Jul 5th 2012 08:00 am |
I recently moved from Kennett Square to Media, Pennsylvania. Media is a small town about fifteen miles from Center City Philadelphia. Among its famous residents is Samuel Riddle, owner of the racing stable Glen Riddle Farm under whose colors Man o’ War and War Admiral ran. Not far from my new home is Rose Tree Park the former site of the Rose Tree Hunt Club, one of the oldest hunt clubs in America where Riddle served as president. It was there on October 20, 1920 that Riddle sent his legendary horse to make the only public appearance in his home state of Pennsylvania before being shipped to Kentucky to begin his stud career.
Soon after announcing the end of Man o’ War’s career, Riddle was besieged with offers to sell or display his great colt and was even offered a movie deal. He turned down all offers and public appearances with one exception: a curtain call at the Rose Tree Hunt race meeting in Media.
On October 20 1920, Man o’ War appeared at Rose Tree along with boxing champion Jack Dempsey and local rowing champion Jack Kelly. Kelly had recently won two gold medals in the Antwerp Olympics and Dempsey was the reigning heavyweight champ. In an era when sports figures were first elevated to grand heights, Kelly and Dempsey were near the pinnacle of their fame in 1920. Even among sports royalty of the human kind, it was the horse who stole the show.
The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the event in their society pages. At the time, horse racing in Philadelphia wasn’t considered a “sporting” affair with no legal means to wager. Here’s how it was reported in the Inquirer October 21, 1920:
“Spontaneously as [the] tributes were rendered to the human champions, they were but the overflow from the store of adulation which had been retained for the wonder horse…
“…The multitude was unique in the annals of these events. Never before in the history of this racing organization has such a cosmopolitan crowd filtered through the gates and spread over the wide-rolling acres of the course. Men, women, and children were in the splendid gathering, and all strata of life were represented by the devotees of Man o’ War.”
A little known incident from the Man o’ War story is that it could have come to a bizarre and tragic end at Rose Tree. On the day of his appearance, Man o’ War was “brought from the farm of his owner, Samuel Riddle, early in the afternoon.” He was accompanied by his trainer Louis Feustel and his grooms as well as his stablemate, Major Treat, a retired racer who went everywhere with Riddle’s champion. The Inquirer described the near disaster:
“As the motor truck was swung open for the horse to slip down the plane the amiable and docile old Major [Treat] got down as befits a gentleman of his years and dignity. But Man o’ War, mettlesome and high spirited, could not stand to tread in stately fashion down the planks and he tried to take it in a leap. He slipped from the boards and just grazed his leg, an escape from an accident that caused all of his attendants to breathe a sigh of relief, and to permit them to understand how some men could feel when they almost lost $400,000, which is the price which Man o’ War now is worth in the estimation of the gentleman who follow the turf.”
After averting disaster, Man o’ War appeared after the third race of the day:
“Prancing and dancing like the beautiful animal he is, the wonder horse came along the sward [turf]. Cheers broke from every section of stand and field, and the ovation seemed to awaken in the horse a desire to show that he was kingly in his deportment as one might expect. With dignified step, his magnificent muscles rippling, like rivulets under his glossy coat, he permitted Gordon [his rider] to guide him up and down the turf, while the air re-echoed to the cheers and applause of the thousands, who seemed anxious to honor this horse as he had never been lauded before.”
After parading for the assembled 15,000 fans, Riddle asked for a picture with the three sports champions. While Dempsey and Kelly complied, Man o’ War “took exception to the photography.” His trainer Louis Feustel, “fearing the strain on his pet [he] ordered the camera job completed at once and waved Man o’ War back to his quarters.”
They did manage a few images even with Man o’ War’s recalcitrance, including the one below. Notice the distance Jack Kelly (left) is keeping and the defensive stance of the heavyweight champ:
A film of the event is available to preview online. I tried to license this film for the site but the cost was prohibitive. View it here
SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES
“15,000 at Opening of Rose Tree Hunt,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 October 1920
Thanks for reading!