More than 100 years after his career ended, Man o’ War continues to cast a large shadow over the racing world. Even casual fans know his name, and for good reason. He won 20 times in 21 starts, with his only defeat coming at the hands of the appropriately-named Upset as a 2-year-old at Saratoga. Had he not been held out of the Kentucky Derby, he almost certainly would’ve retired a Triple Crown winner.
Dorothy Ours brings his timeless legacy to life in her book Man o’ War, A Legend Like Lightning. She walks the reader through Man o’ War’s 17-month career, and helps tell the stories of his connections which make his legacy even fuller.
One of the more interesting stories is that of Johnny Loftus, Man o’ War’s regular rider as a 2-year-old in 1919. Loftus was considered one of the top jockeys in the country, also piloting Sir Barton to a Triple Crown victory in 1919, in addition to his wins with Man o’ War. However, Loftus’s career was clouded by the intense suspicion of dishonesty that followed jockeys in those days. In early 1920, he was given a lifetime ban from the sport by The Jockey Club, without explanation. Clarence Kummer took over for most of Man o’ War’s 3-year-old rides, but the sensibility of the times comes into play in the summer, when Kummer was sidelined due to injury. Owner Samuel Riddle had a quandary: he needed a jockey who was not only capable, but honest, two characteristics considered few and far between in those days.
Loftus’s story lords over the first half of the book, along with tales of Man o’ War’s juvenile exploits. Ours gives background on each race and several notable contenders in each one, including Golden Broom, owned by Samuel Riddle’s niece, Sarah Jeffords, and Harry Payne Whitney’s pair of Upset and John P. Grier.
Man o’ War’s 2-year-old season was much more tense; only one of his wins came by more than four lengths. While his 2-year-old season played out like a drama, his 3-year-old year was a coronation. Except for an exciting showdown with John P. Grier in the Dwyer Stakes, which Ours spends several pages on and pulls the reader on a rollercoaster of emotion, Man o’ War encountered hardly any serious competition, as most horsemen gave up on trying to beat him.
Ours builds those chapters up brilliantly, sweeping the reader up in more and more of Man o’ War’s records, as it becomes clear to fans present and past that he was unlike any horse anyone had ever seen. Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning is the quintessential book on the career of an all-time great, and a must-read for anyone who wants a full picture of the career of “Big Red.”