10/21/2010 1:55AM

Man o' War - the final portrait


You told me when we were friends (age 9) that you had Man O Wars blood in you....and I believed you bc u ran really fast and could whinny like a horse.

So wrote a long-lost friend who contacted me recently via Facebook.  The note made me smile. Back then, I could whinny and run with the best of them, and no one on the track team was faster. And if I was in the woods and a tree trunk lay across the path? I became Man o’ War’s son Battleship in the Grand National.

I spent hours studying photos of racehorses – most of all Man o’ War. Photographs from a foal to age 30 reflected his high-headed pride and smoldering power. Man o’ War looked as if his life’s performance was accompanied by the sound of trumpets.

For me there is one Big Red, and he was born in 1917. If others preceded him – perhaps Hanover or Salvator once carried the nickname – they were simply opening acts. Anyone since? Call them Big Red all you want, but to me, they are imposters.

Man o’ War won 20 of 21 races – and his one upsetting defeat is legendary. He set five American records, seven track records, equaled an eighth, once won by 100 lengths, carried 130 pounds or more nine times, and was odds-on in every race (that’s right – every race). The charts read “restrained at end,” “restrained in stretch,” "won under pull," "eased final 1/8," “under a pull,” "never extended," "easing late," "taken up final 1/16th," “won easing up,” “speed in reserve”… 

I thought I'd seen every photo of Man o' War, so I was thunderstruck to find a color photo of him in 1980 in The Blood-Horse, along with an article explaining the last photo ever taken of Man o’ War alive.

The story chronicled photographer James W. Sames’ visit to Faraway Farm on October 29, 1947. The farm manager Patrick O’Neill asked Sames to photograph 30-year-old Man o’ War with the farm staff and Sames obliged, snapping photos in black-and-white. But he had also brought along color film, a rarity at the time. As he told it in The Blood-Horse:

After everybody had gone, I asked Bub if he would hold Man o’ War there for me while I changed film. See, Will Harbut had suffered a stroke in May of 1946, and Cunningham Graves took care of Man o’ War after that – everybody called him Bub. I always gave Bub $5 when he would bring out Man o’ War for me to get another picture.

So I had this color film, and Bub got Man o’ War to stand, and I got one shot. Then Man o’ War backed up, and he went down on one knee, and Bub said he was tired, that he better take ‘The Boss’ back in. He had been out for about 45 minutes. Bub always called him ‘Boss.’

When he got back into the barn, Man o’ War did not want to go back into his stall. He just stood there, with his head up high, staring out the barn door down the driveway. Bub waited there a while, then turned him around and backed him into his stall.

When he got in there, he laid down right away. He didn’t drop, like he had a heart attack or anything, but he did lie down right away. Now, that was Wednesday afternoon.

On Saturday morning, Bub called me…. Man o’ War never had gotten back up; he might have, but Bub said he never saw him up again. He had been in distress, thrashing around…. It was decided that morning, Nov. 1, 1947, to put him down.

That last photograph of Man o’ War is mesmerizing. It’s one of only four color photos I’ve ever seen of Big Red - two of which are so faded that the true color is lost.

The aged stallion is set in a muted backdrop of grass and bare trees. His straight legs show solid bone, although his fetlock hairs could use trimming. Ribs show through his reddish-gold coat, his lower neck is swollen and several lumps dot his body.  His tail is still thick and, although his shoulder is not quite what it once was, his hind end is still powerfully sculpted. A simple bridle is adorned with a “US” cavalry rosette.  The sway of his back is accentuated by a high croup and higher head. 

Man o’ War’s gaze is steadfast, his nostrils distended as he soaks in the chilly autumn air. Would that we all could be so noble, and hold our heads so high, just days before our passing. The image brought tears to my eyes then. It does now.

(The Blood-Horse published a story after his death that included these lines, which the photo brings to life: And over the world the scattered million of princes and paupers who have once gone out to Faraway to see him will remember the look in his eye, the ceremonial dignity with which he held himself for their inspection. They will remember that it was hard to tell whether his coat was red or yellow, and that there were faint little spots here and there, and a wen near his shoulder, and that some of the men patted him on the neck.)

I clipped the photo from the magazine and took it with me to college, where for four years it provided inspiration.  I called Mr. Sames once during those years, inquiring about a print. He had made limited edition prints in 1948 and priced them at a then-hefty $100. There were some left.

I asked a friend for a print for Christmas but it didn’t happen.  Years passed. And then, one day, I again looked up Mr. Sames. His residence, on Old Frankfort Pike near Lexington, was a well-landscaped and tidy ranch-style home. Mr. Sames was tidy as well, a tall gentleman who stood straight and talked the same way. He had no children and enjoyed the chance to share stories of his earlier years.

When he pulled the print of Man o’ War out of a drawer I was floored. It was perfect. We talked at length, and he eventually said that, a few years earlier, a man offered to buy the original image along with its rights. He mentioned the price offered and I told him I thought it was worth more. He looked at me and said that, were I interested, he would sell it to me.  He wanted it to go to a person who understood what a treasure it was.

By the next morning – and I don’t remember how I scraped up the money – I handed him a money order. We wrote out paperwork, shook hands and I was on my way with a grey file-cabinet box of 4x5" negatives. Included were photos of champions like Citation, Whirlaway and Bernborough, approximately 50 images of Man o’ War at various times….and the last photo taken of Big Red during his lifetime.


Deborah Lambdin More than 1 year ago
I actually have this photo framed in my dining room. I can remember the first time I saw it. I had to have it. I've always said if I could go back in time, I would go back to the time period when "Big Red" was racing. I would love to see him in action!!
Shaun More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed your article Barbara. My name is Shaun Wyatt I am the Grandson of Lex Ky Equine/Herald Leader Photographer John C Wyatt. Who worked along side J.C "Skeets" Meadors. I have many photographs and negatives of Man'O War. I am wondering if you would be interested in seeing them. I didn't see your email on the blog so I will leave you mine. wshaun219@yahoo.com. Thanks
South Stone More than 1 year ago
Thank you for this post for a number of reasons. In 1980 I received one of these pictures (signed and numbered) this article talks about and I had it framed a couple of years later. It has always hung proudly in my office and been a point of great discussion as everyone know of Man-O-War. Proud in Lexington, KY
Kathy Robinson More than 1 year ago
I have A Huge Picture of Man O War and I am wondering how I can find out what it may be worth if Anything to large for me to carry and in a very old Frame. More Less it is a Mural size. The photo done by R.G. Potter I have looked up R.G. Potter and there a lot of History on him and his work that hangs in different places Here In Louisville Ky. Archive of things at U.L. If anyone has any suggestions on how I could find a true Value of this Mural of Man O War I would be ever so greatful on any suggestion of getting a true value of this Mural. Thank You Kathy
Christy Livery More than 1 year ago
Do you have a picture of it? My Great Great Grandpa had one with the jockey on the horse,
Denise More than 1 year ago
I hope someone can help. 20 yrs ago I was given a framed photo (19 x 24) of Man O' War being defeated by Upset at the Sanford Stakes in Saratoga NY. I want to insure it but have no idea what it might be worth if anything. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks
john More than 1 year ago
hi everybody i have an old colage of man o war it is photographed by H.C. ASHBY there are 12 4in. by 5in and one large one. it is 8/10 the main pic says MAN O WAR SUPERHORSE C. KUMMER UP H.C ASHBY photographer it is very old but caint find out anything any help would be greatly appreciated. thanks john cannon stanford ky.
christine peniaranda More than 1 year ago
thank you for the magnificent photo of my childhood hero, Man o' War. when i first discovered actual video of him on my computer i just cried. i couldn't believe it. i bought a 4 month old red and white paint filly this last october for 600 bucks over the phone, sight unseen, and i named her Heavenly Holly because she really is. a few months later after i made the last payment and received her registration i looked up her pedigree online and found that Big Red is her great grandfather! she's got alot of "fire" as her breeder, Jan, describes her. i'm so blessed. i browse Big Red's videos every couple days or so. thank you again, christine
Don More than 1 year ago
Patrick O'Neill, the manager of Faraway Farms , was my great uncle....would love to know if there are any photos of him with Man O War. >
Jen More than 1 year ago
My Slugger is a descendant. somthing I must admit to being overly proud of and honored by. And I, too, have been obssesed by Mano'War ever since I was a little girl cantering around the school yard. How I came about to be blessed by owning a part of history is a complete fluke as we are neither rich or even well off. but this is the first time I have ever seen Man o' War in color and it brings tears to my eyes. I have prints and portraits on my walls and models on my shelves that are suposed to reflect his majestic color and nobel look. I never knew untill today how little justice they did him.
Dallas K More than 1 year ago
I actually own on of these limited edition picture