Most people alive today never saw history’s most famous race horse, Man o’ War. But millions have seen his larger-than-life statue at the Kentucky Horse Park.
This year’s centennial celebration of Man o’ War’s birth rekindled memories for Patricia DeCamp, who as a 12-year-old girl in 1941 spent many days watching Man o’ War pose for the famous sculptor of that statue, Herbert Haseltine.
“I was an aspiring artist, and my mother was very pushy,” said DeCamp, a retired artist and wife of former Urban County Council member Richard DeCamp.
“She read in the paper that Mr. Haseltine was going to be here,” DeCamp said. “So we just drove out to Faraway Farm and I think she just said, ‘My daughter is artistic and very interested in what you're doing. Would it be all right if she observed you?’”
Man o’ War, who won 20 of 21 races in a spectacular two-year career, was retired to stud in Lexington after the 1920 season. He spent the last 25 years of his life at owner Sam Riddle’s Faraway Farm, which is now part of Mt. Brilliant Farm.
“Faraway was far away then, and he was lonesome as he could be,” DeCamp said of Haseltine. “He lived in Paris, or as we say here Paris, France. He was really glad to see anybody. So it worked out fine. He would come in and have dinner at our house and mother would have people there to meet him. He was very charming.”
DeCamp’s family, the McClures, owned Tynebrae Farm on Harrodsburg Road, across from the Campbell House Inn. It seems hard to believe now, but it was out in the country. Waller Avenue had not been cut through from South Limestone, and St. Joseph Hospital was still downtown.
Haseltine spent several weeks in Lexington that year, making a small model of Man o’ War. The horse’s beloved groom, Will Harbut, would hold him steady for an hour or more at a time while the sculptor worked.
“Many human models are more difficult to work with than Man o’ War,” Haseltine told a reporter at the time. “He seems to like it.”
Man o’ War was accustomed to attention: Thousands of tourists came to Faraway Farm each year to see him.
Haseltine (1877-1962) was one of the world’s best animal sculptors, and Man o’ War became perhaps his most famous statue. Another was the equestrian statue of George Washington at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
After graduating with an art history degree from Vassar College, DeCamp studied painting at the Art Students League of New York and the Schuler School of Fine Art in Baltimore.
While visiting Paris in the 1950s, DeCamp reunited with Haseltine for dinner, and he gave her a bronze horse’s head as a token of their friendship.
During her own career, DeCamp painted many portraits, including a large one of Kentucky Educational Television founder O. Leonard Press, which hangs in KET’s headquarters.
After making the initial model of Man o’ War, Haseltine returned to Lexington many times in the early 1940s to make three progressively larger ones — five hands tall, 10 hands tall and, finally, 20 hands tall, which was slightly larger than the horse himself so the perspective would look right from the ground. Man o’ War stood 16.2 hands, or five feet, six inches at his withers, the ridge between his shoulder blades.
Bronze for the statue was purchased five months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced America into World War II. But the War Production Board wouldn’t allow it to be cast in case it was needed for the war effort.
After the war, the statue was finished and there were plans to erect it at Faraway Farm in time for Man o’ War’s 30th birthday on March 29, 1948. Unfortunately, he died Nov. 1, 1947.
The statue, cast in nine pieces, was finally assembled at Faraway Farm in October 1948. It became Man o’ War’s grave marker and, like the great horse himself, became a big Lexington tourist attraction.
The statue and Man o’ War’s remains were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park when it opened in 1978 and is now a centerpiece of the grounds. The original patina was restored last fall in preparation for the Man o’ War centennial.
If you go
The Kentucky Horse Park and its International Museum of the Horse have a series of exhibits and events planned this year to celebrate the Man o’ War centennial. More information: Kyhorsepark.com.