Man o’ War is good, but he’s no Luke Blackburn, 1920

Jul 29th 2010 08:32 am |

Last week, the fine folks at the Keeneland Library sent a link via Twitter about opening day at Saratoga in 1920 from the Daily Racing Form archive. The article had much to say about Man o’ War, who was half-way through his 3-year-old campaign that summer.

One of the great things about horse racing is the never-ending debate about, well, everything but the most intriguing debates, in my opinion, are related to the all-time greats. Of course, most of the questions raised in ranking the greatest of all-time are unknowable, but that does nothing to stop the inevitable arguments.

One thing where most seem to agree is that Man o’ War ranks at the top of the all-time list. The “greatest of all-time” status, in all sports, usually falls to a figure where living memories still linger.  The fact that Man o’ War has survived this long at number one (or two) is quite a feat, considering that most who actually saw him run are long dead.

In the summer of 1920 Man o’ War had yet to prove himself to the old-timers. The older we become, the more adamant we are in defending the heroes of our youth. It is no coincidence then, that the horse with the most vocal support in 1920 was the one from the most distant past — it was the older generation who protested the loudest as their youthful counterparts shouted the praises of Man o’ War.

Under the headline “Past and Present Idols,” the unknown DRF reporter, wrote this in regards to the colt some were already tagging as the greatest ever:

“There are a great many persons from all sections of the United States, Canada, and Cuba [at Saratoga]. Many of them see racing at no other course in the United States, and among this class there is a desire to look upon Man o’ War. Many of these individuals have put a particular horse which they have seen here in the past on a pedestal.

“For some of them Sysonby was the greatest horse America has yet produced, while others are just as loud in their praises of Colin, but among those whose visits include 1880 there is no thoroughbred like Luke Blackburn. They urge that there is no way by which horses of different periods may be compared, but that the Dwyer three-year-old established a most enviable record in the year mentioned when he not only met the best of his own age, but conquered the then cracks of the handicap division at all distances and over all sorts of tracks early in the year…

“…they want to see [Man o’ War] in action against the best of the older division with the weight scale against him before they will agree with New Yorkers that the son of Fair Play is the greatest horse that this country has yet produced. They point to the fact that their hero [Luke Blackburn] ran twenty-four races as a three-year-old, of which he won twenty-one, fell in another which he had at his mercy, and was beaten in his first start through lack of condition…

“…The fact that Man o’ War has broken records, and seems capable of continuing his onslaughts on Father Time, has made little impression on the old-timers, who say that tracks are many seconds faster today than they were when their champion was racing, and nothing short of an actual test against the best of the older horses will satisfy them…”

Something tells me the old-timers at the Spa in 1920 would have stuck by Luke Blackburn no matter what Man o’ War did on the track, short of racing and dominating into his 4-year-old season (that was something that Luke Blackburn, like Man o’ War, failed to do).

The Luke Blackburn partisans at Saratoga in 1920 had a reason for backing him with such vigor. In the summer of 1880, he won seven times from seven starts at the Spa during his stellar 3-year-old campaign when he won twenety-one of twenty four. He finished his amazing run at Saratoga with a win in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes. After that win, “Albion,” a writer for the racing publication The Spirit of the Times, wrote this:

“My standard for a first-class race-horse is a high one….Small as he is, Luke Blackburn is a first-class race-horse, and I think would be so regarded in any country. He is unquestionably the fleetest horse in America – that is, [he] can run a mile out faster than any horse now on the turf, and he has so far gone one mile and a three-quarters, and is likely to go on as far as any of his engagements will call him.”

According to H. P. Richardson: “The immensely powerful horse was injured in his final start [as a three-year-old], and ran only twice at four, after which he retired to stud in his native state….”

Luke Blackburn would sire Proctor Knott who would finish ahead of the mighty Salvador three times in a career that included eleven wins from twenty-six starts. One of those wins was in the inaugural running of the Futurity Stakes in 1888 — now run as the Belmont Futurity — the richest race in America at the time. Luke Blackburn died in 1904 and was among the first inductees into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1956.

He might be forgotten today, but in his day, and for many years after, Luke Blackburn was considered the gauge by which all great colts were measured


“Some Famous Racing Colts from 1880,” Wallace’s Monthly, September 1880

“Past and Present Idols,” Daily Racing Form, 1 August 1920

The image of Luke Blackburn is from an 1889 article in the American Agriculturist.

Check out Luke Blackburn’s page from the recently redesigned website for the Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.

I have been posting a series about upcoming races for Hello Race Fans called “Ten Things.”  Much of the content is historical in nature, check it out:

Jessica from Railbird posted a series of images of Saratoga from 1939 that are worth a look.  And, Teresa from Brooklyn Backstretch put together a look back to opening day at the Spa in 1910.

The 1920 article is from the Daily Racing Form digital archive which is currentlly over 130,000 pages.  It is a tremendous resource and one we support here at Colin’s Ghost headquarters.


Filed in Luke Blackburn,Man O' War,Saratoga,Saratoga Race Course,thoroughbred racing history

4 Responses to “Man o’ War is good, but he’s no Luke Blackburn, 1920”

  1. Valerie says:

    Excellent piece on how perception and reality are both entirely relative. Only time will bear out the place our stars of today will have in history, but, sadly, with the sport’s significantly lower profile in society, I wonder if we’ll ever have another whose name will resonate through time. That Man O’War’s reputation continues is an extraordinary testament to the once prominent place horse racing held in America, but I wonder, would we remember him still if his name were something other than Man O’War? I think names can be talismans and somehow “Luke Blackburn” just doesn’t hold the magic of “Man O’War” or “Secretariat.”

  2. Ron says:

    Thanks, Kevin, for a terrific article on one of the sometimes forgotten great ones, Luke Blackburn.

  3. GaryD says:

    Thanks for Collin’s Ghost….Pittsburgh Phil, Luke Blackburn….so much’s wonderful……

  4. Teddy Lopez says:

    Kelso, was and, is the greatest racehorse of all-times. You get me a horse who has more credentials for the horse racing hall of fame. You’re gona fall short. Oh, and, don’t give me that crap that that’s cause he was a gelding and, was able to stick around long. The phenom was still setting records at 7 years old which would be like a human athlete still setting records at over 40 years of age! Kelsos’ biggest fan, Teddy.