Man o’ War to skip the Kentucky Derby, 1920

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.”1

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.”2

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.”3

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…”4

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 star5. 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.”6

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!


  1. “Man o’ War owner visits Lexington…” Daily Racing Form, 1920 February 6 []
  2. “Man o’ War may not start in the Preakness,” New York Herald Tribune, 1920 February 6 []
  3. “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 []
  4. “Some Views of an Eminent Trainer,” Daily Racing Form, 1920 February 25. []
  5. Reference here is to Samuel Hildreth who was Purchase’s trainer []
  6. “Man o’ War out of Kentucky Derby and will not be pressed,” New York Herald, 1920 February 14 []

Filed in Kentucky Derby,Man O' War,Riddle, Samuel

7 Responses to “Man o’ War to skip the Kentucky Derby, 1920”

  1. Marlaine Meeker says:

    Spring has finally sprung,Colin’s Ghost is back. Such an interesting post. And the irony involved along with a wisdom that maybe lacking today.Thanks so much and I second your endorsement of both Dorothy Ours books! Great to see you again!

  2. “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.”–OMG! Talk about hitting the nail on the head, especially when you think back over recent years…amazing how things haven’t changed in nearly a century!!

    Welcome back 🙂

  3. Kurt J says:

    Thank you, as always, for your enjoyable column.

  4. Don Reed says:

    I ordered a copy of Battleship; the Amazon reviews were excellent (and very well written).

    Kevin, I bought a copy of Belmont handicapper Tony Betts’s memoir, “Across The Board” (1956) and have just finished reading it. I am truly sorry I hadn’t read it at the very start of my interest in racing, back in 1985.

    His real name was Anthony Zito, a Brooklyn high-school dropout with a wicked sense of humor and an unquenchable thirst for the horses and reading the classics.

    The memoir is also an in-depth history of the people running the races in NYC/Saratoga before the pari-mutual machines were installed in 1940; and the gangsters and bookies and flotsam and jetsam that swirled around the tote boards. Post-1940 is covered as well. Never a dull paragraph.

    My question is, have you ever heard of him? If so, and if you know anything about him, you could bat out an entire column about him that would be of great interest to your readers.

    Thanks again for the Battleship tip.

    Don Reed

  5. Don Reed says:

    Imagine what Riddle’s reaction would have been had he seen Harlan’s Holiday being ridden to a crisp and then flaming out in the Derby.

  6. Tom Cassidy says:

    Shakespeare once asked, “what’s in a name?”

    Karma, perhaps?

    Man o’ War skipped the 1920 Kentucky Derby – but his karmic namesake Paul Jones won it.

    Still don’t buy it?

    Secretariat skipped the 1973 Travers Stakes – you know, the “Summer Derby”? However, his karmic namesake Annihilate ‘Em won that race (with Ron Turcotte up, no less.)

  7. Tom Cassidy says:

    Sometimes I ponder the frame of Sam Riddle’s outlook and how it must have changed over the years. He said didn’t believe a horse should run that far that early in the year. Also, he seemed to have what to modern eyes is an absurd quirk against racing in Kentucky – fine for breeding his horses but not for racing them?

    In 1920 they weren’t yet called the Triple Crown, but the hoopla about America’s three richest races for three-year-olds had already begun – why else would the press mention Riddle’s choice to skip one and possibly two of the races?

    Later that year Riddle planned on retiring Man o’ War after the Potomac Handicap but then accepted race challenge against Sir Barton in the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup. (Canada then had outlawed match races, so Dixie Knight was invited to send Exterminator. “Ol’ Bones” was formally entered but then was scratched and raced somewhere else that day.)

    Was it just for the money? I doubt it. Yes, Riddle and all North America knew his was the better horse – after all, Man o’ War won the Preakness and Belmont in better times than did Sir Barton. But something may have nagged at his conscience: Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, which Man o’ War would never do thanks to Riddle’s choice.

    Besides, until this point Man o’ War had never run against an older horse.

    So Man o’ War proved Riddle’s point viz-a-viz Sir Barton, by seven lengths.

    Riddle would profess to ignore the Kentucky Derby but his original remarks must have nagged him over the years. It didn’t help when Herb Gardner’s Clyde Van Deusen – one of Man o’ War’s lesser sons – won the 1929 Derby. And to see Jim Woodward’s sire-son team of Gallant Fox and Omaha win plaudits for taking the triple crown (note the non-capitalization), as the three races had come to be called by 1935, must have worn down Riddle enough to consent to send War Admiral in 1937 (Riddle’s only Derby entry, by the way.)