Povich Rewind: Man o’ War Retains Rank as at Least Co-Greatest


Povich Rewind: Man o’ War Retains Rank as at Least Co-Greatest
Apr 16, 2017

For most of Shirley Povich’s life, horse racing was a major sport and topic. His  1973 column comparing two of the greatest race horses of all time –  Man ‘o War and  Secretariat  — is a good way to be the start thinking about this year’s Triple Crown series.
“Man o’War is delaying the start . . . and now, they’re off! . . . in the dream race! . . . and it’s Secretariat breaking fast from the outside to take the rail away from Man o’ War . . . if he can . . . and going into the first turn and around the bend they’re head to head . . . They’ve hit the backstretch striding as one horse . . . and devouring the race track . . . one copper-colored colt superimposed on another, like a galloping picture of a single animal . . . At the far turn it’s Turcotte wanting the lead with Secretariat and going to the whip . . . but just once . . . turning for home it’s Secretariat in front by a half length but Kummer now is digging into Man ‘o War . . . and now Big Red is stretching himself out, with the whiff of battle in his nostrils and his tail fanning the wind . . . But less than a sixteenth from home, Secretariat, too, is flying . . . and Man o’ War still has him to catch . . . it’s a photo!”

Did Man o’ War, the legend, catch wonder colt Secretariat in that last sixteenth and settle all those bets his way? Until the finish line’s cameras, perhaps with the help of some future Skylab discovery, are able to pan back 53 years for measurement of horse against horse, the outcome of the dream race will never be known. Except to the mind’s eye, with its built-in bias as both ends of the generation gap.

Man o’ War vs. Secretariat in a hypothesized match race is a natural produce of man’s restless compulsion to compare. And perhaps the inconclusive Lady or the Tiger ending, even if a bit teasy, is for the best, lest libel be done to one noble animal or the other. There was such a warning in one of the ancient aphorisms that spelled out its reproof that “comparison oftimes do great grievance.”

Yet it is wholesome curiosity whether Secretariat, the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, belongs to the ages like Man o’ War or merely to an age.

Even the most honored sage of the horse-breeding industry Humphrey Finney, a man who helped put the $6.08 million syndication tag on Secretariat, shies at picking the winner of a Secretariat-Man O’ War match race in imagery. “Lord be merciful,” said Finney, “I’d rather call it a dead heat. Yet if I must make a choice I’d have to go with the older horse. But only because I’m an older man.”

There was no waffling by Finney when compared Secretariat with Man o’ War in other respects. “Man o’ War was just a bit taller, and burlier and more rugged-looking. I’d say he had more bone and substance and held his head higher. But he didn’t have as straight a back as Secretariat. There was a sag. In sum, I’d say on appearance Secretariat had a better quality and was more esthetic-looking, even if his rump did droop a bit. By that I mean Secretariat drops off at the tail. Rather something of a flat ass, you could call it. But you can also say that Secretariat had all the butt he needed to win.”

By Finney’s lights, Secretariat is a certified wonder colt. “Of course he is. He not only knocked off the Triple Crown but set records in the Derby and Belmont and probably beat the Preakness record, too.” He noted that Secretariat with his three white stockings also beat the old superstition about the curse of “too much white.” Finney reached far back to recite the old Devonshire rhyme: “One white foot/Ride him for your life;/Two white feet/give him to you wife;/Three white feet/send him far away;/Four white feet/keep him not a day.”

On the race track and around the barns, Secretariat has been a more placid type than was Man o’ War, which inherited all the violent personality of his sire, Fair Play. Only once in his career, when they tried to drape him with the roses at Churchill Downs, did Secretariat kick up a fuss and get across his message that he didn’t like roses, at that particular hour at least. Man o’ War was a career rebel, nasty of temper, and wouldn’t submit to his fir saddle for more than a week. He tried to throw ever rider he had, delayed every start.

Despite his attempt at an even-handed stance on the question of Man o’ War vis-à-vis Secretariat, Finney’s memory sparkled in discussing Man o’ War, betraying a respect reserved for that one alone. “He exulted in his strength and power. You can say that, too, about Secretariat. But, my heavens, Man O’ War has no blot on his record like Secretariat’s Wood Memorial.”

In the Wood, before going to the Kentucky Derby. Secretariat had his first and only energy crisis. He could make up little ground, ran a dismal third to Angie Light and Sham. It was the second time he failed to finish first in his 14 races. In the Wood, Secretariat had no excuse – like Man o’ War in his lone defeat of his 21 races, his 2-year-old upset by the appropriately named Upset in the Sanford Memorial. In that era of the walk-up start Big Red was banged around and knocked sideways at the start and left at the post when a substitute starter sent the field off too quickly. He got no help from jockey Johnny Loftus, who constantly ran him into pockets, he carried 130 pounds to Upset’s 115 yet he lost the race by only a half length.

Secretariat’s smashing race in the Belmont in dazzling record time not only lifted him to the eminence of the Triple Crown but nailed the canard that Bold Ruler’s kids couldn’t win big at a mile and a half. Even as Man o’ War destroyed those that tried to run with him, Secretariat broke the heart of Sham, a colt that like himself had broken the Kentucky Derby record.

Yet Man o’ War dominated his era, before he retired to stud in 1921, in even more thumping fashion that did Secretariat. So Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths, compared to Man o’ War’s 20-length victory in the same race. How would you like the 100 lengths by which Man o’ War won the 1 5/8-mile Lawrence Realization two weeks later? Secretariat went off at 1 to 10 in his Belmont. Man o’ War was a 1-to-100 shot in his Belmont, and 1 to 100 in two starts, was never as good as even-money in any of his 21 races, and for his Belmont and Lawrence and several other of his races he scared off so much of the class of the day that he had only one horsed entered against him.

Man o’ War passed up the 1920 Kentucky Derby to concentrate on winning the Preakness and Belmont. His owner, Sam Riddle, saw no great importance in winning the Derby. The Triple Crown, as such, was no great shakes at that time and in fact was unknown as a series of races. They weren’t named the Triple Crown until Charley Hatton of the Racing Form invented the term a year after Man o’ War beat Upset five times, with no sweat.

One thing is certain, the clock would take a beating if Secretariat-Man o’ War matchup could come to pass. Man o’ War needs no apologies for the times he made. Eight track records and five world records were among them, despite the fact that he finished virtually every race eased up under a choking pull. “The sod could feel the lash of his power. He’s as near to a living flame as a horse could ever get,” Joe Palmer wrote of Big Red.

If Man o’ War did not win the Triple Crown, he could boast that he beat Triple Crown winner. This was Sir Barton, in their famed match race that was to be Man o’ War’s last. Three-year-old Man o’ War ran away and hid from 4-year-old Sir Barton by seven lengths, “never fully extended,” the chart said.

How much of a syndication price tag would Humphrey Finney put on Man o’ War were he now alive and well, and age 3 and headed for stud, like Secretariat? “The sky’s the limit,” Finney said. “Secretariat went for $190,000 a share. I think they’d be standing in line for a crack at Man o’ War at $300,000 a share.” With that, the man may have been trying to tell us something.

June 17, 1973


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