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Exploring Kentucky | Big Red Turns 100

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Man o’ War celebrated his 21st birthday  at Faraway Farm in 1938 with owner  Samuel Riddle, groom Will Harbut and  announcer Clem McCarthy.
Man o’ War celebrated his 21st birthday at Faraway Farm in 1938 with owner Samuel Riddle, groom Will Harbut and announcer Clem McCarthy.

At the main entrance to the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP), the statue of Man o’ War proudly welcomes visitors, many of whom know little about horses but have heard of the great Thoroughbred that captured the hearts of America by winning 20 of 21 starts during his racing career. His only loss occurred in the 1919 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, when the 2-year-old was caught standing backwards behind the tape at the start. Though he began behind by four lengths, the colt’s long strides made up enough ground that he lost by only a nose to a horse named Upset.

Throughout his career, the plucky chestnut, nicknamed Big Red, set a series of American and world records, and eventually sired 64 champions. In the golden era of American sports, the Kentucky-bred racehorse became a national sports hero, alongside Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, Ty Cobb and Knute Rockne.

As 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth date, the KHP is creating a year-long Man o’ War celebration, chock full of events at the park and around Lexington.

“His is a story that has to continue to be told,” said Jonathan Lang, KHP’s deputy executive director. “This was a horse who was so popular his funeral was broadcast over the radio. It’s important for us to educate folks on just what he meant to the sport of horse racing and to pay homage to his life and legacy.”

Inspiration for the yearlong series of events originated from an exhibit at the park’s 60,000-s.f. Smithsonian affiliate, the International Museum of the Horse, “Man o’ War: The Mostest Horse That Ever Was.” The exhibition opened on March 29, Man o’ War’s birthday, and will run through November 1, the date of his death. Its title is a quote from the stallion’s longtime groom, Will Harbut. Included are never-before-seen artifacts of Man o’ War’s racing and breeding career and from his life in the Bluegrass as one of the state’s best known and most visited residents.

Following are a few of the events the park has planned in addition to the exhibit. Updates are available at the KHP website (see below).

Celebratory Fundraising Dinners

The first is on June 9 at the 760-acre Mount Brilliant Farm, where Man o’ War stood his entire stallion career. Limited to 100 guests, the dinner honors Big Red’s 1920 Belmont Stakes victory. The second, on a fall date to be announced, is a farm-to-table dinner served outdoors, weather permitting, at the 1,200-acre KHP near the newly refinished Man o’ War statue. Local chefs will create a Kentucky racing-themed meal with champion-caliber cocktails. Both dinners feature a limited collector’s edition Maker’s Mark Man o’ War bottle, available only at these two events. Purchase a ticket, get a bottle.

Man o’ War Legacy Mural, June 10

On downtown Lexington’s busy Short Street, a mural co-sponsored by Mt. Brilliant Farm and LexArts will be unveiled, painted on the side of the Village Idiot Pub to commemorate Man o’ War’s Belmont Stakes win. A street party follows the unveiling.

Man o’ War Movie Night, June 24

Sponsored by the Keeneland Association, the International Museum of the Horse’s Man o’ War exhibit will be open for special evening hours. Families can take in two racing-themed movies in the park’s theaters and enjoy special activities.

Collector’s Edition Man o’ War at Breyerfest, July 14–16

KHP’s heavily attended annual festival will feature a collector’s-edition model of Man o’ War for fans of Breyer’s exquisitely-made model horses.

Man o’ War 5K Run/Walk, Aug. 5

This event winds through the park’s grounds and includes a tour of the exhibit and a t-shirt in the colors of Big Red’s racing silks.

Horse Country Man o’ War Tours (dates to be announced)

Central Kentucky farm specialists Horse Country Tours will offer a limited number of tours that visit the KHP and Mt. Brilliant Farm, known for its splendid gardens, to see the barn where Man o’ War stood. Tour dates fall around his biggest racing days and can be booked at visithorsecountry.com.

Ed and Ercel Talk Man o’ War (date to be announced)

Two of the Thoroughbred industry’s leading historians will offer fans of racing an intimate evening of stories around the legend that is Man o’ War. Ed Bowen, author of
the definitive history of Man o’ War, and beloved racing historian Ercel Ellis will weave the tales of the great horse and answer questions from the audience. A museum exhibit tour is included.

Man o’ War – The Funeral, Nov. 1

Attended by thousands who showed up to pay respects to the great horse, the funeral of Man o’ War was followed closely on the radio in America and several countries around the world. An airing of his funeral broadcast can be heard on local radio.

In addition to the aforementioned events, local businesses are joining in the celebration. Look for Alltech Lexington Brewing Co.’s special release, a wheated ale named for Man o’ War, at Kentucky pubs, bars and restaurants; ice cream nirvana Crank and Boom’s specialty flavor, Big Red, a strawberry balsamic sorbet made with Boyd Orchard’s berries; and the Man o’ War event tent, packed with hats and T-shirts at KHP and events around town.

Find out more about Man o’ War’s 100th and updates at kyhorsepark.com or phone (800) 678-8813. Watch a video of the statue’s intriguing re-patina process at kyhorsepark.com/tags/man-o-warstatue. Better yet, visit the Horse Park and see what all the hubbub is about.

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]