Super horse Man o' War had many ties to Harford County and to Maryland

One hundred years after his birth on March 29, 1917, the racehorse Man o' War lives on in grainy newsreel films, photographs, names of streets and a steel racing plate, or horseshoe, he wore in romping to victory in the 1920 Withers Stakes at New York's Belmont Park.

The horseshoe is affixed to a wooden plaque with a small silver oval that honors the horse, his victory and his breeder, Maj. August Belmont Jr.

The memento belongs to the Harford County family of Adolphe Pons, who was once Belmont's personal secretary and played a role in the history of a remarkable animal, the first American super horse whose name and nickname, "Big Red," still resonate, even among those with scant knowledge of horse racing.

Pons' grandson, Mike Pons, proudly held the Man o' War plaque on Wednesday afternoon, as he stood in front of the entrance gate to what in Man o' War's day was the clubhouse at the Havre de Grace Racetrack, and now is part of the Maryland National Guard military reservation.

Mike Pons, who owns Bel Air's Country Life Farm in partnership with his brother, Josh, came to Havre de Grace to pay tribute to a horse that in no small way played a part in his family's history, too. The farm, Maryland's oldest thoroughbred nursery, was founded by their grandfather in 1933; he later passed it to his sons, John and Joseph, the latter the father of Mike and Josh.

Pons was joined at the site of the old track by David R. Craig, former Harford County executive and mayor of Havre de Grace, who has written extensively about the history of racing in his hometown, and Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County.

They came to commemorate the centennial of Man o' War's birth and to recognize his ties to Harford County and its rich horse racing heritage.

To mark the event, they also affixed a small bouquet of daffodils to the Maryland historical marker at the corner of Post Road and Old Bay Lane – which led to the old racetrack. The marker's inscription, written by Craig, pays homage to many of the great horses that raced in Havre de Grace, Man o' War included.

"This horse was a rock star," Skowronski, a horse enthusiast, said. "It's fascinating that 100 years later, what is it about this horse that is so captivating?"

'Golden Age of Sport'

Man o' War was a contemporary of Babe Ruth, golf grand slam winner Bobby Jones, Big Bill Tildon in tennis, Red Grange in football and heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey in the era immediately following World War I that some have called the "Golden Age of Sport" in America.

As much as any horse who trod its grounds between 1912 when it opened and 1950 when the last race was run, Man o' War belongs to the history of "The Graw," as the track on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay was known.

He stabled there. He trained there. And he won a race there, the Potomac Handicap, on Sept. 18, 1920, the second to last race of an illustrious career in which Man o' War went to the post 21 times in two years and crossed the finish line first 20 of them.

He set a track record in the Potomac that wouldn't be touched in the ensuing 30 years the track remained open, Craig said.

The Pons connection to Man o' War goes back to Adolphe Pons' long association with Belmont, a prominent New York banker, financier and sportsman, who built the Belmont Park race track in New York and for whose family the Belmont Stakes, oldest of the Triple Crown races, is named.

Starting with his father August Belmont Sr., also a prominent New York banker, Belmont had been breeding thoroughbreds for 30 or 35 years, according to Pons, when Man o' War was born at their Nursery Stud in Kentucky, a son of Belmont's stallion Fair Play and his mare Mahubah.

Mike Pons said his grandfather, who was born in 1883, had arranged the breeding of many of the Belmont horses, working for August Jr. after coming to the United States from France, also the Belmont family's country of origin.

"Grandfather Pons helped plan Man o' War's mating [in 1916], guided his early career and then assisted in his sale at Saratoga in 1918," he said. "He later bred a couple of mares to him, although all these years later we aren't sure which they were."

Differing historical accounts say Belmont decided to sell his yearlings of 1918 because of financial problems or because, at age 64, he had gone off to serve in World War I in Europe and feared he might not return. Belmont's wife, Eleanor, named Man o' War, in honor of her husband's Army service.

Mike Pons said the plan had been to sell Belmont's horses privately as a group, but no one would meet the asking price, so they went to the auction ring individually, and Man o' War was purchased for $5,000 by Pennsylvania textile magnate and sportsman Samuel D. Riddle.

Pons said his uncle John told him that at some point in the Saratoga sale, Adolphe Pons took Riddle's wife, Elizabeth, aside and told her "not to leave the sale without buying Man o' War."

"So the bidding gets to the critical point and the story is Mrs. Riddle nudged her husband and he raised his hand at $5,000 and buys the horse," Pons said.

Winning and winning

Following the sale, Man o' War came under the care of Riddle's trainer, Louis Feustel. The colt was broken at Saratoga and then sent south to Riddle's Glen Riddle Farm on the Eastern Shore, just west of Ocean City.

Craig and Pons said Man o' War was brought to Havre de Grace in the spring or early summer of 1919 to train for his first season of racing as a 2-year-old — as was a standard pattern for Riddle's horses — but the colt developed a fever and did not race until June 6, when he won a 5 furlong maiden race at Belmont Park.

He would run nine more times as a 2-year-old, the only blemish on his record was a second-place finish in the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga in August, when Man o' War got a bad start and a bad ride, and lost to a colt appropriately named Upset, that he would later beat six times.

At the conclusion of his 2-year-old season, Man o' War went back for the winter to Glen Riddle Farm — which today is a golf course and tract housing — and returned to Havre de Grace sometime in April 1920, according to Craig.

Owner Riddle had already decided he would not run Man o' War in the Kentucky Derby, believing a young horse should not be tested at the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter so early in his 3-year-old season. He set his sights instead on the Preakness, then run at one and one-eighth miles at Pimlico in Baltimore. On May 18, 1920, Man o' War won the Preakness by 1 ½ lengths, the first of what would be 11 victories in 11 starts, including the Belmont and Travers stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup,

Following his late season win in the Potomac at Havre de Grace, from which he returned sore after carrying the astounding handicap sale weight of 138 pounds, according to Craig, Man o' War won the Kenilworth Gold Cup in Windsor, Ontario, over Sir Barton, who had become the first Triple Crown winner a year earlier and was another horse that raced at Havre de Grace.

Although he faced at least one horse in every one of his 21 career races, Man o' War often faced small fields, even carrying the highest weights, because other trainers and owners felt they couldn't beat him, Pons said.

Bloodlines endure

Riddle toyed with racing Man o' War in his 4-year-old season, but demurred after consulting with top handicappers and learning, in the words of Pons, "that his horse would be assigned the highest weight ever given a thoroughbred." He was sent to stud in Kentucky, instead, retiring with several world and track speed records.

"The interesting thing is that Samuel Riddle only bred him to about 25 of Riddle's own mares each year or to those of his close friends — nothing commercial," Pons said. "They weren't considered top quality mares, but they produced stakes winning horses — Man o' War was both a top sire or runner-up nationally and a top broodmare sire."

Among Man o' War's best offspring was the 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, equally well known today as the loser in the 1938 Pimlico match race with Seabiscuit, a Man o' War grandson. He also sired American and British Grand National steeplechases champion Battleship. Man o' War died on Nov. 1, 1947, at Riddle's Faraway Farm in Lexington, Ky. His remains rest at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Mike Pons said that Allen's Prospect, Country Life Farm's late stallion and the region's best in the 1990s — a sire of 14 Maryland Million winners, was a descendent of Man o' War. So are 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and Arrogate, winner of the 2016 Breeders Cup Classic and last Saturday's $10 million Dubai Cup.

"His bloodlines still show up in top horses," Skowronski said.

Pons said his father and uncle traveled to Kentucky with their father when Man o' War was still alive, and his uncle John, then age 8 or 9, remembered getting a leg up from his father so he could sit astride the champion, "if only for a moment."

"Nobody who saw him run is alive today, but here we are still talking about him," Skowronski said.

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