A Breed Apart
The thoroughbred who would become a legend was born March 29, 1917, at Nursery Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. His sire (father), Fair Play, came from a notable stallion named Hastings, a horse as feared for his relentless temper as he was admired for his blazing speed. The dam (mother) of the chestnut foal was named Mahubah, daughter of Rock Sand, 1903 winner of England's Epsom Derby. Man o' War's history extends even farther, however: his lineage can be traced back fifteen generations to the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation sires that created the American Thoroughbred.
The name Man o' War was not given lightly. In 1917 America had just entered World War I, and patriotism was running high. The colt's breeder and owner was August Belmont II. His father was the founder of Belmont Park in Elmont, New York; the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel of racing's Triple Crown, was named in the senior's honor. It was Belmont Jr.'s wife who called the son of Fair Play "My Man o' War," after her soldiering husband, who was stationed in France, according to an ESPN biography. When the colt was later registered, "My" was dropped.
It was Belmont's military service that prompted the sale of all his 1917 foals. Samuel Riddle, owner of Glen Riddle Farm, consulted with his trainer, Louis Feustel, and purchased the tall, thin yearling for $5,000 in the spring of 1918. They had a handful in the young horse. Inheriting the Hastings ill-will, Man o' War proved to be "a tiger," in the words of Riddle, quoted in the book The Most Glorious Crown. "He screamed with rage, and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled with safety." The horse had sense, however, and "became docile enough when he finally understood that what these lowly humans wanted of him was to run, which is what he wanted too," as Kate Gilbert Phifer put it in her book Track Talk.