There’s a strong, fine thread that runs through my life. It’s bright red in color, and binds together memories as old as my childhood and as new as today, as I write this. Part flame, part myth, a little bit of magic that holds the heart and stitches past, present, and future into a thing called ‘legend’ – the thread is called Man o’ War.
I was eight years old in the summer of 1969, and as horse crazy as they come. A summer holiday, driving from California to Florida, was sweetened with the big bribe: a trip to Kentucky. My father, famous for letting us kids choose each day’s route with an emphasis on tiny blue highways and a strong dose of ‘serendippin” let me plot our progress in the bluegrass state.
I wasn’t interested in architecture, unless it was the graceful cupolas on Churchill Down’s clubhouse, or history, unless it was Calumet Farms’ leggy weanlings sired by the great ones who claimed their right to procreate in duels at Aqueduct, Santa Anita, and Hialeah. But there was only one real shrine for me: tucked away in an overgrown pasture in Fayette County, Kentucky, was Man o’ War’s grave.
It was hard to find: the famous horse, though still known throughout the world, was in death not the tourist draw he’d been in his prime when the world watched him celebrate birthdays on the front page of the sports section and perhaps half a million fans came to call at Faraway Farm. But he lives on in Lexington, and the inquiries of a curious girl finally guided us to Big Red’s remains, buried beneath a larger than life metal likeness.
We approached the holy place and I narrated from memory, in my best Walter Farley style, the big horse’s accomplishments: “Man o’ War won 20 out of 21 races, and set or equaled eight track or American records at distances from a mile to a mile and five-eighths as a three-year-old, carrying as much as 32 pounds more than his rivals. Bred to what most horsemen consider average mares, he sired Triple Crown champion War Admiral, English Grand National winner Battleship, three-time winner of the rigorous Maryland Hunt Cup timber race Blockade and daughters that produced 128 stakes winners. He caught the public’s imagination, and never let them down.”
The visit was splendid for a kid who’d rather ride than walk, and I can recall the smells of the limestone-rich grass as we circled and admired the statue. Dad took my picture standing on the base of the image, dwarfed by the 20-hand statue that, perhaps, was a little prettier than the horse himself. Summer sun filters through the shady arms of the oaks and onto my radiant smile, dappling my face and the huge bronze horse above me.
I still have that black and white picture, tucked into the frame of another Man o’ War memory. A few years ago, I stopped, serendippin’, in a junky antique shop on the road to Las Vegas. On a back wall, dusty and faded, was a small framed photo of a horse. I scrambled over heaps of old magazines and boxes of geodes to reach the picture, a photo of a handsome Thoroughbred. I turned over the frame to find, tattered and yellowed, an advertisement for Man o’ War standing at stud for the year 1923. The fee was $2,500. As the last line of the advertisement, the copywriter had boasted “The first of Man o’ War’s get, foals of 1922, are uniformly grand looking youngsters.”
There’s something else tucked in that old frame. Last fall, with friends, I visited the Kentucky Horse Park where Man o’ War’s remains and monument were relocated in 1976. Moving around the base, reading the bronze tablets highlighting the winnings and sire record of this horse born more than 80 years before, I read with glassy eyes and tried to keep my emotions from brimming over. At the last plaque, standing just where I’d had my photo taken more than 30 years ago, a single oak leaf drifted down and landed on my shoulder. It’s tucked in that frame now, along with the photo. The leaf is vivid chestnut red.
? 2001 Suzanne Drnec
Writing or riding, Suzanne Drnec enjoys horses and their people. Drnec is president of Hobby Horse Clothing Company, a show apparel manufacturer, and also the caretaker of an assortment of lawn ornaments including a Paint, a Quarter horse, and an antique Arabian.