Earlier this year, I was at a flea market and saw a woman setting out a box of books. She said she was selling them for a $1 apiece, and that made me very happy because I had spotted "Man o' War," by Page Cooper and Roger L. Treat, complete with its cover showing a photograph of groom Will Harbut holding the great horse.
Man o' War is pictured on the cover of this year's Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale catalog. He brought $5,000 from Sam Riddle when offered at the auction by breeder August Belmont Jr. in 1918. Fasig-Tipton has renamed the restaurant on the newly renovated sale grounds in Man o' War's honor.
As this year's Saratoga sale approaches, it's interesting to read about Man o' War as a yearling in the book that carries his name. Man o' War came down with the flu in midsummer before the sale, and "was listless and scrawny, fighting to throw off the germ." Originally, Belmont had planned to keep Man o' War. He had offered 20 other yearlings privately in a package for $60,000, but there were no takers, so he sent them to Saratoga along with Man'o War. According to the book, no one knew why Belmont changed his mind, but "perhaps he did not want to risk the criticism of holding out the best and selling only the culls."
Riddle, whose trainer Louis Feustel had advised him not to buy Belmont's yearlings privately, went to look at the horses anyway after they arrived at Saratoga. He found Feustal outside of Man o' War's stall staring at the chestnut colt, which was much larger than the rest of the Belmont horses. Man o' War was an impressive specimen even though he was a little rough-looking because Belmont had decided to sell him too late to be prepped properly.
Riddle, according to the book, "had never known such excitement" the day the Belmont yearlings were sold. He had asked Feustel to keep his interest in Man o' War quiet, and Riddle was still being careful not to let his buying rivals know what he was thinking when Man o' War was led into the auction ring. He watched the auctioneer's hands instead of looking at the colt because "somehow he felt to glance at the yearling would be to shout to everyone that he was going to buy. Although Man o' War was not as sleek and as shining as the others, he was a beautiful sight to those who knew horse flesh; he entered the ring with a free, rangy, imperative stride, his head up, his proportions magnificent. As he stood in the circle, interested, confident, setting his ears forward and distending his nostrils to sniff the exotic scents of humans, it seemed apparent to Mr. Riddle that everyone who saw him would want the horse."
However, the bidding was slow, and Riddle got Man o' War, beaming with satisfaction because "he had been prepared to pay twice as much." Riddle thought he might even have gotten the strapping yearling for less if "Mrs. Plunkett Stewart and Mrs. Robert Gerry had not overhead him discussing the colt before the sale and reported his interest to their husbands."
According to the book, Mr. Riddle ended up buying 11 yearlings for $25,000. "Ten were blanks," he said years later. "The eleventh was Man o' War."