Historical Horse Racing
The Best American Race Horses
Overall of the Twentieth Century
By: Walter Lazary /// xxxxxx Words /// Rev'd. July 2022 /// Comments Box at End.
Man o' War.....Cook Collection - Keeneland Library
Which American Superstar Was Best........Man o' War, Secretariat or Citation?
You Be the Judge........
When perusing through various listings of the top ten racehorses of the twentieth century, and I mean a dozen or so others that you will find on the internet, there is no doubt that in just about every one of them either Man o’ War or Secretariat was considered the best American thoroughbred racehorse in that one-hundred-year period with probably most rating Man o’ War above Secretariat. Personally, after pouring through reams of information I find it nearly impossible to decide which one was the better of the two. But for me, it still didn’t end there. If we take certain criteria into consideration then what many consider to have been a two-horse race, could actually be expanded to three. And this brings about the question – what about Citation? If just his two and three-year-old seasons were taken into consideration, (both Man o’ War and Secretariat were retired at the conclusion of their three-year-old campaigns), and those final years after Citation returned from his injury were excluded (he was never really the same horse after being laid up for thirteen months), I might actually put him at the top of my list.
Man o’ War
There is no doubt that Man o’ War was the dominant racehorse of his era, but in looking back you can also poke a few holes in his impeccable record. My greatest concern was the overall quality of the opposition that he ran against, and this concern could also be supported by the relatively low foal crop sizes that were prevalent in those years. In his great three-year-old season in which he won all eleven of his starts, we must remember that in six of them he faced but a single opponent and in three others he faced only two. In fact, during that year he faced a total of 23 horses and eight of those were in his first race, the Preakness Stakes.
Man o’ War’s career was bordered by some of America’s greatest horses, the likes of Colin, Sysonby, Fitz Herbert, Whisk Broom II, Regret, Roamer, and Old Rosebud, all of whom raced before his time; and Cudgel, Exterminator, Grey Lag, Zev, Sarazen, Gallant Fox, Equipoise, and Twenty Grand, all of whom, with the exception of Exterminator, having raced after his retirement. We must also remember that Man o’ War never faced any of them nor the likes of them. It’s true that he humbled the great Sir Barton in the Gold Cup, but that was not Sir Barton at his best. The son of Star Shoot was hampered throughout his career by thin-walled hooves and the track surface at Kenilworth Park, when the two faced each other, had been scraped down the night before literally removing the cushion and leaving its surface extremely hard, this unfortunate undertaking because the race organizers wanted the winner to set a new world record. Every step Sir Barton took was labored and therefore it is safe to say that Man o’ War never faced Sir Barton when the first Triple Crown winner was at his best, though even if he did there is little evidence that the result would have been different. In hindsight, however, we’ll never know.
We must also remember that Man o’ War’s owner, Samuel Riddle, refused to accept a challenge to run against Exterminator in a race longer than ten furlongs, though in fairness, Exterminator’s connections backed out of the Gold Cup because they considered the ten furlong distance too short for their long-range specialist.
Man o’ War suffered his only career loss to Harry Payne Whitney’s Upset when he was a two-year-old. The race was the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, and it was decided that he didn’t get a fair start. Still, he had every chance to win that race if his jockey, Johnny Loftus, didn’t steer him into trouble, not once, but twice. But for a less than stellar ride from a jockey, who at the time was considered among America’s best, Man o’ War would have had an undefeated career as his only other difficult race was when he was pushed to the limit by John P. Grier in the 1920 Dwyer Stakes, which he won by a length and a half. We must also remember that Man o’ War handily defeated John P. Grier the two other times they met, in the Futurity and the Travers.
Now, let’s look at Secretariat’s five career losses and see how he also could possibly have had an undefeated career.
(1) His first loss was when he was interfered with and solidly bumped in his first race, a Maiden Special Weight (MSW). When he recovered he finished a fast-closing fourth, losing by a little more than a length to Herbull with Master Achiever finishing second. In Secretariat’s next start, another MSW, he defeated Master Achiever by six lengths.
(2) When Secretariat suffered his second career loss in the Champagne Stakes, he actually finished first by two lengths but was disqualified and placed second to Stop the Music, a colt he defeated by 1-¾ quarter lengths when both met in the Belmont Futurity the previous month. In Secretariat’s next race following the Champagne, the Laurel Futurity, he thumped Stop the Music by eight lengths.
(3) After Secretariat finished third in the Wood Memorial to his stablemate Angle Light, with Sham running second, it was discovered that he had an abscess on his gum and it was aggravated by the bit, which might account for his lackluster performance and the fact that he was hard to control on the far turn when he went wide. He was much better than Angle Light, whom he defeated by 16 lengths in the Laurel Futurity and by more than 20 lengths in the Kentucky Derby; and it is well documented how he totally destroyed Sham in the three Triple Crown races.
(4) Secretariat’s loss in the Whitney Stakes to Onion, a horse that would win just a single stake in a career that saw him go to the post 54 times, was blamed on a fever. The fever really did affect his performance and was more than likely responsible for his lethargic preparations leading up to what was his first race against older horses. The fever weakened him, turning him into a shell of the horse that won the Triple Crown, and it lingered on for several days after the Whitney causing him to miss his main summer goal, the Travers Stakes. When Secretariat and Onion met in the Marlboro Invitation six weeks later, a race that also included Riva Ridge, Cougar II, the Hollywood Gold Cup winner Kennedy Road, Key to the Mint, and the 1973 Travers winner Annihilate ‘Em, he not only set a world record for nine-furlongs (1:45 2/5), but in doing so he defeated Onion by 12 lengths.
(5) This leads to Secretariat’s fifth and final career loss, this time to Onion’s stablemate Prove Out in the Woodward Stakes. Riva Ridge was originally scheduled to run in the Woodward while Secretariat was going to bypass it and compete on turf for the first time nine days later in the Man o’ War Stakes. When Belmont Park’s main track was rated as being extremely sloppy for the Woodward, (a track condition in which Riva Ridge finished fourth to Key to the Mint the year before in the Preakness Stakes when he was the 7-5 favorite) the decision was made to scratch the son of First Landing. The colt hated the slop, and it is widely believed that he lost the Preakness when he was unable to handle Pimlico’s extremely sloppy surface. Sputtering from the break, Riva Ridge suffered a devastating defeat as the odds-on 3 to 10 favorite, one which ultimately cost him a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown as he won the Belmont by seven lengths three weeks later. Early on the morning of the Woodward, Mrs. Tweedy, not wishing to disappoint the thousands of fans that she knew would make their way out to Belmont Park to see Riva Ridge, ordered trainer Lucien Lauren to enter Secretariat as his stablemate’s replacement (Big Red had already been cross-entered as a formality). The problem was that Secretariat had not been adequately prepared to run a mile and one-half and in order for him to run his best Lucien Laurin knew that he needed one more workout. It was well-documented that Secretariat needed a good hard workout before running in a race for him to be at his best. This, plus the fact that he ran his eyeballs out two weeks before when setting the world record in the Marlboro Invitation, perhaps had something to do with his running out of gas and being caught by Prove Out in the mile and one-half stake. Prove Out, who would win the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup the following month, ran possibly the second-fastest twelve-furlong race ever on dirt, 2:25 4/5. It is important to note that Secretariat’s second-place time of 2:26 3/5 was faster than all but five Belmonts in that storied race’s history.
And so, if Secretariat would have been 100% and turned the table in all those losses, a thought that is not inconceivable, he could have been undefeated through his three-year-old season. Which also makes it worthy to review Citation’s career.
At the completion of Citation’s three-year-old season, he had run a total of 29 times and won 27 of them with two-second place finishes. Once again we are faced with another “what could have been” scenario as we’re looking at a horse who could easily have won all of those 29 starts.
Citation’s first career loss was to his stablemate, the two-year-old filly Bewitch, in the Washington Futurity. In that race trainer Jimmy Jones saddled a three-horse entry as Free America joined America’s top two-year-old colt and filly. It has been stated many times that Jones told the jockeys before the race (they had already agreed to split all purse money), that if a Calumet horse was leading when they turned into the stretch, and if there was no threat from another horse, then that Calumet horse should be allowed to win the race. As the race unfolded, Bewitch was leading coming off the far turn with Citation, who was as many as six lengths back, making a big move that took him from fourth to second place. Still full of run when he turned into the stretch, jockey Steve Brooks had to pull Citation and let Bewitch win as the big son of Bull Lea was poised to blow right by her. When they next met in the Belmont Futurity, Citation easily defeated Bewitch, who would later be crowned the two-year-old champion filly, by three lengths.
Citation’s second career loss is even more difficult to accept. In the Chesapeake Stakes prep at Havre de Grace, a colt named Saggy had a length and a half lead on Citation nearing the top of the stretch at which point Cy was carried very wide by a colt named Hefty, who would finish last and whose jockey would later draw the ire of the stewards. Eddie Arcaro, in his first career ride on Citation, openly admitted after the race that if he wanted to, he could have won that race, but he was saving Citation for the Chesapeake Stakes itself, and its much greater purse money. The race before the Chesapeake prep was the Flamingo Stakes, which Citation won while Saggy finished third, ten lengths behind. In the Chesapeake Stakes itself, Citation was an easy winner and Saggy finished fifteen lengths behind and did not make the top three. Thus, Eddie Arcaro, not realizing the significance of this race because he was trying to think ahead and didn’t realize the effect it would have in the bigger picture of this great horse’s career, contributed to a loss that despite his previous loss to Bewitch, could have led to a 24-race unbeaten streak.
There are a number of other compelling reasons why Citation could easily have been considered the best horse of the 20th century, among them defeating the reigning Horse of the Year, Armed, twice in February of his three-year-old season (while technically still a two-year-old). Citation also faced older horses eight times that year and won them all.
And so, when looking at the individual careers of Man o’ War, Secretariat, and Citation, if we considered just their two and three-year-old seasons (neither Man o’ War nor Secretariat raced at four), you could make a strong case for a three-way tie for the best racehorse of the twentieth century. Unfortunately for Citation, this greatest of all Calumet stars came back to the races after a leg injury kept him away for thirteen months and for a number of reasons was never quite the same, which was enough for me to place him third, though you might think a little differently and place him at the top of the heap after reading his profile page.
In the end, both Man o’ War and Secretariat were my top choices, but after taking everything into consideration I really couldn’t find a reason to place one ahead of the other, so I did the next best thing and called it a tie.
Below, are profiles of each of my top ten great champions, all of which are in the National Museum Hall of Fame. Each profile will include some amazing facts, pedigree, overall record, stakes history, and a slide presentation. After reviewing them, YOU BE THE JUDGE and enter your comments in the comments box at the end of this article.
Profiles of Historical Horse Racing's Top Ten
Man o' War
(1919 - 1920)
Man o’ War, with Andy Schuttinger up, returning to the front of the grandstand after winning the 1920 Travers Stakes at historical Saratoga Race Course.
Photo: Cook Collection - Keeneland Library
- Man o’ War was consigned to a Saratoga auction in 1917 by Mrs. August Belmont in accordance with her husband’s wishes as he was away in Europe aiding his country in the war effort. Reluctant to purchase the big raw-boned colt at first, Mr. Samuel D. Riddle, after being encouraged by his trainer Louis Feustel, who at one time worked for Mr. Belmont, finally made an offer and purchased the colt for $5,000.
- Man o’ War was sired by August Belmont’s Fair Play, one of the sport’s most prolific stallions in the early part of the century. Fair Play won eight stakes ranging is distances from the five and one-half furlong Flash Stakes to the fourteen-furlong Municipal Handicap. Fair Play was the leading sire in America in 1920, 1924, and 1927. He was the leading broodmare sire in 1931, 1934, and 1938 and was inducted into the Hall of fame in 1956.
- Man o’ War’s dam was Mahubah, a daughter of 1903 British Triple Crown winner, Rock Sand, and though she wasn’t much on the race track she was an excellent producer. Two years later Mahubah was bred again to Fair Play and this time foaled Man o’ War’s full brother, My Play, a colt that would eventually win the 1924 Jockey Club Gold Cup, a grueling two-mile race at Belmont Park that was originally known as the Jockey Club Stakes. This race set at twelve-furlongs when Man o’ War won it in 1920.
- Man o’ War was originally named My Man o’ War by Mrs. Belmont in honor of her husband. Mr. Riddle eventually shortened the colt’s name to Man o’ War.
- Man o’ War made 21 career starts and was an odds-on favorite in every one of them. His highest odds were .90 cents to the dollar. His lowest odds were a single cent to the dollar, which happened three times.
- Often called “Big Red”, Man o’ War won races at eleven different distances: 5F, 5.5F, 6F, 8F, 8.5F, 9F, 9.5F, 10F, 11F, 12F and 13F. He set seven track records and tied one, four of which were American records and three world records.
- While most horses wear aluminum shoes, Man o’ War wore heavier steel shoes.
- As a two-year-old, Man o’ War faced 60 opponents in 10 races, an average of 6 per race. At three, Man o’ War faced 23 opponents in 11 races, an average of 2.2 (rounded) per start. Eight of those opponents were in his first start, the Preakness Stakes.
- Man o’ War was never headed at any call in any race at three. He lost ground only twice in his stretch runs, and both times he was being eased while on his way to an easy victory.
- One of the sport’s premier weight carriers, Man o’ War carried 130 pounds five times as a two-year-old. At three, he carried 131 pounds in the Miller Stakes, 135 in the Stuyvesant Handicap, and a career-high 138 pounds in the Potomac Handicap.
- Shen Man o’ War was three, he was so feared by trainers that they entered horses in races that he was entered in hoping he would be scratched and when he wasn’t they would scratch. This led to Man o’ War facing a single opponent six times and two opponents three times.
- In 19 of Man o’ War’s 21 career starts he was described by the Daily Racing Form as being an “easy” or “restrained” winner. In his start against John P. Grier in the Dwyer Stakes, his performance was described as “hard ridden”. In his other start, when he lost the Sanford Stakes to Upset, he was described as being “all-out”.
- Man o’ War did not start in the 1920 Kentucky Derby, which was held on May 8th, because Samuel Riddle thought that the distance was too far for a three-year-old at such an early time in the season. Ironically, just ten days later Man o’ War was an easy winner of the mile and one-eighth Preakness Stakes and would eventually win the mile and three-eighths Belmont Stakes on June 12th.
- Man o’ War’s victory over Sir Barton in the 1920 Kenilworth Park Gold Cup was in some ways controversial. It was held outside the United States before 30,000 people. Many racing fans and journalists were upset and stated that all through his career Man o’ War was supported by thousands of American fans, but when it came time for the showdown with Sir Barton, the 1919 Horse of the Year, unless they traveled up into Canada and viewed the spectacle in an uncomfortable environment, they would not get to see what many called the Race of the Decade. Their argument was that the race should have been held at Belmont Park before 50,000 of his avid supporters.
- It was no secret that Sir Barton was suffering from tender feet, but in management’s quest to set a world record for the mile and one-quarter event the track was scraped down the night before the race. On the day of the race, the track was officially listed as fast, but in actual fact it was extremely hard. This alone had a profound effect on Sir Barton whose feet “stung” every time he took a step.
- Also, there were many who wanted to see Exterminator run in this race, but Old Bones’ owner, Mr. Kilmer, did not enter him because in his mind the distance was too short. Subsequent challenges were put forth for Exterminator to face Man o’ War at a longer distance, but Mr. Riddle ignored them and decided to retire Man o’ War.
- Contrary to what many people think, the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup was not intended to be a match race. During that time match races were forbidden in Canada. Exterminator was originally expected to run in the race, which allowed negotiations to continue, but his owner, Mr. Kilmer, eventually passed. Needing a third horse, a colt named Wickford was entered and was scratched on the morning of the race.
- The Kenilworth Park Gold Cup was the first race ever filmed in its entirety (it would be shown in theatres the next day).
- Man o’ War retired as America’s leading money-winning thoroughbred and was fourth in the world. He retired a healthy horse, certainly capable of competing as a four-year-old. Mr. Riddle decided to retire him after the Ken Park Gold Cup because most races for older horses were handicaps and it was believed that Man o’ War would be asked to carry in excess of 140 lbs.
- In his career at stud, Man o’ War was the leading American sire in 1926 and the runner-up in 1928, 1929 and 1937. He sired 381 foals with 291 of them runners. Sixty-two of his foals were stakes winners (foals 16% and runners 21%). His greatest progeny was the 1938 Triple Crown winner and Hall of Fame inductee War Admiral. He also sired Crusader, a home-bred for Mr. Riddle who was voted the top three-year-old colt as well as the Horse of the Year in 1926. Crusader was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.
- Man o’ War never led the American Broodmare Sire’s list, but he was the runner-up ten times.
- Man o’ War’s accolades are many when considering the fact that he raced for just two years. He retired as North America’s leading money winner with earnings of $249,465. Twenty of his starts were in stake races and he won 19 of them; was voted the two-year-old champion colt in 1919 and the three-year-old champion colt and Horse of the Year in 1920. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1957.
- Man o’ War died on November 1, 1947, at age 30. For two years Big Red’s legendary feats awed a nation and for decades after he left the track he would continue to inspire his legions of admirers and possibly the largest fan base in the history of the sport. During his retirement years, more than 1.5 million visitors were welcomed by Faraway Farm so they could spend some time with their hero. Everyone, even those who never stepped foot in a race track, knew about and admired Big Red. So remarkable was the great horse’s influence that in the four days leading up to his burial his embalmed body lie in state in an open casket so that 2,500 of his adoring fans could get one last glimpse of their hero.
- Thirty is considered a long life for a thoroughbred and though most knew that Man o’ War was getting on in years, many of his fans were shocked when his death was announced. Simply put, Man o’ War was one of those special horses that seemingly would be around forever and when he died it felt like the nation went into mourning. His passing was reported in every newspaper and announced on every newscast. In a final tribute on the day of his funeral, two thousand people attended, their parked automobiles lining both sides of Huffman Hill Pike for nearly a mile. And for those who couldn’t attend, a thirty-minute ceremony that included nine eulogies was broadcast live by radio.
- Man o’ War’s remains, as well as those of his sons, Crusader and War Admiral, were eventually relocated to the Kentucky Horse Park.