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Man O’ War: Was He the Greatest or Fastest Horse to Race?

Last updated: July 20, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

There have been many great horses that have raced over the years. Some were faster than others, but there was one horse who is often considered to be the greatest of them all – Man o’ War.

In addition to being one of the most successful horses ever, Man o War is also considered to be one of the fastest. Over the course of his career, this equine powerhouse would go on to win 20 of the 21 races and set seven speed records over various distances.

Man o’ War was incredibly fast and had incredible endurance, making him the perfect candidate for racing. He was a force to be reckoned with on the track, and his influence on racing is still present; Man o’ War is found in almost all modern American racehorses’ pedigrees.

In this article, we will look at Man o’ War and find out why he is often considered the greatest horse to ever race.

Picture of Man o' War winning the Belmont Stakes.

Man o’ War

Man o’ War was born in 1917 near Lexington, Kentucky. He was sired by the stallion Fair Play, who was the leading sire in North America in 1920, 1924, and 1927. His dam Mahubah was listed as a Cluster Mare for producing multiple offspring to win five or more of the top eight horse races.

Interestingly enough, when Man o War was put up for auction as a yearling at Saratoga Springs Race Course, Sam Riddles’ bid of $5,000 was successful. Two years later, Mr. Riddle was offered $400,000 for his horse which he turned down.

At Mr. Riddle’s farm, the young colt grew to be a tall, imposing chestnut stallion. He was so big that the farmhands nicknamed him “Big Red.” Most notably, he was a spirited horse with straight legs and a bit of swayback.

Man o’ War was named in honor of its breeder, August Belmont Jr., who joined the US Army during World War I. While he was away in France, his wife named the foal Man o’ War. From the beginning of his racing career, Man O’War was a betting favorite. In just his second race, Man o’ War managed to win by an impressive 20 lengths.

Several sports publications, including The Blood-Horse, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and the (AP) Associated Press, voted Man o’ War the best American racehorse of the 20th century.

The big red stallion won 20 out of 21 races during his racing career and set records in countless races. He won every major race of his time, including the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga Springs and the Belmont Futurity Stakes.

When Man o’ War retired, he was the top money earner in American racing history. The National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame honored his achievements and opened a special exhibition in his honor, “Man o’ War at 100”.

Man o’ War after he retired from racing.

After retiring from racing at only three years old, Man o’ War went on to become one of the most successful studs in American History.

Although Man o’ Wars’ was limited to breeding about 25 mares a year, he produced 62 stakes winners, including triple crown winner War Admiral.

Man o’ War was the leading sire in North America in 1926 and was runner-up in 1928, 1929, and 1937. Today, he is considered one of the most influential stallions in American Thoroughbred breeding history.

Man o’ War’s death

Man o’ War, the great thoroughbred who died on November 1st, 1947 at 30 years old was embalmed and buried in an oak casket. It is believed that he was America’s first horse to be accorded such a funeral service.

The funeral service for Man o’ War was a spectacular event that included nine eulogies, was broadcast on radio waves across America and lasted approximately 30 minutes. His casket remained open as if to remind people of his accomplishments.

Was Man O’War the Fastest Horse Ever?

Without a doubt, Man O’War was superior in speed, endurance, and ability to best all the horses of his time, even while carrying more weight than all his competitors. But it is difficult to say with any degree of confidence that a racehorse is the fastest or the best because there are several determinable factors that affect speed and can’t recreate.

For example, the race format, racecourse conditions, racehorse age, and medication are a few factors that vary immensely. Some racehorses are the best because of the carrier span, and others may be claimed the best due to the track surfaces or the race formats. However, during his racing career, Man O’ War won the Hopeful Futurity, Belmont, and Withers, among others.

He also won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and was named Horse of the Year in 1920. The huge, muscular horse with the bright red coat outshone most of his competitors on the track, often easily winning by multiple lengths.

Even with so many variables that play a role in speed, we can say that on a dirt track, without carrying excessive weight, Man o’ War would be in contention as the fastest horse of all time.

Why is Man O’ War Famous?

Man O’ War is famous and will remain so for numerous reasons. One, he raced only 21 races within a short span of time, and out of these all races, he won 20. His posture, stride length, speed, and pedigree are a few traits that make him famous.

He raced against the odds; he was always burdened with the most weight and lowest odds. He also became famous because of the successes of his offspring. He was the father of War Admiral and grandsire of Seabiscuit.

He won the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths, a remarkable distance to win any race, but to do that against the top three-year-old Thoroughbreds is amazing. His 28-foot stride length is still the longest ever measured.

He was the first racehorse of that time that filled peoples’ purses with immense wealth. He crushed many of his competitors and always made many racing fans optimistic about his agility on the track.   

Picture of Man o' War

Did Man O’War ever win the Kentucky Derby?

One of the few famous American races that Man O’ War did not take part in was the Kentucky Derby because Samuel Riddle, his owner, did not believe in racing young horses 10 furlongs because he considered it too long for a young horse.

Also, the Derby was not as important in the 1920s as it is today, and the horse’s owner didn’t like racing in Kentucky, so he chose not to enter the field. Later, Man o’ War easily beat the field of horses in the Kentucky Derby at other races, indicating that he would likely have dominated the race had he been entered.

What Horse Beat Man O War?

“Upset” was the only horse that beat Man o War. In 1919, Man o’ War won 9 out of 10 starts, including Hopeful Stakes and Belmont Futurity, then the most important races for two-year-old horses in the United States. His only defeat was at Saratoga Racecourse, later dubbed the Cemetery of Champions, where he lost by a neck to a colt.

There is some debate over whether or not Man o War is related to Secretariat. One thing is for sure; Secretariat is not a direct descendant of Man o’ War. However, they do have a common relative, Fair Play.

Fair Play is the sire of Man o’ War and was the great-grandsire of Bold Ruler, who is Secretariat’s sire. So I guess they are very distant cousins.

Man O’ War v. Secretariat, Who Would Win?

There is no clear consensus on who would win a race between Man o’ War or Secretariat. Some claim that Secretariat was faster, while others say Man o’ War would win.

They both ran 21 races, of which Man O’War won 20 and was second in one race. On the contrary, Secretariat won 16 races, was second in 3, third in 1, and got off-tracked in one race.

Then there was a notable difference in the stride lengths of both; Man O War was good with a stride length of 28 feet, and  Secretariat was far behind with a stride length of 25.5 feet.

The argument for Man o’ War

Man o’ War ran on poor racing surfaces carrying heavier weights and had a more challenging schedule than Secretariat. He ran 21 races in two years. Man o’ War was so dominant as a two-year-old it was difficult to get races.

Man o’ War’s only loss was by a neck, and his failure to win could be attributed to a bad start from the gate. Secretariat lost four races, running second three times and third once out of 21 races.

Then when you include Man o’ War’s success as a sire, he was head and shoulders better than Secretariat. However, one thing is for sure: both of these horses were incredible athletes and are two of the greatest racehorses of all time.

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What racehorse has the longest stride?

Is Man O’ War related to Seabiscuit?

Yes, Seabiscuits’ father is the son of Man o’ War, making him Man o’ Wars’ grandson. Interestingly, one of the most significant horse racing events matched Seabiscuit, Man o’ Wars’ grandson, against War Admiral, Man o’ Wars’ son.