TWO WARS BEGIN
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. Crooked bookies, gamblers, and horsemen could make more money when favorites didn’t win, and they knew how to stop favorites in any number of ways: Keep the horse thirsty, then offer a pail of water shortly before the race and watch the horse struggle along with water sloshing in its gut; sit on the horse’s back for a few hours in its stall, during the night before a race, and quietly tire it out; “roll” the horseshoe toes with a blacksmith’s file to reduce traction and then watch the horse try like mad while going nowhere; put a sedative in a tempting snack; find a slow horse that closely resembled the favorite and run the slow horse in the fast horse’s name (then run the actual fast horse several days later, at much higher odds); pay an assistant starter to release the horse too slowly at the break; or pay a jockey not to find the quickest way home.
Racetrack wisdom said that most people didn’t care if a race was fixed, so long as they found out who was supposed to win. But across the United States, thousands of antigambling reformers trumpeted a vision of how pure and honorable America should be. It didn’t matter to them that a great many races yielded reasonable results. Risking dollars on horse races was a sinful shortcut to the poorhouse; robbing the public through unfair gambling was damnable; and racing’s common swindles gave antigambling reformers political leverage. As politicians fell in line, betting on horse races became illegal in state after state. By April of 1911, only three states—Kentucky, Maryland, and Virginia—kept government-sanctioned racing with wagering alive. New York, which had sponsored America’s richest prizes, was completely shut down.
While Guy Bedwell was becoming the nation’s winningest trainer and Johnny Loftus was raising his own winning rate to more than 20 percent, August Belmont tackled an enormous task: restoring racing to New York. Top stables were relocating to Europe or selling out entirely. Belmont, who had played a crucial role in developing New York City’s subway system, understood big business—and New York’s racetrack properties occupied prime real estate worth more than $12 million. But instead of selling to developers, Belmont focused on saving his favorite sport.
Ever since his father launched a Thoroughbred farm on Long Island in 1867, racehorses had been Belmont’s refuge. He fulfilled family demands by graduating from Harvard and taking over his father’s financial firm, but fine horses gave him joy. Belmont didn’t only want to own them; he wanted to create them. Fascinated with pedigrees, he studied Thoroughbred bloodlines for more than four decades and bred dozens of stakes winners. Then the New York legislature tried to tell him that Thoroughbred racers had no place in his home state.
Giving up would have been simple. Belmont already operated a breeding farm in France and raced elite horses at the best European meets. He easily could have deserted the troubled United States scene. Instead, he rounded up friends to build a stylish new track at Havre de Grace, Maryland—just in case restoring the New York tracks took awhile—and began digging for a loophole in New York’s antibetting law. Meanwhile, he insisted that Thoroughbred racing served a patriotic duty: testing the courage, endurance, and early maturity of cavalry stock so badly needed by the U.S. Army. Few racers actually left the track to carry officers into battle, but Belmont persuaded army generals to tell the New York Times that race-proven Thoroughbred stallions made the most useful contributions to the cavalry horse gene pool.
While Bedwell and Loftus roamed the racing circuits in Kentucky, Canada, and Mexico, August Belmont searched for some way that gambling at his home tracks could exist. After all, betting brought in the crowds. Legal or not, most patrons would have their friendly wagers whenever horses had a contest—and that was it! Did the law prohibit casual bets among friends? No, it did not. And so New York racing reopened on May 30, 1913, courtesy of a legal compromise that earned this era the nickname of “the Oral Days.” Instead of paying one hundred dollars per day to the racing association and selling betting tickets to clients, each bookmaker at the track made verbal agreements with hundreds of “friends.”
August Belmont hated to see the general public waste their money by wagering on horse races—only the rich could afford that, he thought—but now his lifelong love had meaning again. Once again he presided over racing at Belmont Park, the giant Long Island course named for his father. Once again he ran his homebred horses in the classic Belmont Stakes, a demanding race that showcased what greatness should be.
Winning a single race is hard enough. More than half of all racehorses never reach the winner’s circle. But the rarest of champions achieve the ultimate domination: winning every time.
During 1907 and 1908, Americans watched a handsome young horse unroll a seamless carpet of wins. Foaled from an English-born mare named *Pastorella (who, like all foreign-born Thoroughbreds imported to America, sported an asterisk next to her name), he was named for a lovesick lad in a pastoral English poem: “Poor Colin sat weeping and told them his pain.”13 The reference was far too fitting. Colin the colt was born with an enlarged hock—the central joint in his hind leg—which had to be numbed with ether before each race. But as a two-year-old in 1907, Colin entered twelve sprints and won every one.
August Belmont bred and owned Colin’s chief rival, a high-headed golden colt named Fair Play, who chased Colin home several times but never got close to beating him. Colin seemed to have an effortless extra gear that he employed when threatened. He also had the cleverest of trainers: a former star jockey, ex–circus rider, and future Hall of Famer named Jimmy Rowe, Sr. As a trainer, Rowe had won eighteen consecutive races with a champion colt named Hindoo. In 1904 and 1905, he had won 14 of 15 starts with the sensational Sysonby. But Rowe thought Colin could be the best of all.
At Belmont Park, in the 1908 Belmont Stakes, Fair Play made him fight for it.
Colin started as the favorite on that stormy June afternoon, despite grave concerns about the tendons in his front legs. Two days earlier, after a brilliant workout, his front pasterns (the springy slope joining ankle to hoof) had swollen to “nearly double their normal size.”14 Thinking that Colin had broken down, Jimmy Rowe telephoned owner James R. Keene with the terrible news, then collapsed on a couch and cried.
But on Belmont Stakes day, Colin appeared in the saddling paddock after all. Hundreds of men and women pushed through the wind and rain to see for themselves whether Colin was all right. Thick bandages wrapped around all four of his lower legs, not stripped off until Colin was about to leave the paddock, kept them guessing. Jimmy Rowe swore that Colin was not sore. The track veterinarian, Dr. R. W. McCully, swore that this was true. But had the historic Belmont Stakes, worth $21,765 to the winner, plus a thousand-dollar trophy, tempted owner Keene and trainer Rowe to take a chance with Colin not completely fit?
Pouring rain turned the track surface to deep mud. Beneath the saddling shed, Fair Play hammered his heels against the stall sides, making one reporter think of gunshots. Then the four contestants jogged roughly three-quarters of a mile away from the crowd, down to the Belmont Stakes’ special starting place at the far side of Belmont Park’s training track (a one-mile oval lying perpendicular to the 11/2-mile main course). Patterned after idiosyncratic European classics, the Belmont Stakes course made a fishhook shape: curving around the training track, then joining the main track for a long, straight run to a special finish line.
Obscured by driving rain, the start was virtually invisible from the grandstand. Even as the racers entered the main track, halfway around its turn for home, spectators saw no more than a moving blur. Only as the galloping shapes straightened into the stretch could they pick out the white silks with blue polka dots carried by the leading horse. Then thousands yelled, “It’s Colin!”15 Tearing through the curtains of rain, it was Colin in front, Colin leading by an indistinct three or five lengths over the determined Fair Play. A quarter mile out, even as Eddie Dugan urged Fair Play to run for real, Colin looked like an easy winner. An eighth of a mile from the regular finish line, as Fair Play drew near, Joe Notter waved his whip and Colin bounded away. A sixteenth of a mile from the regular finish line, splashing past the grandstand, Colin seemed to be in control. Notter sat still as Fair Play trailed the champion by a length. Cruising past the regular finish line, Colin had comfortably won. But the Belmont Stakes still had fifty yards to go.
Some observers would say that Notter eased Colin up as they passed the regular finish post, forgetting the special finish line still ahead. Others said that Colin began to falter, either tiring from his effort or feeling pain in his forelegs. This much was certain: All of a sudden, the Belmont Stakes was not safely won.
While thousands cheered, forgetting that Colin still had 150 feet between himself and victory, Colin’s owner pitched a fit. Across from the true winning post, Mr. Keene was roaring, wildly waving his gold-handled umbrella. Fair Play was still driving, closing fast now, and in a flash Notter began riding hard again. Fair Play was lapped on Colin, at his girth, at his neck. Colin struggled to regain lost momentum, and Fair Play would not go away. Rain-soaked but tenacious, they passed the special finish line with Colin—who led the field by a few easy lengths entering the homestretch—beating Fair Play by no more than three or four feet.
James R. Keene hurled his umbrella across the lawn.
Colin’s triumph was not a pure joy. Keene and Rowe quickly blamed Notter for misjudging the finish line. Notter claimed that Colin had faltered, probably feeling pain in his legs. But there were no motion pictures of the race and no photographs of the final fifty yards. The dispute about why Colin had slowed down never died.
Unquestioned was the brave performance of the runner-up. “Fair Play ran a wonderfully game race,” Daily Racing Form noted, “and stood a long stretch drive in the most resolute fashion imaginable.”16 Even winners rarely receive such superlative praise.
Colin managed only one more start, beating a tepid group of fellow three-year-olds without Fair Play. His record reached a perfect 15 for 15, but his condition was falling apart. Fair Play tangled with all comers, even the best older horses in training, won seven times, and earned more praise for bravery. Late that October, both colts boarded a ship for England. Royal Ascot offered a 21/2-mile race known as the Gold Cup—to connoisseurs, the most prized trophy in the world. August Belmont believed Fair Play could win. Jimmy Rowe, staying home in the States, regretted that James Keene was making Colin try. Rowe doubted Colin’s legs could stand the stress, and he was right. After besting English star Jack Snipe in a dazzling workout, Colin strained a tendon so badly that he had to retire. He never raced on an English track.
Fair Play remained physically healthy, but his attitude went foul. Son of an evil-tempered stallion named Hastings, Fair Play began acting more and more like his uncooperative sire. Six times he went out in English races, important races, but did not finish in the top three. “He was sound and had speed,” wrote American handicapper Walter Vosburgh, “but he would not try. . . .”17 It was a sorry comedown for the horse that had run Colin to within a few feet of defeat.
Colin and Fair Play, America’s best colts, had gone abroad and failed to show the world how good they were. England, where Thoroughbred racehorses had emerged in the mid-1700s, still could take credit for producing the world’s finest champions. England had created such titans as Isinglass, the world’s leading money earner; St. Simon, who won the famous Ascot Gold Cup by twenty lengths and retired undefeated in ten races; and Ormonde, who won England’s Triple Crown and retired undefeated in sixteen starts. Colin had come close to proving that he belonged in their exclusive company. Fair Play had not threatened them at all.
But the next great challenger to English supremacy would emerge from Fair Play, whose international foray had flopped. Early in 1910, while Thoroughbred racing collapsed in most of the United States, Fair Play returned to August Belmont’s Nursery Stud near Lexington, Kentucky. There he would father a colt more brilliant than himself, who might succeed where Colin had finally failed.
Fair Play’s most famous mate never got near England, but her sire, *Rock Sand, won the 1903 English Triple Crown. August Belmont plucked him out of a 1906 estate sale, for the giant price of $125,000, and sailed him to Kentucky. Some of *Rock Sand’s sons showed tremendous racing talent, and Belmont sold them for grand prices. Many of *Rock Sand’s daughters he kept for his broodmare band. A filly foal of 1910, from an undistinguished mare named *Merry Token, would become known as “Fair Play’s wife.”18
Although an Arabic greeting meaning “May good things be with you” inspired her name, Mahubah,19 good things took awhile to find her. As a two-year-old, she ran second in her first start, then moved from Maryland to a nongambling meet sponsored by Long Island’s Piping Rock hunt club. There she finished fifth, thoroughly beaten by a Harry Payne Whitney–owned filly cleverly named Pankhurst. Christened after British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and her activist daughters, leading crusaders for a woman’s right to vote, Pankhurst had been sired by Voter and foaled by Runaway Girl. Continuing the line of political names, she would later produce a colt named Upset, who would lock horns with Mahubah’s most famous son.
Had she been human, Mahubah would not have made a hardy suffragette. Tending to fret and lose weight, she was soundly beaten in her third race and earned a winter vacation. She did improve after her trainer put a goat in her stall. Whenever the goat dived for Mahubah’s feed, the filly drove her companion away and ate every morsel, apparently from sheer possessiveness.
Mahubah’s one moment of racetrack glory came in her three-year-old debut. At Baltimore’s Pimlico racecourse on May 8, 1913, she met a field of other nonwinners and thoroughly outclassed them. Her time was not fast, but the Daily Racing Form noted, “Won cantering”—a racetrack expression for the easiest kind of victory. Maybe that graceful performance gave Mahubah’s handlers too much confidence. Five days later, she raced again. Facing other winners, including males, she ran fifth of six. And that was all. Deciding that Mahubah wouldn’t sustain a distinguished racing career, August Belmont retired her to the Nursery Stud. He preferred to save her energy for her foals.
Mahubah began having babies while the world waged war. Her first, a bay daughter of Fair Play, was born in 1915, while the United States gave material support to Great Britain but did not join in the battles overseas. Her second, a chestnut son of Fair Play, was born in 1917, exactly one week before the United States officially entered the Great War. Because the recent antiracing movement had decimated the American bloodstock business, he was one of only 1,961 Thoroughbred foals registered in the United States that year. It would be the fifth-smallest crop of the entire twentieth century.
He was born at the Nursery Stud, shortly before midnight on March 29. He resembled Fair Play, with a similar white star on his forehead and a narrow, slightly crooked white streak racing down the ridge of his nose. He was very tall for a newborn. Once he managed to stand, foaling attendants measured him as forty-two inches—three and a half feet—from the top of his shoulder blades (known as the withers) to the ground. His girth—the circumference of his body just behind the shoulder blades, crucial to heart and lung capacity—was a sturdy thirty-three inches.20 Farm manager Elizabeth Kane sent a telegram to August Belmont: “Mahubah foaled fine chestnut colt.”
At home in New York, Belmont shared the good news with his wife. Twenty-five years younger than her husband, Eleanor Robson Belmont had retired from starring roles in New York and London theater to marry Augie (as he was known to family and close friends) on February 26, 1910. A widower since 1898, Belmont already was a grandfather. Eleanor never had married before. But despite their age difference and dissimilar social backgrounds, they found genuine companionship. Augie appreciated the intelligence behind Eleanor’s striking blue eyes. Eleanor described her publicly aloof husband as “a veritable Peter Pan in youth of mind” with “a priceless sense of fun. . . .”21
During the spring of 1917, however, the Belmonts were becoming preoccupied with war. Eleanor soon would be crusading for the Red Cross, while Augie offered his service to the army. Still, before those new obligations took hold, the Belmonts finished an annual task that Eleanor called a “‘What shall we name the baby?’ pastime”22: christening their new Thoroughbred foals.23 For this, the Belmonts pooled their powers. Augie, the banker, provided a system: using the first letter of the dam’s name, to keep the families organized. Eleanor, the actress, inspired by the meaning of both parents’ names, added drama.
The M name for Mahubah’s second foal saluted August Belmont and his active new role in the Great War. Even though he was sixty-five years old, Belmont had quickly volunteered to serve his country, been commissioned a major in the Quartermaster Corps, and accepted assignments overseas. When Eleanor imagined names for the colt by Fair Play from a mare whose name meant “May good things be with you,” her husband came to mind. In tribute to Major Belmont, she named Mahubah’s colt Man o’ War.
Copyright © 2006 by Dorothy Ours