Tom Eblen

Meet the unlikely duo that made Man o’ War a stud in the Roaring Twenties

Elizabeth Daingerfield, horse breeder, posed with groom John Henry Buckner and Man o' War, then 12 years old, at Hinata Farm near Lexington in June 1929.
Elizabeth Daingerfield, horse breeder, posed with groom John Henry Buckner and Man o' War, then 12 years old, at Hinata Farm near Lexington in June 1929. Herald-Post Collection/University of Louisville Photographic Archives

Everyone knows about Man o’ War, perhaps the greatest racehorse of the 20th century, who was born in Lexington 100 years ago this month.

But few people remember that when “Big Red” retired from the track in 1920, his successful career as a stud was managed for a decade by an unlikely duo for that era: an unmarried woman and a black man.

Man o’ War was foaled March 29, 1917, at August Belmont’s Nursery Stud Farm and was bought for $5,000 by Maryland horseman Sam Riddle. A tall, powerful stallion with a bounding gate, he won 20 of his 21 races while setting three world records, three track records and two American records.

Man o’ War sped to victory in the Preakness and won the Belmont by 20 lengths. He probably could have won the Triple Crown, but Riddle wouldn’t enter him in the Kentucky Derby because he thought that was too far to run a 3-year-old in May.

Man o’ War never raced in Kentucky, but he returned home for what Riddle hoped would be a profitable stud career. To manage that important job, he hired Elizabeth Daingerfield.

Thoroughbred breeding was then a man’s game, and Riddle’s choice raised eyebrows. The national press treated Daingerfield as a curiosity. “Man o’ War’s Boss A Woman,” was how Liberty magazine headlined a profile of her in 1925.

“Have you ever found it necessary to employ a male manager?” A New York Times reporter asked her in 1922. “No,” she replied. “I make a point of managing everything myself; then I know it is done right.”

Nobody in Lexington seemed surprised by Riddle’s choice. Most people knew Daingerfield as the Lexington Herald’s book review columnist, but local horsemen respected her as a savvy breeder and farm manager.

Daingerfield learned her trade from her father, Foxhall Daingerfield, the breeding manager of his brother-in-law James Keene’s Castleton Farm. After Daingerfield and Keene died within two days of each other in January 1913, the buyers of Keene’s horses asked Elizabeth Daingerfield to manage them.

Daingerfield bought Haylands Farm to set up her breeding operation and in 1920 leased Hinata Farm at Ironworks and Russell Cave roads. Man o’ War first stood at Hinata, then two years later was moved to Faraway Farm on Huffman Mill Pike, which she managed for Riddle and his niece’s husband, Walter Jeffords.

Daingerfield had good help with Man o’ War. “He is protected day and night by a corps of Negroes, all under the direction of John Henry Buckner, his groom,” the Lexington Leader reported in 1929.

Newspaper mentions of Buckner, and photographs of him with Man o’ War and Daingerfield, piqued the interest of Yvonne Giles, a prolific researcher of Lexington’s black history. She is part of a project called Phoenix Rising, which seeks to recognize the often-forgotten contributions of African-Americans in racing history.

“It’s a passion of mine,” Giles said. “I would rather research the people than the horses.”

Buckner has often been confused with Will Harbut, who succeeded him as Man o’ War’s groom when Daingerfield quit Faraway Farm in October 1930 and took Buckner with her. Harbut cared for Big Red during his last 17 years and entertained thousands of tourists.

But Giles discovered that “Buck” Buckner was a colorful character, too. He was the oldest of 12 children born to Rebecca Buckner, whose father helped found the historical black community of New Zion in Scott County in 1872.

Buckner spent his entire life around horses. As a boy, he attended the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 because the man he was “waiting on” had a horse entered, according to pioneering black journalist Alice Dunnigan’s book, “The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians.”

Buckner worked for Daingerfield’s father and cared for the great stallion Domino, among many others. While he was groom to Man o’ War, he started the guest books for visitors that had 95,000 signatures when he handed them over to Harbut.

Man o’ War sired 368 horses, including 64 stakes winners. About 156 of those, including 36 stakes winners, were produced under the care of Daingerfield and Buckner, Giles said. His most famous offspring was the 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Another, Hard Tack, was the sire of Seabiscuit.

The controversial match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit captured the nation’s imagination on Nov. 1, 1938. If you saw the movie, you know that Seabiscuit, the underdog, won by four lengths.

Daingerfield was never shy about giving Buckner credit for his work with Man o’ War, even to the point of publishing a letter in the Thoroughbred Record in 1940 after she said she received calls from several people asking if Harbut had always been Big Red’s groom.

“I had the horse in my care for the first 10 years of his stud career, and during that time John Buckner, probably the best known and certainly the most satisfactory stud groom in Kentucky, was in charge of Man o’ War,” she wrote.

Man o’ War died on Nov. 1, 1947, a few months after both of his longtime grooms: Buckner in January and Harbut in October. Daingerfield followed them four years later.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

Centennial celebration

The Kentucky Horse Park is planning several events this year marking the 100th anniversary of Man o’ War’s birth. More information: Kyhorsepark.com.

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