Man o' War: A Legend Like Lightning

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9780312341008: Man o' War: A Legend Like Lightning

His trainer said that managing him was like holding a tiger by the tail. His owner compared him to "chain lightning." His jockeys found their lives transformed by him, in triumphant and distressing ways. All of them became caught in a battle for honesty.
Born in 1917, Man o' War grew from a rebellious youngster into perhaps the greatest racehorse of all time. He set such astonishing speed records that The New York Times called him a "Speed Miracle." Often he won with so much energy in reserve that experts wondered how much faster he could have gone. Over the years, this and other mysteries would envelop the great Man o' War.
The truth remained problematic. Even as Man o' War---known as "Big Red"---came to power, attracting record crowds and rave publicity, the colorful sport of Thoroughbred racing struggled for integrity. His lone defeat, suffered a few weeks before gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series, spawned lasting rumors that he, too, had been the victim of a fix.
Tackling old beliefs with newly uncovered evidence, Man o' War: A Legend Like Lightning shows how human pressures collided with a natural phenomenon and brings new life to an American icon. The genuine courage of Man o' War, tribulations of his archrival, Sir Barton (America's first Triple Crown winner), and temptations of their Hall of Fame jockeys and trainers reveal a long-hidden tale of grace, disgrace, and elusive redemption.

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About the Author:

A lifelong horse enthusiast, Dorothy Ours grew up in the history-rich states of Virginia and West Virginia. She worked for seven years at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, while researching Man o' War and has been cited for research contributions to several books on Thoroughbred racehorses. Her other fascinations include music, art, and ghost stories.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One 
In the green hills of Kentucky, nine days after riding his first winner, an apprentice jockey named John Patrick Loftus got an offer to sell his soul. Fourteen years old, still wearing knee pants when not in jockey uniform, he entered the fifth race at Latonia on Friday, June 24, 1910, with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. His mount, a classy colt named Boola Boola, could win easily. But Johnny would be far richer if he made Boola Boola lose. Thursday night, during a streetcar ride, a stranger had propositioned him: two hundred dollars to pull Boola Boola, and make long shot First Peep a "sure thing."1
Two hundred dollars. In 1910, that would buy ten ounces of gold or a thousand large cans of Van Camp's pork and beans. Whatever Johnny wanted, that quick money might be the highest peak he would ever reach. Many apprentice jockeys outgrew the job within months. Johnny weighed less than 100 pounds right now, but with his stocky build, he wouldn't stay light for long. Also, as long as he remained a jockey, he performed a very dangerous job. On June 8, the day after Johnny debuted at the Latonia meet, a veteran jockey named George Glasner had suffered life-threatening injuries when his horse fell during a Latonia race. When Johnny got offered two hundred dollars to pull Boola Boola, Glasner remained hospitalized and seemed unlikely to ride ever again.
Now, for losing one race, Johnny Loftus could pocket a fortune that his growing body and risky job might keep him from earning honestly . . . if he was willing to betray the trainer who believed that Johnny could be a successful race rider, and the racehorse-owning senator who trusted him with Boola Boola.
Riches, or respect? As Johnny reined Boola Boola onto the track, his life balanced over a tiny saddle about four inches wide. His career balanced between truth and deceit.
Thunder, lightning, and drenching rain broke the oppressive heat at Latonia--known to sweating horsemen as "Death Valley"--midway through the program on that Friday afternoon. Casual fans fled. Only horsemen and devoted gamblers stayed, and a reporter noticed the diehards "wagering heavily on their choices."2 Steering Boola Boola through the monsoon, Johnny Loftus made his choice. At the finish, he held the lead by an easy length. Only one horse launched a serious rally: First Peep, gaining like mad through the homestretch, rushing up into second place.
Having kept his soul, Johnny could have kept quiet. Instead, he talked about the bribe. That should have shown what an honest boy Johnny Loftus was, letting people know that they could trust him with their good horses. Their actual response must have been a shock.
Latonia laughed it off. Johnny couldn't have been tempted on Thursday night, they said, because he hadn't been hired to ride Boola Boola until Friday morning. "Loftus and those responsible for bringing the matter to the attention of the [racetrack] judges are being held to ridicule," the Louisville Courier-Journal declared. ". . . The lad's misrepresentation of facts may cause him to lose his license."3 But he did not.
At second glance, logic supported Johnny's story. By Thursday morning, Boola Boola's people had known that their colt would carry only 92 pounds in Friday's race. Few jockeys could ride that light. Ted Rice, the veteran who had finished fourth with Boola Boola in the Kentucky Derby, couldn't do it. Loftus was Latonia's leading lightweight. In the sharp-eyed small town of racetrack life, a generous "stranger" easily could figure the probabilities, or even pay for not-yet-public information--and, in a public place, catch up with the new young rider who didn't know all of the serious gamblers by sight.
Crooked gamblers enjoyed another sweet advantage. Although newsreels flickered in every neighborhood nickelodeon, racetracks didn't film horse races. If Johnny decided to take a dive, his trip with Boola Boola--lost in mud and rain and time--couldn't be reviewed. But immediate impressions written down by professional chart makers did remain. While Boola Boola beat First Peep by one body length, a horse named Charles F. Grainger finished third, only a half length behind First Peep. "Charles F. Grainger, weakly handled, ran a good race," the Courier-Journal's result chart noted, "and might have won with a stronger ride."4 No one asked whether Grainger's rider had dealt with a streetcar stranger.
Surviving the ridicule, Johnny Loftus learned a lesson. It wasn't "Don't make up stories." It was "Keep your mouth shut."
He would live by that lesson nine years later, when he rode the horse named Man o' War.
Latonia's leading trainer during the summer of 1910 was an almost mummy-thin thirty-four-year-old veteran of Western cattle drives, livery stables, and county fair races. His name was H. G. Bedwell. Officially, the H.G. stood for Harvey Guy. Bedwell insisted--and liked to prove--that it stood for "Hard Guy."
He had grown up very poor, in the Pacific Northwest, a region where many dreams had died. Bedwell came from parents who had followed a dream, the 1849 gold rush, across the prairies into Oregon. Like most other pioneers, they discovered there was no such thing as easy money. Late in 1876, when Harvey Guy was eighteen months old, his father died and his mother found herself with four boys to raise. Gold was a long-gone fantasy. By the time more privileged children were attending eighth grade, Harvey Guy was out on the Oregon range, living as a cowboy. In remote territory, where his life literally depended on his horsemanship, Harvey Guy Bedwell became "Hard Guy."
"Hard Guy" Bedwell was not sentimental about horses, but he learned how they worked. He learned from the cow ponies that carried him through four seasons outdoors, and he learned from the riding and driving horses he rented out to travelers after establishing a livery stable in Grand Junction, Colorado. He learned how to soothe sore legs and feet, and he learned to provide his horses with plenty of good grain, hay, water, and fresh air. Somewhere along the line, he also learned about racetracks and decided that Grand Junction's fair grounds needed one. Succeeding there, he stretched his tether from fair to fair, winning more than his share. But the prize money wasn't much. And so, in his thirty-fourth year on Earth, "Hard Guy" Bedwell hatched a bold plan. Thoroughbred racehorses--the world's elite running-horse breed--would become his gold rush, and they would lead him East.
Bedwell surprised Eastern horsemen in 1909 with sixteen victories during fourteen days of his first New York meet. A year later, as New York racing shuddered to a stop because of antigambling laws, Hard Guy didn't wait for the death throes. He invaded Kentucky. This should have been another golden move, but instead, Bedwell ran into trouble. The racetrack officials at Latonia had made a revolutionary decree that doping horses was a punishable offense.
This was a high-minded public-relations tactic for the track, but for horsemen and handicappers, it was a startling cultural change. Horsemen had experimented with speed potions for centuries, as trainers learned that many racehorses, sooner or later, needed artificial inspiration. Some horses were scared to race; others became tired or sore. Faced with endless bills to pay, horsemen developed temporary ways to distract a horse from his troubles. Heroin earned the nickname "horse" because it kicks equines into overdrive. Morphine and other opiates, which lull humans to sleep, also trigger this ancient equine flight response. In the wild, pursued by predators, a horse runs as fast as it can or dies. Given narcotics, a horse feels unnatural sleepiness creeping into its nervous system--sleepiness like the shock caused by a carnivore's fatal bite. And so the hopped horse runs without reserve. If kept in his stall, he trots in circles until the dose finally ebbs. Let loose on a racetrack, he outruns any normal inhibition.
When Bedwell came to racing, everybody knew that many horses ran "hot" and "cold." For the betting public, the main problem was noticing if a cold horse going off at long odds suddenly heated up--or vice versa. A classic example happened in 1897 at Elkton, Maryland, when a poky mare named Sister Myra suddenly won by ten lengths. Owner John Ryan, who cashed a healthy bet, admitted that it was her first time on "hop." The presiding steward, Judge Bowie, gave him strict orders: From now on, every time she runs, make sure she gets the same dose.
By the time Johnny Loftus got his jockey license, recipes for hop were as plentiful as recipes for corn bread and coming by ingredients wasn't hard. Caffeine could be boiled out of black coffee. Strychnine (also used by human athletes for speeding up muscle contractions) was a common rat poison. Even cocaine, heroin, and morphine were legal for anyone with a doctor's prescription to buy from a drugstore, until prohibited by the Harrison Act of 1914--and could be bribed from pharmacists long after that. But using those mixtures effectively was a fine art. Prudent trainers experimented during morning workouts, discovering the right dope and dose for each horse. Still, anything could happen at racing time.
Early in the summer of 1910, as Guy Bedwell moved from New York to Kentucky, Latonia exposed dope's dangers in the worst way. During the last race on July 1, while leading the field into the homestretch, a chestnut gelding named Charley Hill abruptly fell, slamming into the inside fence on his way down. Broken beyond repair, Charley was dragged to a far edge of the course and, in the words of a local reporter, "put out of his misery by a friendly bullet, when the main crowd had left the grounds."5 A more widely heard shot followed. "It is charged that the animal had been given a stimulant," the New York Times reported, "and the [Latonia] officials were told by a veterinarian that the effects of the drug caused the horse to fall."6 All of a sudden, a dope case was national news. Within twenty-four hours, horsemen Kay Spence and J. S. Merchant were ruled off the track. Now Latonia's eyes were open wide, but some horsemen still thought they could hide in plain sight.
Three days after Charley Hill died, an experienced racer named Nadzu reached Latonia's saddling paddock in a "frenzied condition."7 Drug tests for racehorses had not yet been invented, but the paddock judge, veterinarian William Keogh, believed that he could read the body language. Taking Dr. Keogh's advice, the judges scratched Nadzu and summoned the man who owned and trained him: "Hard Guy" Bedwell, the most successful trainer on the grounds.
Their decision didn't take long. On July 6, Bedwell was officially ruled off the turf. Banned from racing, he couldn't even sell his horses for their $70,000 market value. Presumably tainted by dope, they were banned, too.
Latonia's righteous action surprised most racetrackers. Though impressed that mighty Bedwell was suffering the same as humble Kay Spence, horsemen doubted he would be outlawed for long. With twenty-two Thoroughbreds in his string and a high percentage of in-the-money finishes, Bedwell's presence meant a quality racing product. Didn't the game need him? Spence, meanwhile, took no comfort in the impartial punishment. "I was doing my best to win and I can see no crime in that," he told the Louisville Courier-Journal, "and with my horse dead and then be handed a package like was given me, I think is pretty hard."8
Ten days later, the Kentucky Racing Commission reinstated Kay Spence, who benefited from a procedural lapse: "the failure of Dr. Keogh . . . to examine the horse [Charley Hill] for evidence of doping either before or after his death."9 Bedwell, however, couldn't overcome the raw truth that Nadzu had been hopped. He claimed that one of his grooms had taken a gambler's bribe to dose Nadzu with cocaine, and he presented telegrams of support from several of racing's most prestigious men, including Jockey Club chairman August Belmont, Jr. The commission was unmoved. For several months, they firmly backed Dr. Keogh's testimony. But Dr. Keogh died that autumn. Bedwell kept agitating. Early in 1911, he regained his license and promptly became the nation's leading trainer by number of wins.
There was more to his success than dope. Any fool could get his hands on that. Veterinarian Frank M. Keller would recall, "The best trainer I've ever seen with bad-legged horses was H. Guy Bedwell."10 Those bad-legged runners owed some of Bedwell's magic to clever blacksmithing and pharmacy, and even more to the galaxy of limitations he had managed with the cow ponies, livery stable nags, and county fair racers. They also benefited from the skilled help Bedwell chose to employ.
Early in 1912, with Kentucky racing closed for the winter, Bedwell migrated to a Charleston, South Carolina, track so new that its dirt was still settling. From prominent trainer Rome Respess, he borrowed Kentucky's most promising young jockey: sixteen-year-old Johnny Loftus.
For Johnny, this assignment couldn't have been easy. A fierce perfectionist, Bedwell liked to keep his employees living in fear. But for a few weeks at Palmetto Park, he and Loftus exploited each other's abilities to an improbable degree. Eleven days into the meet, Bedwell had won every stakes race offered. A month into the meet, the Louisville Courier-Journal proudly noted that, "Loftus stands head and shoulders above all the other jockeys . . ."11 Bedwell was giving him sharp horses, and Loftus was making the most of them.
After Johnny's contract obligations pulled them apart, respect for each other's skill remained. Reunited seven years later, they would develop a champion colt who would rival Man o' War.
First, however, August Belmont had to prepare the way.
Man o' War's life, and Thoroughbred racing's survival in the eastern United States, depended on a short and suave Manhattan-based financier named August Belmont, Jr.12 He presided over a select society called The Jockey Club.
Despite his jockeylike height and his skill as a polo player, Belmont never had been a professional race rider. Despite its name, The Jockey Club of New York was never open to professional jockeys. Only socially prominent racehorse owners were invited to join. They didn't make their living on the back of a galloping horse, but they did make racing's rules. Formed in 1894 to fight corruption, The Jockey Club vowed to make certain that each horse entered in every race was the same runner actually brought to the starting post, and to investigate whenever a horse performed much better or much worse than its known ability. Trainers or jockeys caught using foul tactics were quickly suspended or banned.
But by 1910, The Jockey Club was losing its fight. That summer, as Johnny Loftus clung to his new career, most racetracks in the United States had been closed or were closing. State after state had banished Thoroughbred racing because too many people would do almost anything to try to win a bet. ...

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