2017 AHP Award Winner: Feature Single Article, circulation under 10,000
All-time great produces more than a century of legend
By Maryanna Skowronski
If it’s possible to fall in love with a horse, I fell in love with Man o’ War in the second grade. It was Sister Corinne’s fault. The little Irish nun had told me that Walter Farley’s Man o’ War was an “eighth-grade” book and that I wasn’t permitted to check it out of the school library. Well, nun or no you can’t tell a horse-mad little girl that she can’t read a book about a horse so, having talked my parents into a visit to the town library, home I came with that eighth-grade book. Read it cover to cover too. And what a cover. That head-on image of Man o’ War, vivid red, pounding down the stretch coupled with Farley’s fictionalized account of the big horse’s life grabbed the bit that was my imagination and ran away with me. This horse, who had died 13 years before I was born, became my equine idol – one whose story and connections have over the years cropped up throughout my life time and again.
There was the bar-top display featuring Man o’ War, Whirlaway and Seabiscuit given to me by my Uncle George, who had gotten it from his brother-in-law, who owned a bar in Pennsylvania. My father, probably deeming a beer advertisement not exactly appropriate décor for a 9-year-old’s room, took a saw to the bottom half – thus obliterating the words Rolling Rock Beer. While I have it to this day I recently came across and indulged in the purchase of the unedited version.
My best childhood friend, Bonnie Six, was lucky enough to have a Welsh cross pony mare with Thoroughbred blood whose line traced back to Man o’ War (her great grandsire) on her dam’s side. It was a point of pride for Bonnie and prompted envy in me. I didn’t even own a pony let alone one related to Man o’ War.
At 12, I begged my mother for $3 to buy the unframed print of Big Red that I had found in a bin while she was shopping at a local discount store. Eventually, the adult me learned that it was not just a picture, but rather George Ford Morris’s portrait of Man o’ War with Clarence Kummer in the irons. It’s seen better days having been tacked to bulletin boards and doors but it’s still my favorite image of Red.
It was around this time that I also discovered Joseph Estes’ 1937 poem, “Big Red”, in a book of horse stories collected and illustrated by C.W. Anderson.
The days are long at Belmont.
Speed they never learn.
And it’s many a day since Man o’ War
Has looped the upper turn…
I read it over and over until I had memorized all of its 14 verses then recited it aloud in dramatic fashion countless times as if it were some great Shakespearean verse or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s one of those heroic poems with phrases such as “Cast in a Titan’s mold” and “marked with the god’s own giving” and I’m honest enough to admit that even today when I read it my throat catches and I still become a bit misty-eyed at the final few lines.
Fast forward to my 20s and I’m seated in the orchestra section of Baltimore’s Lyric theatre waiting for a show to start. The couple seated behind me for some reason is arguing back and forth as to the date of John F. Kennedy’s birth. Unable to stay quiet I finally turn and say to them “It was 1917, the same year Man o’ War was foaled.” My remark was greeted by their stunned silence. In a bit of irony, I recently discovered that a Kennedy half-dollar had been melded into a “limited edition” coin with Man o’ War on its reverse. One of the more bizarre uses of both their likenesses I would say.
Man o’ War was foaled in a time so far in the past that no living person saw him run and few living saw him at all. Yet for 100 years he has been idolized and immortalized (for better and sometimes for worse) and his image capitalized upon or used in tribute by racetracks, artists, commercial entities, advertisers, writers, photographers and sculptors. Streets have been named for him. Maryland alone has at least three – one each in the towns of Berlin, Bowie and Havre de Grace. If his owner Sam Riddle had trademarked his horse’s name and visage he would have reaped astronomical dividends.
The name and image of Man o’ War were used to promote beer – Falls City and Rolling Rock. Whiskey distillers included Old Fitzgerald, whose tribute came in the form of a figural decanter. If one imbibed enough of the product the decanter may have born a slight resemblance. Baltimore’s Lanahan distillery even gave their Hunter brand’s traditional foxhunting “First over the bar” gentleman a brief respite with Man o’ War whiskey.
Over the years fans could chew Man o’ War gum, play Man o’ War pinball and collect Man o’ War trading cards. They could brew Man o’ War coffee and drink milk from Kentucky’s Man o’ War dairy. In 1930 the horse’s image was used to promote Johnsonburg Radio Tubes and if you made a mistake while typing or writing you would simply open up a bottle of Man o’ War Quick Dry Correction Fluid. You could run your Chicago Clearing Machine Corporation press. For them Man o’ War, wasn’t “just another horse” and their press wasn’t just another press. In the 1950s Mobil Gas featured him in prints ads. Homer Laughlin put him on china plates. In 1967 Breyer, which has built an empire marketing plastic likenesses of every breed and famous horse from every discipline to millions of little girls, produced its first version of Man o’ War to be followed decades later with a Christmas ornament and a new 100th anniversary edition.
There have been bracelet charms, jigsaw puzzles, silver ingots, postage stamps and post cards. The Pennsylvania Railroad taking full advantage of Sam Riddle’s patronage of the line while shipping his racehorses to and from his Maryland farm advertised the Man o’ War rail car, “a limited train for four-footed passengers.” Illustrative of Man O’ War’s popularity with the general public is McCloskey Man o’ War Spar (marine) Varnish. One would think its label would bear the image of a ship, that other man o’ war. It does not. Then as today its label features a racehorse running flat out. Perhaps the strangest of all though was Thoroughbred Udder-balm from the Man o’ War Remedy Company in Lima, Pa. On its label is a picture of a cow.
So what is it about this horse that has garnered such praise and so many devoted fans for a full century?
Walter Farley himself attempted to answer the question speaking of his own boyhood visit to see Man o’ War.
I was aware only of one thing, that for the first and perhaps only time in my life I was standing in the presence of a horse which was truly great, and it would be a moment to remember.
What accounted for this stirring of the heart? For that is what it was. If one attributes it to the emotions of youth, what about my father’s adulation for Man o’ War? And all the others of his generation who had seen this horse and felt no differently?
Was the look in Man o’ War’s eyes responsible for it? …Or was it the regal lift of his head, the giant sweep of his body or the dignity with which he held himself up for our inspection? Or, perhaps, a combination of everything, for there was nothing about him that did not seem right to me.
Film of Man o’ War exists. All one has to do is watch it to see some of what his early admirers saw. The racing footage is grainy and incomplete. The films of him in retirement in Kentucky show a different horse than the one who competed. While the former capture some of the essence of power purportedly never fully unleashed, the latter films show glimpses of the regal presence so often mentioned.
For the 30 years of Man o’ War’s life and beyond, virtually every noted painter of equine subjects has tried his or her hand at capturing what more than one writer has called “the look of eagles.” R.H. Palenske portrayed him in black and white drawings. Edward P. Buyck, Allen F. Brewer, Jr., Edward “Ned” Chase and J. Martin who may be less known today than during their lifetimes have also captured Man o’ War either in conformation form or with a rider up. Illustrator Wesley Dennis also painted and drew Man o’ War. A website maintained by Abby Beall and devoted to the artist’s work features an original pen-and-ink postcard drawing on which Dennis tells the recipient “To remind you to always remember a great horse, Man O’ War.” Illustrator C.W. Anderson created numerous renderings, color and black and white, for a number of horse books for young people. Sam Savitt, Fred Stone and Richard Stone Reeves have also captured him. Among the best though are George Ford Morris, Martin Stainforth, Thomas Percy Earl and Franklin Brooke Voss.
Voss painted the great horse twice in 1920. The paintings are titled Man o’ War as a Two–year-old and Man o’ War, Winner of the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup. The former is in the collection of the National Racing Museum in Saratoga and also served as the cover image for American Heritage magazine as well as for the museum’s Voss exhibition. Equine sporting art professional Michael Finney, grandson of the late Humphrey S. Finney, former editor of The Maryland Horse, said of Voss’ work. “The paintings are a prominent example of Voss’ best work. They are as good a rendering of the living embodiment of the power of that horse as you will find.”
Humphrey Finney himself, writing in his 1974 autobiography, Fair Exchange, said:
In my opinion, Man o’ War was the greatest horse we’ve ever had. . . You can judge by the impression each great horse made on the people who were watching him.
Physically, Man o’ War was a robust individual with very strong bone. He wasn’t a “quality” horse, he was a big, rugged, heavyweight-boxer type. He carried his head higher than most horses do, and was simply the picture of immense strength, ruggedness and character-always.
However, of all the works created on canvas to immortalize the stallion the paintings of the late artist and Harford County resident Vaughn Flannery are the most unique. The November 1947 issue of The Maryland Horse features a photograph of Flannery as he prepares to capture on canvas the horse and his longtime groom Will Harbut. Commissioned by Walter M. Jeffords, Flannery completed at least seven paintings, now in private collections. According to Sotheby’s the series took 10 years to complete and the stark, somewhat brooding images are the last life portraits of the great horse to have been painted.
Man o’ War has been portrayed in bronze as well as on canvas and paper. In 1931 Chicago’s Field Museum sent out a press release stating that a statue by Frederick Blaschk had been chosen to “portray the highest development in the museum’s series of models illustrating the evolution of the horse. . .”
Sculptor Herbert Haseltine produced three bronzes of Man o’ War, yet his masterpiece is the larger-than-life statue that marks the site of Man o’ War’s grave at the entrance to Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park. Recently restored, it stands as a reminder that visitors are entering hallowed ground. Commissioned by Samuel Riddle, the bronze and the grave were originally located at Riddle’s Faraway Farm, Man o’ War’s home for 25 years until his death Nov. 1, 1947. John Cline of the restoration firm Casting Arts and Technology opined that Haseltine’s work captures not simply “a moment in time, but all time.”
It’s been said that Man o’ War gave Americans a hero to root for during a time of war and financial concern. The advent of radio and nascent moving pictures are credited with bringing him into the public eye. But does that account for thousands of people attending the funeral of a horse that hadn’t raced in 28 years and for that funeral having been broadcast nationally over the radio?
New York Herald Tribune writer Joe Palmer wrote at the time of Man o’ War’s passing
The old days now at last were dead, the last link snapped. The American Turf had lost, and perhaps would never have again, a single living symbol, a breathing, high-headed, fiery horse which meant ‘Racing!’ to every man of racing, and to every wandering tourist from Portland, or San Diego or Athens, Ga.
Books have been written about Man o’ War and magazines and newspapers have recorded his life and achievements in thousands of words from the moment he first stepped into the sales ring at Saratoga to his passing at 30. In the end it all comes back to the same questions: What is it about this horse? What causes racing fans and so-called experts to argue to this day as to whether he or Secretariat, the other Big Red, is the greater of the two? What causes people to discuss the “what ifs”? What if there had been starting gates? What if the surfaces were different? What if his competition had been different? What if?
I have been to Belmont, Pimlico and Saratoga and have worked for a time within hailing distance of what was once the Havre de Grace Racetrack. All ground that Man o’ War trod. In Lexington for the Mid-America Hound Show at the Kentucky Horse Park I finally had the opportunity to see Haseltine’s tribute and the great horse’s grave. I have met his biographer, Dorothy Ours, and laughed with her over the story of Sister Corrine. On the 100th anniversary of his foaling I along with Michael Pons of Country Life Farm and former Harford County Executive David Craig made a pilgrimage to the old “Graw” site to pay a birthday tribute where Man o’ War ran his second to last race.
I grew up in Harford County in the shadow of Country Life Farm. As a child reading that “eighth-grade book” I couldn’t have known that the farm’s founder, Adolphe Pons, had played a role in Sam Riddle’s purchase of Man o’ War. Nor, that in some distant future, I would ride the retired Alden’s Malibu, who bears a trace of the great horse’s blood although some eight generations back, through the woods and fields of that same farm. Neither could I envision myself kneeling on a living room floor while carefully paging through books that had once belonged to Big Red’s breeder August Belmont. And now I wait (somewhat impatiently) as a recently discovered eight-milimeter home movie of Man o’ War, filmed in 1929, goes through the process of restoration at a film lab near Washington, D.C.
In the end I don’t think I’ve answered my own question, “What is it about this horse?” I’m not sure it’s a question that has an answer. In the foreword to his book Walter Farley wrote:
It has also been said of Man o’ War that “He touched the imagination of men and they saw different things in him. But one they all remember was that he brought exaltation into their hearts.”
In some ways he still does. In the end he isn’t my Man o’ War. He belongs to us all.
An obvious racing (and Man o’ War) fan, Maryanna Skowronski
is the director of the Historical Society of Harford County.
By Maryanna Skowronski