprise people. And in reality, it wasn’t even considered that big a deal at the time. It was just Man o’ War’s sixth race. And everyone understood it was just one of those racing things that happen.

“Poor Racing Luck Beats Man ‘o War” was the Washington Post headline.

“Man o’ War Furnishes the Thrill of the Race but is Beaten by a Neck” was how the New York Times put it.

Nobody thought much more of it … that is until Man o’ War established himself as the greatest horse anyone had ever seen, and that loss was the only one in his career. Then, the loss took on epic proportions. Pettingill would be questioned about it constantly. And it all but destroyed the career of Loftus. At the end of the year, he lost his jockey license and it was probably because of his ride that day in Saratoga.

“Loftus has never been charged with any wrongdoing in his defeat with Man o’ War at Saratoga,” the New York Times reported, “although he did ride atrociously and was solely responsible for the single defeat of that great colt. Loftus got left at the post and then when finally away ran Man o’ War into two or three pockets before he finally went to the outside to finish second to Upset. It was clearly a badly bungled ride, but there was never any charge that Loftus did anything other than lose his head.”

Loftus never rode Big Red again. The charge that he threw that race haunted him for the rest of his life.

In any case, Man o’ War entered his 3-year-old season considered the class of his age group. And, to give you yet another indication of how different things were then, the first thing he did was skip the Kentucky Derby.

Why? Well, that was a sign of the times. Man o’ War’s owner Samuel D. Riddle did not believe that horses should be racing 1 1/4 miles that early in the year. Also, Riddle had no use for Kentucky; he was a Maryland man and there was no way he was going to have Man o’ War miss the Preakness Stakes.  Remember in those days the Preakness was just after the Derby — 10 days later in 1920. The decision was easy: There would be no run for the roses.

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And so a Kentucky horse named Paul Jones beat an uninspiring field at the Derby; Upset actually finished second. It hardly seems worth saying that if Man o’ War had entered the Kentucky Derby, he would have won and won easily. The only time Man o’ War raced Paul Jones, he did so while carrying a huge weight handicap. He still beat Paul Jones by 25 lengths.

Big Red was rested and primed for the Preakness; he promptly set a track record even though the new jockey Charles Kummer held him back for the last furlong. Paul Jones did not race in the Preakness, but Man o’ War beat Upset by almost two full lengths. It’s the closest Upset would ever get again.

Man o’ War then went to the Withers — if there were any sort of Triple Crown in 1920 it was probably the Preakness, the Withers and the Belmont. He breezed to a two-length victory with Kummer again pulling him back in the last part of the race. The victory was so easy and done with so little effort that something happened: The other owners decided it was a complete waste of their time to race their horses against Man o’ War.

This has always been a point in the favor of Man o’ War in the eternal argument between him and Secretariat for greatest horse ever. Secretariat’s times, generally, are faster, and he, unlike Man o’ War, won the Triple Crown. On the other hand, Man o’ War so demoralized the competition that he was rarely pushed and was left to various tactics like taking on extra weight or pulling up to make the margins cosmetically close just to get other owners to enter races.

At the Belmont, for example, only two horses entered the race and one of those scratched just before the start. That left only Man o’ War and Donnacona — the odds on Man o’ War were 1-to-25, meaning you had to bet 25 dollars on Man o’ War just to win one. As it turns out, the odds should have been much higher. Kummer let Man o’ War fly. And he ran the Belmont (then only a 1 3/8 mile race) in a staggering 2:14.12 — three full seconds faster that Sir Barton’s record time the year before. Big Red beat Donnacona by 20 lengths.

What was left after that? Man o’ War won the two-horse Stuyvesant Handicap by eight lengths. Only one horse, John P. Grier, was entered against him at the Dwyer Stakes — and Big Red allowed John P. Grier to make it reasonably competitive, winning by only 1 1/2 lengths. This created at least a little buzz. After Big Red won the Miller by six lengths, John P. Grier and Upset took their shot at Man o’ War in the Travers at Saratoga. The hype was immense … and ridiculous. Come see the horse that beat Man o’ War! Come see the horse that ALMOST beat Man o’ War! Come see Man o’ War at the only track where he ever lost!

Yeah, it didn’t turn out all that well. Even with Kummer basically pulling on the reins the whole race in order to make it seem competitive, Man o’ War set the track record, won by 2 1/2 lengths and left the crowd angry at Kummer for not pushing the horse to see what time was possible. Resistance was futile. Nobody could beat Big Red.

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This realization actually led to one of the greatest moments in horse racing history. Man o’ War was entered in the Lawrence Realization at Belmont in September that year. There was a tremendous effort by Belmont track promoters and newspaper reporters to stir up some competition. “Five or six of the best of these brilliant colts would make a field worthy of the best traditions of the Realization,” the New York Times wrote in what was clearly an effort to get some horse owners to enter. But nobody took up the challenge. And it looked like the Lawrence Realization would be a walkover.

Then, at the last minute, Samuel Riddle’s niece — Sarah Jeffords — entered her horse Hoodwink just so the race could be run. In one of my favorite trivia tidbits, Man o’ War went off that day as a 1-to-100 favorite. Even those extreme odds were ridiculously underpriced; Hoodwink was appropriately named. It was like saying my mouth is a 1-to-100 favorite against a piece of a chocolate cake. The race was clearly absurd and a sham. But the idea was that even an absurd sham of a race is better than no race at all.

And, as it turned out, Man o’ War was so great, so absurdly great, that he turned this race into one for the ages. Though he was loaded down with 126 pounds, though Hoodwink put up no resistance, though the race was 1 5/8 miles (the longest race of Big Red’s career), Man o’ War ran. He pulled away and kept pulling away, and though Kummer again tried to hold his horse back in the end to conserve some energy, Man o’ War would not slow down. He ran the race in 2:40.4, a world record by more than six seconds. It was estimated that he beat Hoodwinked by 100 lengths.

That 1 5/8-mile record still stands at Belmont Park.

What can be said after that? Like Alexander the Great, there were no worlds left to conquer. Man o’ War won the Jockey Club by 15 lengths. He then carried an insane 136 pounds just to get other horses to enter the Potoman Handicap — won by 1 1/2 lengths even though he was carrying 50 more pounds than some of the other horses.

And finally, there was one final gimmick — promoters were able to match up Man o’ War with Sir Barton, winner of that first (sort of) Triple Crown. That race happened October 12, 1920, in Canada. “In all probability,” the wire reports wrote, “the race between Sir Barton and Man o’ War will be the greatest match race ever run on this side of the Atlantic.”

It was the last bit of hype to get some excitement for a Man o’ War race. It was also the last race of Man o’ War’s remarkable career. He beat Sir Barton by seven lengths, with his jockey pulling back on the reins at the finish.