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Book Review

Man o'War: A Legend Like Lightning
by By Dorothy Ours
St. Martin's Press, May 2006, 342 pages hardcover

Without a doubt, Man o'War is one of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time. His record of 20 wins in 21 starts speaks for itself, and had his owner not opted to skip the Kentucky Derby, he likely would have been a Triple Crown winner. In her book, Man o'War: A Legend Like Lightning, racing historian Dorothy Ours tells us the exciting tale of one of the first media superstars of the sport. Ours' depth of research on Man o'War is unprecedented. Searching through vintage newspapers on microfilm starting in 1994, the framework for this masterpiece began to take hold. Through her employment at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs from 1998 to 2005 allowed her even greater behind-the-scenes access to complete her research.

She begins with Man o'War's illustrious pedigree, which starts in England. In a style reminiscent of Seabiscuit, she also introduces us to the human characters in Man o'War's life, owner Sam Riddle, trainer Louis Feustel, and jockey Johnny Loftus. Unlike other racing history books which merely gloss over each result like a past performance line in the Daily Racing Form, Ours goes out of her way to allow the reader to experience each race like race fans of the day did. She quotes media sources and gives detailed accounts of the track atmosphere, to demonstrate how, like today, media hype can create excitement within the racing community as well as generate interest in the sport among the general, non-racing public. As the legend of Man o'War grew, so too did the audiences that came out to see him.

With Big Red facing smaller and smaller fields, his speed and stamina scaring away all but 1 or 2 competitors, the race results became but a foregone conclusion. Man o'War would win by open lengths. However, in the days before electric toteboards, the final time of each race became a source of suspense. After a race ended, the fans in the stands and crowding the apron would all stare at the toteboard where a worker would hang up the numbers of not only the first three finishers, but also the official time of the race. He would post the minutes first, then the seconds and fifths. The crowd would gasp and then cheer as yet another track or world record was shattered by the chestnut colt with the longest stride.

In a contrast to most racing history books, Ours did not spend much time discussing Man o'War's stud career which included many greats such as Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Instead, she focuses more on the people and discusses what became of his connections. She explains how his groom, Will Harbut, convinced many of Man o'War's visitors that Johnny Loftus fixed the Sanford in Big Red's only defeat, a mystery that goes unsolved to this day.

Clearly, this is the most comprehensive work on Man o'War ever seen. Ours' research is thorough, in-depth and no stone was left unturned. Man o'War: A Legend Like Lightning is strongly recommended to all fans of racing history, as it will educate the reader on one of racing's greats, as well as about racing and life in general in America in the early part of the last century. A 16-page photo section with black and white images is included, along with a useful appendix listing his race record, speed records, pedigree, and the author's comments on the "best racehorse ever" debate.

Man O'War has a list price of $24.95 and is available for $15.72 from Amazon.com.

Rating:     5/5

Other books about Man O'War:
Man O'War by Walter Farley
Man O'War by Cooper and Treat (Review)
Man O'War by Edward L. Bowen
Great Breeders and their Methods - Samuel Riddle, Walter Jeffords and the Dynasty of Man o'War by Rommy Faversham

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