Potentially the greatest horse to ever race missed the Kentucky Derby 100 years ago

Tim Sullivan
Louisville Courier Journal

In retrospect, it seems almost unthinkable. Arguably the greatest racehorse in history, Man o’ War, was denied his only shot at the Kentucky Derby.

The brilliant chestnut colt won all but one of his 21 career starts, often carrying considerably more weight than his competition and six times bettering the only horse to beat him, the aptly named Upset. He won the last two legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, and closed his racing career with a seven-length dusting of Sir Barton, America’s first Triple Crown winner.

Yet on May 8, 1920 — 100 years ago — Man o’ War was conspicuously absent from Churchill Downs, neither entered nor even nominated for the 46th Derby won by the gelding Paul Jones.

In retrospect, that omission seems ridiculous, akin to leaving Leonardo da Vinci out of the Louvre.

In retrospect, owner Sam Riddle’s concerns about the distance demands of the Derby seem excessively cautious considering the superhorse in his stable.

“When I was like 11 years old, my father used to buy all these horse books,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. “I remember the first book he had was (about) Man o’ War. That’s the first thoroughbred I ever heard of. Man o’ War wasthe horse until Secretariat. Man o’ War was like the Babe Ruth of horse racing.

“... I figured he won the Kentucky Derby until later on.”

Though Man o’ War was born, died and sired 381 named foals in Kentucky, he never raced within its borders. He raced 18 times in New York, twice in Maryland and once at Canada’s Kenilworth Park during a spectacular competitive career that spanned just 16 months.

With a stride measured at 28 feet and the strength to carry as many as 34 more pounds than his rivals, Man o’ War was the odds-on favorite every time he ran and once won a two-horse race at Belmont Park by 100 lengths.

“As close to living flame as horses get,” according to turf writer Joe Palmer, Man o’ War was named the No. 1 horse of the 20th century by a panel assembled by the Blood-Horse magazine in 1999. If skipping the Derby has diminished his stature, the difference is imperceptible.

“From the standpoint of a trainer turned fan, it wouldn’t even enter my mind,” said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner.

Born one day apart in 1861, Churchill Downs President Matt Winn and Riddle viewed the Derby through distinctly different lenses. While Winn’s promotional savvy and innovative initiatives were building the Derby into an event of national stature, Riddle maintained a more Eastern emphasis with a farm in Maryland and a cottage at Saratoga.

His stated concern was that a mile and a quarter was too much to ask in the spring of a thoroughbred’s 3-year-old campaign.

“They still think that,” Lukas said. “A hundred years later, that’s still thrown out there. We have all kinds of excuses that are chiseled in stone that we can use, and that’s one of them. They talk about that. They talk about the 20-horse field. I don’t think that ever affects anything, (but) that’s a real good excuse if you don’t want to run.”

Riddle was also reputed to have reservations about the uncertainties of Louisville’s spring weather and may have been influenced by a racing calendar that then separated the Derby from the Preakness by only 10 days.

“It just so happened that we didn’t want to risk the long trip to Kentucky,” trainer Lou Feustel later told The Thoroughbred Record. “Besides, Man o’ War was off his feed then, and I wanted to bring him along for the summer ... so that’s the real story.”

Perhaps it’s that simple. Though Lukas says claims a horse didn’t like a particular track or was off his feed are usually an indication “that there’s something else wrong,” Riddle said Man o’ War would skip the Derby as early as September 1919. Though it’s hard to imagine a modern horseman foreclosing that option so far in advance, the Derby was not then the preeminent race it is now.

“In 1920, the Derby was a big deal, there’s no doubt about that,” said Dorothy Ours, author of “Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning.” “It was emerging. It was contending to be one of the top races in the country. But it was by no means what it is today. It wasn’t a settled matter that the Derby was more important than the Belmont.”

The Derby’s growth corresponded to a period of stagnation in New York racing. While Churchill Downs’ purses grew dramatically following the 1908 installation of pari-mutuel machines, an anti-gambling law passed that same year led to the closure of all New York tracks from 1911 until 1913.

Donerail, a 91-1 longshot, raised the Derby’s profile with an upset victory in 1913. Two years later, Winn declared the Derby “an American institution” after the wire-to-wire win of Harry Payne Whitney’s filly, Regret.

“This is the greatest race in America at the present time, and I don’t care if she ever starts again,” Whitney said after the race. “The glory of winning this event is big enough.”

“Winn took that (statement) and ran with it,” said Ed Bowen, who has published 21 books on horse racing. “While it was true to say that was a big boost to the Kentucky Derby, it doesn’t mean that five years later everybody wanted to win the Derby above all else.”

Certainly not Riddle. By 1920, the Derby’s $30,000 purse was three times that of the Belmont Stakes (and worth roughly $387,000 in today’s dollars). Yet while Riddle would attend the Derby on numerous occasions following Man o’ War’s retirement and eventually nominated at least 11 horses to the race, he would Run for the Roses only once, and not until 1937.

War Admiral, Man o’ War’s most famous son, would complete the Triple Crown that year. Though Riddle evidently experienced a change of heart about the limits of exceptional 3-year-olds, Ours’ research revealed no evidence he regretted withholding Man o’ War from the Derby.

“I’m sure he got teased about it a lot,” she said. “(But) I think it just didn’t really matter to him. He was fine with what Man o’ War had done.

“... I think as years went on and the best offspring of Man o’ War were not running in the Derby, I think the desire to win the Derby did grow in him.”

He was not alone on that score. Though six champion 3-year-old males missed the Derby during the 1920s, only one did so during the 1940s. Since 1981, the only champion 3-year-old males to skip the Derby were either injured or unraced as 2-year-olds.

“It’s hard to imagine in any era that a horse was doing well and didn’t run in the Derby,” bloodstock agent Ric Waldman said. “I think the owners today will do anything they can to run the Derby except to run an unsound horse. (But) you can’t apply today’s methodology to 100 years ago.”

Retrospect only goes so far.