Next for your enjoyment in our “Author’s Corner” series is consummate story-teller Dorothy Ours’ double scoop of the immortal champion Man o’ War and his son, Battleship, who won the Grand National Steeplechase. Savor the experience!
By Dorothy Ours
What gives a horse wings to fly for a century and more? Ask Pegasus, the immortal winged horse of Greek mythology. And ask Man o’ War—a flesh-and-blood Thoroughbred, foaled in 1917, died in 1947, yet showing no sign of stopping.
Coincidentally, our immortal Man o’ War actually descended from a Pegasus. Ten generations separate “Big Red” from Pegasus (GB, 1784), a chestnut son of Eclipse himself. Yet this distant ancestor doesn’t feed Man o’ War’s enduring legend—just as Man o’ War’s similarly-distant genes in 21st-century champions don’t maintain his fame. Time edits ruthlessly. Go back 100 years or so in Big Red’s own pedigree and consider how little we know about Sister to Tuckahoe, Pawn Junior, Young Maid of the Oaks, or Golumpus Mare. Even leading sires such as Blacklock, Sultan, and Emilius don’t resonate now, except with diehard scholars of early 19th century Thoroughbreds.
Yet the name Man o’ War still rings a bell with a wide range of horse people and even a number of civilians, despite more than a century of data-clutter since his birth. The idea of him keeps running—and why is that? Hall of Fame status doesn’t guarantee any athlete a lasting grip on the public imagination. Most people won’t harbor those career stats for long. A rare horse, indeed, keeps finding holds in new souls, many decades after leaving this life. A horse so rare that humans impress his story on newcomers and keep reminders in plain sight.
What gives a horse wings to fly for a century and more? Clues peek out from the gaps between the immortal Man o’ War and his three Hall of Fame sons: Crusader, War Admiral, and Battleship.
Sooner or later, horse lovers and racing fans see an image of Man o’ War—online, in a print publication, or on TV. Virtually or in person, many thousands also see the larger-than-life statue presiding over his grave at Kentucky Horse Park. The Park not only attracts horsey people from all over—Man o’ War’s memorial stays open to the public perpetually, free except 9:00-5:00 parking fee. Spotlights even illuminate bronze Big Red at night.
His Hall of Fame sons?
The 21st century provides no shrine for Crusader, whose resting place near Ventura, California, now lies under man-made Lake Casitas.
War Admiral rests in public yet also in shadow. At Kentucky Horse Park, decorative shrubs loom above the Admiral’s simple gravestone, set flat on sloping ground in front of the pedestal that marries Man o’ War’s magnificent statue with the sky. Twenty-first century book-readers and movie audiences may recognize the name War Admiral, yet as a supporting player—that horse who lost to Seabiscuit.
Many horse fans haven’t known that a Hall of Fame son of Big Red is laid to rest at James Madison’s Montpelier, near Orange, Virginia—home place of the United States “Father of the Constitution.” Yet Battleship reposes on the front lawn, beneath a sturdy headstone, a few strides past President Madison’s ornamental “Temple.” During visitor hours, the public is at liberty to linger with him. Unlike Man o’ War’s Kentucky Horse Park crowd, however, folks who find Battleship won’t see markers describing his career and legend. If they don’t know, they won’t know.
On March 25, 1938, Battleship—all 15.2 hands of him—became the first American-raced winner of England’s Grand National Steeplechase. A news-wire photo leaped around the U.S. and Canada with the caption: “Soaring like a Pegasus, the American-bred, American-owned horse Battleship leads the way over the dangerous Becher’s Brook jump in the recent Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, England.” In flight, more than six feet above the ground on Becher’s landing side, sailing clear of the massive hedge instead of brushing his belly across the top, little Battleship looked even more Pegasus-like than the mighty Man o’ War ever had.
Battleship enjoyed a burst of international fame—then fresh flares in America, as owner Marion duPont Scottretired the 11-year-old stallion to her home: Montpelier. In September 1938, Mrs. Scott let Battleship parade at her brother William du Pont, Jr.’s Fair Hill races. A correspondent for The Maryland Horse magazine could barely believe his eyes: “Battleship is a very imposing horse, but his size makes you wonder just how he got over those terrible high fences at Aintree, unless he has some hidden wings.”
In a sense, Battleship’s wings went back into hiding. Relatively few people had followed his steeplechase champion season in the U.S.A., before his international triumph. Few saw him while he stood stud and completed his 31 years of life at Montpelier, far from Kentucky’s Bluegrass tourism mainstream.
Dorothy Ours at the landing side of Becher’s Brook at Aintree on the Grand National Course in April 2012, while researching “Battleship.” This shows how steep that drop is. Dorothy is 5′ 8″ tall. Photo was taken by a course attendant.
Man o’ War, on the other hand, never bothered hiding his wings. Racing folk saw him flaunting them weeks before he won his debut by six, at odds of 3 to 5. Effortless flight became his lasting image, with just enough exceptions in his 21 races to prove his courage—including his only defeat.
Mythology says that Pegasus, striking his hoof into the ground, created a stream in the land of the Muses that inspired poets who drank from it. Big Red struck out once, at Saratoga Springs, creating a blemish to fascinate humankind. Why did two-year-old Man o’ War lose the Sanford Memorial Stakes to Upset? More than 100 years later, humans still chew on this mystery.
That one loss became all the more compelling when Man o’ War went undefeated at age three, setting eight speed records in 11 starts. Mid-season, the Associated Press reported, “No competition. Unless Man o’ War can grow wings and become a Pegasus, flitting from planet to planet, he may be forced to retire because of no more available worlds to conquer.”
In his six remaining races, Man o’ War faced only ten opponents. The day after his final start—humbling Triple Crown champion Sir Barton in their match—the Nashville Banner newspaper ran a poem, “Let’s All Go,” by J. L. Ray, imagining Big Red’s ultimate contest in horse heaven:
“Maybe the boss of the saintly stables
Will fix up a race between ‘our boy’
And Pegasus, the winged steed,
And we only hope that we can get
Close enough to the speeding mounts
To lay a little wager of two
Bits with the saintly book-maker
That Man o’ War will trim the wonder
Steed of ancient years by six lengths—
Or maybe more.”
If this heavenly match now has happened, we Earthlings don’t know. We do know that more than a million people visited Man o’ War during his stud career and pensioner years … that he starred in advertisements for everything from a Schick repeating razor to a Zeiss Ikon camera to Mobilgas, alongside the red Pegasus logo … that the Central of Georgia Railway named its Atlanta/Columbus streamliner passenger train for him … that he even received his own “True-Thrilling Sport Short” section in a Joe Palooka comic book. And that his Saratoga mystery, plus near-invincibility, are warm currents that keep lifting Man o’ War’s great wings.
Whether in book form, feature articles, presentations, or conversations author and historian Dorothy Ours loves bringing Thoroughbred racing history to life.