Flashback: A century ago, Man o' War broke Withers records

Flashback: A century ago, Man o' War broke Withers records
Photo: Time/Life Pictures/Getty Images

The Withers Stakes was once much more than a dead-of-winter, Grade 3 Kentucky Derby prep race at Aqueduct. Turn back the clocks 100 years, and you’ll discover a coveted event with a rich history, its status practically equal to that of the nascent Triple Crown events.

In those days, the Withers was a one-mile race held in the spring at Belmont Park, serving as a steppingstone toward the Belmont Stakes. It was practically a classic in its own right, and the list of winners read like a who’s who of champions and Hall of Fame inductees — Hanover, Domino, Colin, The Finn, Sir Barton… and the immortal Man o’ War.

There was never a more brilliant Withers winner than the fiery red colt Man o’ War, renowned to this day as one of the greatest Thoroughbreds to ever set foot on a racetrack. A brilliant juvenile, the likes of which had never been seen in North America, Man o’ War made history during his 3-year-old campaign, shattering records and trouncing his rivals with unprecedented ease.

“Physically, Man o’ War was a glowing chestnut, almost red, standing 16 hands 1 5/8 inches,” wrote William H. P. Robertson in The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. “He girthed 71 3/4 inches and weighed 1,100 pounds in training… He had a straight profile, large nostrils, stout neck and a broad chest. His barrel was unusually long, his hind legs straight and his gaskins exceptionally powerful looking. He stood over a lot of ground and strode over considerably more; estimates of his stride varied between 25 and 28 feet…”

Man o’ War’s first record-breaking run came in the 1920 Withers Stakes, just 11 days after he opened his season with an easy victory in the Preakness Stakes. Only two rivals turned out to oppose Man o’ War, but in keeping with the bold campaigns of the day, one of his challengers was Wildair. After finishing third behind Man o’ War in the Preakness, the capable colt had turned around on short rest to defeat older rivals in the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap.

A Preakness champion and a Met Mile winner squaring off in the Withers? Such a showdown could never happen on the modern calendar, but there were no such restraints in 1920, setting up a highly anticipated battle. “The record for the Withers mile is 1:38 2-5,” wrote the New York Herald of May 29, 1920. “Sir Barton was the winner last May in 1:38 4-5. Man o’ War may set a new record this afternoon and beat Wildair by a couple of lengths.”

The New York Herald was correct in one respect: Man o’ War did beat Wildair by a couple of lengths. But the newspaper seriously underestimated how fast Man o’ War could run.

With jockey Clarence Kummer in the saddle, Man o’ War was quickest into stride, cruising to a 1 1/2-length advantage through an opening quarter-mile in :24 flat.  Wildair tracked in second, but was never able to gain ground as Man o’ War lengthened his stride during the middle section of the race. The half-mile went in :47 1/5, an ambitious fraction for the day, and Man o’ War continued to roll along boldly through six furlongs in 1:11.

Entering the homestretch, Man o’ War was essentially in a race against time. Wildair was beaten, unable to challenge, and as Man o’ War cruised uncontested down the lane, multiple records were within reach.

Across the finish line Man o’ War triumphantly galloped, eased up by Kummer, in the blazing time of 1:35 4/5.  He had shattered the stakes record for the Withers. He had trounced the track record 1:36 3/5. He even cracked the American record of 1:36 1/5 for a race against formal competition.

“Normally it requires two horses to break a record — one to force the other to run faster than usual,” wrote Robertson. “’Big Red’ was under no pressure to set his records; he ran fast for the sheer joy of it, and he didn’t shave or clip existing records. He shattered them.”

Man o’ War’s exploits made headlines across the country. In Texas, the El Paso Times published a story on June 9, 1920, opining that “[Man o’ War’s] performance in the Withers Stakes was by far one of the most remarkable ever witnessed. Jockey Kummer was compelled to hold the colt in practically the entire distance, and he snapped over the line with his head bowed low, so strongly did Kummer pull him.”

“I knew he was breaking a record, but I knew it was best not to let him out,” Kummer revealed. “He could have done the mile a full second or more better and still have been held in… Man o’ War was never fully extended at any time.”

It’s safe to say Man o’ War was a superstar. And it’s safe to say that as the race renews Saturday, the Withers has changed a lot in the last 100 years.

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.

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