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Book Review

Man O'War
by Page Cooper and Roger L. Treat
Westholme Publishing, 256 pages softcover, August 2004

To many followers of racing, Man O'War is the greatest racehorse that ever lived. From the most regal of bloodlines available in his day, the chestnut giant won 20 of 21 starts through just two racing seasons, setting three world record times, while conceding as much as thirty pounds to his competition. Following his illustrious career on the track, he went on to a successful tour of duty at stud, siring multiple champions. Soon after his death in 1947, equine author Page Cooper and sports writer Roger L. Treat wrote his biography, which was originally released in 1950 by Julian Messner Inc. Now 54 years later, Westholme Publishing is re-releasing this classic work so that modern race fans can truly appreciate the original Big Red.

Cooper and Treat tell Man O'War's story in a narrative style, following the great horse's footsteps and quoting what was said by the many people who witnessed him. You read about how his parents, the mare Mahubah and the sire Fair Play, came together and the circumstances by which he was foaled and broken at the farm. Eventually he was sold at auction by breeder August Belmont and when the gavel dropped, the winning bidder was Samuel Riddle for the bargain price of $5,000. Riddle was prepared to pay twice that amount.

With great detail, the authors walk the reader through Big Red's exploits on the track. Using his enormous 26-foot stride, he demolished every field he faced except for two, the Sanford where he lost to Upset and the Dwyer where on his owner's instructions jockey Charlie Kummer only let Man O'War win by 1 1/2 lengths. Having scared off almost all his competition, oftentimes he only had to face 1 or 2 other horses, and was sent off at odds as low as 1-100. His final career start was a match race at Kenilworth Park in Canada against Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, who he defeated by seven lengths. Had he been given the chance, he would have easily been a Triple Crown winner himself, but Riddle felt that the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby was too far too early in the year for 3-year-olds and did not enter him.

Despite the fact that Man O'War raced over eighty years ago, the story is timeless. The reader is easily drawn into the excitement of the day, wishing that such a horse could grace today's tracks. Today, when a potentially great horse appears, like Smarty Jones most recently, that horse is suddenly hailed as the horse that will "save racing". Ironically, they were saying the same thing back in Big Red's day. The sport had been shut down for a number of years due to anti-gambling laws and World War I, and Man O'War was just the horse to put racing on the front pages of newspapers and to draw thousands of adoring fans to the track when the sport was reinstated. His stud career was also well-documented there, as he sired many stakes winners including his most famous, Triple Crown winner War Admiral. What was truly amazing was how, despite being bred to a very limited number of mares, he still sired a very high percentage of stakes winners. Whether the mare was a stakes winner herself or was unraced, it didn't matter.

The outpouring of love and support for Big Red continued into retirement. The authors wrote, "more than half a million people had signed his guest book, and these were only a fraction, for most of them were so enthralled by (groom) Will Harbut's story that they forgot to sign." The complete text of Harbut's speech about Man O'War is included, a spiel which ended with his famous words, "He's got everything a horse ought to have and he's got it where a hoss ought to have it. He is de mostest hoss!" A month after Harbut's passing, Man O'War died of colic and to this day his legend lives on.

In a very useful appendix, the original authors wrote a short description of every sire on Big Red's tail-male line, and also of every mare in his tail-female line. The stories of these horses are almost as amazing as that of their illustrious descendent. It is apparent that at the time of writing, tail-female linebreeding was popular since it is rarely discussed today. As well, the official charts of all of his races, and a list of the 386 foals he sired and the number of wins recorded by each, along with ten black and white photos of the great chestnut are included. For the reader's convenience, Westholme added an index which was not included in the original edition.

This timeless work belongs in every racing fan's library. It is to their credit that Westholme has reprinted this excellent work, so that Man O'War's story is never forgotten. Cooper and Treat did an admirable job recreating the excitement that was Big Red.

Man O'War has a list price of $15.95 but can be purchased from Amazon.com, for $11.17.

Rating:     5/5

Also from Westholme Publishing:

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Man O'War Trivia Quiz

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