On this day in 1920, Man O’ War wins the 52nd Belmont Stakes, and sets the record for the fastest mile ever run by a horse to that time. Man O’ War was the biggest star yet in a country obsessed with horse racing, and the most successful thoroughbred of his generation.
Man O’ War was sired by the champion Fair Play, one of the most successful sires in racing history, and purchased by Samuel D. Riddle in 1918 from August Belmont Jr., son of the racing guru for whom the Belmont Stakes was named. As a two-year-old in 1919, Man O’ War won nine out of ten races under jockey Johnny Loftus. His only loss that year came at the Sanford Memorial Stakes, in which his back was to the starting line at the beginning of the race. At that time, before the advent of starting gates, a rope was all that held horses back from starting their run. The Sanford turned out to be the only loss of Man O’ War’s racing career.
As a three-year old, Man O’ War dominated the field. Loftus was denied a jockey’s license that year, so Clarence Kummer rode “Big Red,” as Man O’ War came to be known. The horse skipped the Kentucky Derby, as his trainers deemed the mile-and-a-quarter race to be too grueling so early in the season, so the Preakness Stakes was Man O’ War’s coming out party. He won easily.
Man O’ War entered the Belmont Stakes as an overwhelming 1-to-20 favorite, largely because only one horse, Donnaconna, was entered against him. With victory over Donnaconna seemingly assured, Big Red’s real race that year was against the world record for a mile and three furlongs (2:16.8), which had been set in 1908 by the horse Dean Swift in Liverpool, England. The American record of 2:17.4 had been set by Sir Barton at the 1919 Belmont. Man O’ War took more than two seconds off both times, running the race in 2:14.2 on his way to a 20-length victory. Donnaconna finished the race a full 1/16 of a mile behind the winner.
In his final race, Man O’ War defeated the 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton by seven lengths at the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup in Windsor, Ontario. It marked Man O’ War’s 20th win in 21 races.