Apr 7th 2014 11:11 pm |
Many historians have identified the late 1910s as the moment when the Kentucky Derby began its upward trajectory towards it current standing as the most famous race in North America and, arguably, the world. The evolution to becoming America’s most prestigious race had moments that makes its present place in time anything but inevitable. One of those moments came in 1920, when the owner of “the horse of the century” decided the skip the race at Churchill.
On Friday February 6th, the Daily Racing Form reported the following:
“Mr. and Mrs. S.D. Riddle of Glen Riddle, Pa., who have the distinction of owning Man o’ War, the champion two-year-old of 1919, as well as a number of other high-class thoroughbreds, are in Lexington to see a number of mares they own and to arrange for their mating during the coming season.”
One day later in the New York Tribune, the news broke from Lexington that Man o’ War would not compete in the Kentucky Derby:
Samuel Riddle, of Philadelphia, owner of the noted three-year-old racer Man o’ War, said here tonight that the crack son of Fair Play and Mahuba will not be started in the Kentucky Derby in May and possibly will not start in the Preakness at Baltimore.
Riddle said Man o’ War is now in Maryland being prepared for his 1920 engagements, which include the richest prizes of the year in this country, excepting the two events named.
Riddle said he did not believe in hurrying Man o’ War and that he will not race again until he is prime condition.”
Similar reports appeared in the Daily Racing Form and New York Times. The DRF added that the news would be “welcome information for owners of three-year-olds who have been figuring their chances slim if Man o’ War should be a starter for the Kentucky Derby.” The New York Times reported that Riddle said that Man o’ War would be “so carefully trained that he [would] be ‘cherry ripe’ when he is started along the line of his engagements.”
After these relatively brief reports, one might imagine a great deal of debate about the decision in the racing and sports press. So what was the reaction in the racing community to the greatest 2-year-old in a generation skipping the richest American race for 3-year-olds? Well, it is hard to tell. A check of the available online sources finds little in the way of comment outside of reporting the facts.
The Daily Racing Form in a preview of the possible Derby entries included one solitary line about Man o’ War:
With Mr. Riddle’s determination not to enter Man o’ War, the undisputed champion of 1919, it is hard to say just which of the three-year-olds of the present season would be considered as the top of the band…”
A columnist at the New York Herald, who wrote under the simple by-line “Daniel”, provided the only commentary (that I could find) about Sam Riddle’s decision to forego the Derby for his beloved Man o’ War. On February 14th, about a week after the announcement, he wrote:
The news that Man o’ War the champion two-year-old of last year will not start in the Kentucky Derby and many not go to the post in the Preakness will detract from the general interest in these classics, but no doubt will make great friends of the colt rejoice. It had been noted rather poignantly in recent years that particularly among the three-year-olds an early and brilliant start means a poor finish. To the owner who needs the money this may not mean so much, but to a sportsman like Mr. Riddle, who owns Man o’ War achievement stands out above financial considerations. He is determined that Man o’ War shall not suffer the fate of Sir Barton last year.
It will be remembered that as a two-year-old Sir Barton practically was unknown. He came out for the Kentucky Derby and his remarkable victory in that event stamped him as one of the greatest three-year-olds in the history of the turf. When he won the Preakness too the racing world rang praises. This colt was a greater Colin, we were told. Sir Barton went on to score a hollow victory in the Belmont in almost record time. But soon the colt began to tire under the strain of constant training. Came the defeat by Purchase, and many of the critics began to lose sight of the outstanding qualities of Commander Ross’s crack and took heaping encomium on Hildreth’s star. As matters turned out there was no question that Sir Barton won the three-year-old championship. But many experts credited the title to Purchase. Mr. Riddle seems to be determined to prevent such an occurrence in regard to Man o’ War. In his case it would be very unfortunate.”
That’s right: Praise for an owner with a sound, exceptional 2-year-old skipping the Kentucky Derby. Something tells me the reaction might be different and a bit more voluminous should an owner make a similar decision today.
Man o’ War won both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He ran eleven times as a 3-year-old and, of course, won them all. There is few who doubt that Man o’ War would have been the second Triple Crown winner in history if Sam Riddle had sent him to Churchill Downs. However, not winning the Kentucky Derby has done nothing to degrade Man o’ War’s legacy as one of the greatest horses ever bred in America.
News & Notes
If you are interested in reading more about Man o’ War, author Dorthy Ours A Legend Like Lightning is well worth your time. Her latest book, Battleship, is also highly endorsed by the crew at Colin’s Ghost.
Sorry for the lack of activity on this site so far this year. My real job has been a time suck but there is help on the way! Should have time for more consistent content updates by the time summer rolls around.
Thanks for reading and good luck!
Sources / Notes
- “Man o’ War owner visits Lexington…” Daily Racing Form, 1920 February 6 [↩]
- “Man o’ War may not start in the Preakness,” New York Herald Tribune, 1920 February 6 [↩]
- “Man o’ War will start in the rich early stakes,” New York Times, 1920 February 7. “No early racing for Man o’ War,” Daily Racing Form, 1920 February 8 [↩]
- “Some Views of an Eminent Trainer,” Daily Racing Form, 1920 February 25. [↩]
- Reference here is to Samuel Hildreth who was Purchase’s trainer [↩]
- “Man o’ War out of Kentucky Derby and will not be pressed,” New York Herald, 1920 February 14 [↩]