Mar 23rd 2012 12:30 pm |
Few questions in horse racing history intrigue me more than the question of who was the greatest American Thoroughbred ever? It is a question far too complex to ever be answered definitively, but it does inspire great conversation.
The conclusion on America’s greatest usually lands on the triumvirate of Secretariat, Citation, and Man o’ War. Living memory, that is people who were alive while a particular horse ran, tends to influence how people divide on this question. The one horse that has outlasted the prejudice of living memory is, of course, Man o’ War.
Perhaps the best evidence of this came in 1999 when he was named the greatest racehorse of the 20th century by the Bloodhorse. No horses in the Bloodhorse’s top ten raced prior to 1940 and only two raced prior to 1950 (Citation and Count Fleet). Needless to say, the top of list overemphasizes the second half of the century with the lone exception of Man o’ War.
The post-mortem ability of Man o’ War to outrun his odds and finish ahead of horses like Secretariat on “racing’s greatest” lists becomes especially intriguing when considering the contemporary opinions of a few race writing powerhouses. Grantland Rice, Walter Vosburgh, and John Hervey — three writers who watched Man o’ War during his career — had opinions about the great race horses that might surprise the modern racing fan.
In Grantland Rice’s outstanding autobiography, The Tumult and the Shouting, he wrote:
“A race horse must be judged in three directions — speed, stamina, and time — the time he lasts. So while we might rate Man o’ War and Citation as the greatest three-year-olds, neither should be classed as the greatest horse. I think that distinction belongs to Exterminator…”
Grantland Rice wrote about many sports so maybe his opinion doesn’t hold as much weight. However, Walter Vosburgh, who spent his entire life in racing and likely watched most (if not all) of Man o’ War’s career races, wouldn’t even go as far as to call him “great.”
According to Walter Vosburgh’s obituary from the New York Times in 1938, he thought Man o’ War a “good horse.” In his long career he only counted three horses as the greatest of the American turf: Sysonsby, Henry of Navarre, and Salvator.
These are opinions of two writers with little in the way of exposition. But, these simple claims are supported by historian John “Salvador” Hervey’s detailed description of why Man o’ War might be undeserving of his status as racing’s greatest.
In a 1924 article for the Daily Racing Form, he laid out a compelling case against Man o’ War. Making a claim that it was a PR machine (still a relatively new concept in 1924) that created the Man o’ War legend.
Here is an excerpt from his article (read it in its entirety at DRF):
Personally. I have always regarded the reputation of Man o’ War as overblown. To the discriminating, the fulsome, and perfervid [intense] ‘bunk’ and ‘hokum’ that have marked his career, from the publicity standpoint, have prejudiced, rather than elevated, his prestige.
“The deluge of superlatives, the flaming headlines proclaiming him the ‘Wonder Horse of All Time,’ and the like, have nauseated many turfmen well competent to judge of greatness. That he was a marvelous racing machine, and a speed marvel as well, nobody for a moment wishes to deny. But the fact remains, and always will remain, that during his career of conquest he never beat a first-class horse, or one even approaching first-class estate, with the sole exception of Sir Barton…
It is doubtful if any modern American thoroughbred ever excited the enthusiasm, or so appealed to the popular imagination, as did Salvator, until Man o’ War appeared. ‘Publicity’ was, in Salvator’s era, an ‘infant industry’ in comparison with what it has since become. The furor that attended him was neither trumped up nor pumped up. Neither his owner nor his trainer cultivated the ‘fourth estate’ for the purpose of reclame [publicity] and the prestige he attained was a spontaneous emotion, due exclusively to the splendor of his performances.
When we recall the enormous vogue that the ‘movie’ of the Man o’ War-Sir Barton ‘match’ enjoyed, and the great factor it was in making the general public of the United States of America acquainted with him, we realize that Salvator’s fame in his day was but a shadow of what such a horse would today achieve. The Man o’ War-Sir Barton ‘picture’ was absolutely destitute of thrills, because there was not a moment of real contest in it…
An absolutely fascinating observation from a racing writing legend, who came to these conclusions just a few years after Man o’ War concluded his career.
The publicity machine that, according to Hervey, created the perception of Man o’ War’s greatness increased in intensity later when he emerged as a successful sire and became a celebrity in his old age at Faraway Farm in Kentucky. In 1947, the horse’s funeral was broadcast over the radio! That alone would convince anyone that he must be the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle, right?
Of course, one could surmise that Hervey, Rice, and Vosburgh were simply taking the well worn path of the contrarian. However, if we take them at their word, three legendary writers didn’t consider Man o’ War the greatest runner of his era, let alone the greatest of all-time. That is a tough piece of evidence to overlook.
SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES
“Will Man o’ War Prove a Great Sire,” Daily Racing Form, 18 March 1924
“Walter Vosburgh, Turf Leader, Dies,” New York Times, 12 September 1938
Grantland Rice, The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sport, 1954
Thanks for reading and good luck!
Filed in thoroughbred racing history