Big Red, by Joseph Alvie Estes
“For here was a horse among horses,
Cast in a Titan’s mold,
And the slant October sunlight,
Gilded the living gold.
He was marked with the god’s own giving,
And winged in every part;
The look of eagles was in his eye
And Hasting’s wrath in his heart.
Ancient Greece once had a horse that it mythologized called Bucephalus and unlike Pegasus this horse was real. His story was tied in with the legend that Alexander the Great would become. The mighty black stallion had been designated for death for being untamable when young Alexander said he could tame the beast. His father, the King of Macedonia, Philip nodded and allowed his son the chance to bring the horse under control. Bucephalus became Alexander’s greatest friend, his champion and devoted mount. He was as much a part of the expansion of Greco Macedonian power as his rider was. Where ever Bucephalus went, Greece and her influence went.
Some horses are interwoven in our history like bits of stardust. They are there where you can see them and they hold our imagination like nothing else does. Likely this is due to the connection mankind has always had with the horse. The horse is in our blood, firing our imaginations and carrying our dreams. No horse has carried our dreams further than the Thoroughbred and no Thoroughbred has carried our dreams in such a glorious way as the real Big Red, Man O’ War.
Man O’ War was born in 1917, and he raced as 2 year old in 1919. He was a big red chestnut, the color of a new copper penny. The only white on him was the star on his forehead that drifted off into a stripe that resembled the tail of a comet. He was heavy boned and wide. He did not look like a normal Thoroughbred. He was all stud, all big red intensity and determination. He would condescend to humanity and tolerate his human connections. According to his owner, Sam Riddle Man O War was “A devil to break, a headache to handle and a catapult to ride.” Man O War had his own mind and you were lucky if he allowed you to be part of life. The only person he ever truly trusted was his stud groom Will Harbutt and their story is for another blog.
He lost one race and most people who know the story still blame Johnny Loftus, his jockey for the loss. Whether or not Loftus was to blame matters no more, because the loss in the end did not matter. What Man O’ War did in 1920 no other horse has done since. He was like nothing that ever touched the track. He was as he was, the horse people looked for when they picked stallions and mares for breeding. The horse trainers dreamt of at night. The horse that jockeys would have done anything to ride even for a morning work just to say that they once rode Big Red. He captured the imagination and in the half twighlight of history we still see him, hear his pounding hooves and see his fire in the eyes of our champions. He has never really left us.
What did this magnificent beast do that was so remarkable? He did not shave records, or trim them. He crushed them. He literally smashed records by seconds and all under a hold by the time the race was over. Statements like speed in reserve, won under a pull and never extended fill his race record. This is not so for other horses. No one ever knew how fast he was because his trainer and owner were worried if they let him run as he wished he would hurt himself. That fantasy of speed he carried would have to wait until he was let loose in his paddock at stud then the legend could race as he wished and follow the wind as was his calling.
Human beings are merely witnesses to moments like Man O War. We have no right to say he belonged to us though as our Bucephalus, our extension of who were we like to think he belonged to us. He was no more ours than lightening or thunder. We were the spectators. The by standers awe struck as he ran past tail waving behind him like a red banner. I did not have to be there to have seen him to know that was who Man O War was because I see him every day in his descendent, my mare K who is every bit his daughter.
There is no other Big Red for me. He was the reason I fell in love with horse racing because when I was a little girl he was the first racehorse I was introduced to and he was why I became obsessed with Thoroughbreds. I saw Secretariat, Ruffian and Seattle Slew and cheered for Affirmed but none came close to the colt August Belmont bred, the son of Fair Play and Mahubah. And they never have. When someone mentions Big Red I see the colt that carried the Glen Riddle silks at Belmont the day he won the Lawrence Realization stakes by 100 lengths. Clarence Kummer his jockey was told to rate him. The crowd wanted to see him run as fast as he could but Louis Fuestal his trainer and his owner Sam Riddle knew that no horse, not even Man O War could run as fast as he wanted for a mile and 5/8ths. But what Man O War did that day was not remarkable for the overwhelming distance be put between himself and his competition it was how he did it. If you open up the time for the race you will be amazed because of his consistency and ease. He did not shave the world record in that race either. He crashed it by 1 minute 3/5 seconds and the other remarkable thing? He was not pushed by other horses. He crashed that record like he did others on his own for the love of speed alone.
It is easy to look at other horses that came later, who had the luxury of faster tracks and science behind them and say there that is the greatest but long after they are gone we will still be looking to Man O War and saying yes but they were not like him. Why? Because no horse has so captured the human heart so vividly as he did. He stepped out of our imaginations and into reality and owned that reality. For a brief time he showed us what perfection looked like. He was the horse bred by a war hero, named for a war ship who fought battles on the race track and won. He created his legend by his personality and because he changed the men and women around him. He left them awestruck to the point they were frightened by his power. Perhaps someday soon, maybe even now, a mare in Kentucky will give birth to an oversized chestnut colt with a star and uneven stripe on his head who will then take up where his ancestor left off, after all that is what the poet said,
“He’s a chestnut colt,
He’s got a star,
He may be another Man O War.”
As long as we worship the Thoroughbred the dream of another Man O War is still there.
So on this day happy 100th birthday, Man O War. Valhalla reverberates with your hoof beats that still echo at Belmont, Aqueduct, Saratoga and Pimlico. The horse whose fire is seen on our tracks every day to this day. The blood is still there. The horses know it to. All you have to do is look into a Thoroughbreds eyes and you will him, America’s Bucephalus.