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Breeders' Cup 2017

The Upset of Man o’ War: A Moment in Time

The date was August 13, 1919. The Chicago White Sox were just weeks away from shaking everyone’s faith in America’s pastime, and in the world of thoroughbred horse racing, the fates were preparing to conspire against perhaps our greatest thoroughbred in history. After six overpowering juvenile victories, Man o’ War was already being considered a superstar. Going in, Saratoga’s Sanford Memorial had all the looks of another routine victory for the imposing chestnut colt. Instead it would become one of the most important upsets in not only racing, but in the history of American sports.

Man o’ War, bred by August Belmont, owned by Sam Riddle, trained by Louis Fuestel, and ridden by Johnny Loftus, had swept through his first half-dozen races as if he would never lose. Truly a man among boys, Man o’ War had won a maiden race at Belmont Park on June 6 by six easy lengths and then proceeded to dominate five consecutive stakes races at Belmont, Jamaica, Aqueduct and Saratoga. It wasn’t that he was winning each race, or the margin of victory in each race, but it was the ease in which he was doing it that set him apart. “Eased final 16th” and “Never extended” were becoming familiar comments for the big, red youngster.

By his fourth lifetime start, Man o’ War was already being saddled with 130 pounds in an attempt to even out the playing field. It made little matter, and in his sixth race and win, he carried that impost while easily winning the U.S. Hotel Stakes at Saratoga on August the 2nd. On that afternoon, his closest pursuer in the ten-horse field was a Whitney Stable runner named Upset, who at 115, was in receipt of 15 pounds from the winner. Eleven days later the two colts would be back at the same track, and running at the same distance in the Sanford Memorial.


Unfortunately, it cannot be said that the race went off without a hitch. The most consistent account of how the race was run goes something like this: The regular starter was out sick, so a replacement starter, who was said to be up in years, would be in charge of getting the horses off from the barrier fairly. It did not happen. The heavily favored son of Fair Play was reportedly not facing the right direction when the field was sent on their way. With no chance of taking the early lead as accustomed, Man o’ War would need to rally if he were to remain perfect.


His well-regarded stablemate, and supposed main competition, Golden Broom, would make the early lead with Upset close behind. After his bad start, Man o’ War moved up to fourth after a quarter mile, of the 6th furlong race, was completed.  As Golden Broom began to weaken, it was Upset, who took over early in the stretch.  Man o’ War, who had encountered traffic throughout the race, and had been shut off on the rail, was now swung wide under Loftus for a final attempt to catch the leader, who again was getting 15 pounds from the big horse. It was not to be. The big upset was pulled off by Upset, who won by what the charts call a half-length, but many said was even less.


The enormity of the upset sprung by Upset only became larger as the true greatness of Man o’ War was revealed. He defeated Upset on numerous occasions after the loss, each time easily. In fourteen races after the Sanford, the great horse won each time, and was barely ever challenged in many of the biggest races on the American racing landscape. He has been voted as the greatest horse ever to grace a racetrack many times. His lifetime record reads: 21 races, 20 wins … and one narrow, troubling loss.

There has been much written about the Sanford since, that have raised many questions. How many lengths did Man o’ War lose at the start? How much trouble did Loftus get his mount into during the race? Did the jockeys have something stewed up to guarantee a loss for the prohibitive favorite? Nearly a hundred years later, it is hard to know for sure. What we do know is that on the afternoon of August 13, 1919, Upset won and Man o’ War lost, believe it or not.


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Older Comments about The Upset of Man o’ War: A Moment in Time...

Both the rider and the starter for the Sanford were forever run out of the racing game after this contest and forced to take the "blame" of a simple error in judgement.
white sox became known as the black sox. famous quote was "say it ain't so, joe". in this case it could have been "say it ain't so, man o' ".
Riddle would have never allowed him in what he called the contraption..Do you not recall his pushing for no starting gate in the War Admiral Sebiscuit match race??
If only they invented a starting gate 20 years earlier...
It really is a shame he got beat, it would have been great if he could have gone undefeated. But he was still a great horse.
@BrianZipse : "KILROY" left his mark in every European country during WWII and he is forgotten already, so sad.Sorry Brian but a link to a site "TOUTING" Man o War as the best horse is not the place to go for etymology correctness.As for not understanding me I'm sorry about that but I don't feel the need for lengthy explanations on simple subjects except in this case.Have a nice day.
I enjoyed reading this article, thank you for publishing it. I believe Man o' War was the best horse of all time.
Quoting from THE GREAT ONES, published by the Bloodhorse in 1970. A contemporary writer observed: "Man o' War is the champion. He never was so great as he was in defeat . . . He overcame two of his rider's errors and would have made amends for the third if it had not been committed so close to the winning post. He stood a drive such as no other colt had been asked to do in the last 20 years without flinching . . . Never will his courage be questioned henceforth. It was an unknown quality, for he had never before been put to test. When the test came, he was not found wanting . . ."
Good article. Man o'War will always be my favorite. I doubt we will ever see another such consistently dominating performer.
Thank you, Michael, you beat me to it. The horse, Upset, is NOT the origin of the surprising sports outcome, as so commonly believed. Icyhotboo, as if often the case with your comments, I have no idea what you are talking about.
MichaelHarris : Obviously this site is flawed as it "shamelessly" states Man o War was the best horse of all time not to even mention the slandering of Citation. "KILROY WAS HERE"
hate to be a killjoy, but http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/upset
...he is "da mostest hoss"...thank you for recounting the Sanford for us!
Thanks for this, Brian. My first love - Man O' War. I fell in love with a portrait of him when I was ten years old.
A postscript to this story, the only loss of the great Man O' War's career is that the term, "upset" hadn't been used to describe what we consider a favorite losing any type of sporting event. By virtue of his "upset" of Man O' War, Upset, the thoroughbred became part of our sports lexicon.
Man O' War is, without a doubt, my favorite racehorse of all time. Always has been. Thanks for this article, Brian.

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