Celebrate 100th anniversary of birth of equine royalty

Groom John Henry Buckner posed with Man o’ War
Groom John Henry Buckner posed with Man o’ War USDA Special Collections

Near the entrance of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, a bronze statue of the Thoroughbred racehorse Man o’ War watches over the champion’s grave

The memorial, replete with fountains and landscaping, is finer than the final resting places of most Kentucky governors.

This is a fitting tribute in Lexington, the “Horse Capital of the World.” Man o’ War, one of the greatest racehorses of all time, deserves primacy in the hearts and minds of Kentuckians.

This year, which marks Man o’ War’s 100th birthday, provides an opportunity to honor this horse’s impact on Kentucky.

Man o’ War was foaled near Lexington on March 29, 1917. His name reflected tumultuous times. Born just a few days before the United States entered the First World War, this chestnut horse soon dominated Thoroughbred racing. He won a staggering 20 of his 21 starts.

Man o’ War’s only defeat came during his seventh race. Ironically, he lost to a horse named Upset. It never happened again. After that loss, Man o’ War defeated Upset six times.

Man o’ War broke world records and won most of the major races of his day. He never ran in the Kentucky Derby, however, because his owner did not want the young horse running 1¼ miles.

Man o’ War’s fame ultimately became greater than his victories. According to Ashlee Chilton of the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, “His two years of racing established his reputation as an American Icon, as big or bigger than Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange.” Chilton added that when the horse retired, celebrities and other well-wishers visited him constantly.

Man o’ War died in November 1947. Hundreds attended his burial at Faraway Farm in Lexington. The horse’s remains — and the statue that stands over his grave — were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park 30 years later.

Man o’ War’s legacy lives on. Chris Goodlett, curator of the Kentucky Derby Museum, said that, “As a result of his dominance on the turf in 1919 and 1920, he is still remembered as one of the greatest Thoroughbreds ever. His impact on the racing and breeding industry and popular culture at large is still felt today.”

Furthermore, according to Chilton, “The last 34 out of 35 Kentucky Derby winners can trace their bloodline to him.”

Because this year is Man o’ War’s centennial, multiple exhibits and events will commemorate this important racehorse. The Kentucky Horse Park is opening an exhibit this month and is planning events related to Man o’ War throughout 2017. The Kentucky Derby Museum is also hosting their own exhibit about the champion.

Although Man o’ War’s story began 100 years ago, this history is still relevant to present-day Kentuckians.

The centennial provides a lens through which we can view the state’s modern horse industry. Man o’ War’s 100th birthday is the perfect time to celebrate the horse industry’s successes, consider modern challenges and think of new ways to perpetuate this important driver of our state’s economy.

Man o’ War’s legacy also influences statewide tourism development. As exhibits and events push visitors to the Kentucky Horse Park, the Kentucky Derby Museum, races and horse farm tours, this heritage tourism supports the Bluegrass State’s economy.

The blue horse “Big Lex” provides a great symbol for the city of Lexington and illustrates how the horse industry is front and center in central Kentucky. This year, however, let us remember the important legacy of the chestnut Thoroughbred whose hooves broke records and carved his name deeply into Kentucky’s history.

For 2017 and beyond, let us remember — and celebrate — the great Man o’ War.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.