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Man o’ War
When is the best time to visit the Bluegrass?
Well, the farms are beautiful year-around, but we’d say spring is the best time to take in the Kingdom of the Horse. That’s when the Keeneland race meet leads into the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, and everywhere dogwood and redbud burst forth in a beautiful flowering of springtime.
Horse farm tours may be arranged by making a reservation for scheduled tours. It’s neat to get close to horses with a guide or a knowledgeable friend who can let you in on that world.
For many years, the No. 1 leading tourist attraction of the Bluegrass was Man o’ War, the famous racehorse of the early 1920’s who won every race but one, when he was upset by a horse named Upset. Man o’ War didn’t win the Kentucky Derby — because he didn’t run it — but he electrified the imagination of the American sporting public, rivaling Babe Ruth and “Lucky Lindy” Charles Lindbergh in popularity. After retiring from the track, the tall and rangy red chestnut retired to stud duty at Faraway Farm, where he was born. With the help of his faithful groom Will Harbut, Man o’ War entertained visitors from around the world. Hundreds of thousands of admirers signed the great horse’s guest book, and for many years invading turf scribes made a visit to see Man o’ War a regular stop on their forays to Kentucky to cover the Kentucky Derby.
Writer Joe H. Palmer was born in the Bluegrass, but graduated to New York, where he became turf editor of the New York Herald-Tribune. Palmer provided readers with racing news from the tracks, while often slipped in stories from home. He famously called Man o’ War, “the closest thing to a living flame as horses ever get — and horses get very close.” In a column later collected in anthology called “This Was Racing” (very highly recommended), Palmer recalls a day when groom Will Harbut held forth on Man o’ War for the visiting British ambassador, Lord Halifax.
“Will didn’t know Lord Halifax,” began Palmer. “The only ambassador he had ever heard of was Ambassador IV (by Dark Ronald) and he wouldn’t have cared anyway. He always felt he had more celebrity in the stall with him than could possibly be standing in the door; he once shut the gate on the wife of a former Secretary of the Treasury because it was Man o’ War’s feeding time. But he could tell a man who liked horses, and anyway this onlooker (Palmer) had got Will in a corner and urged him to let Lord Halifax have the full treatment.
“The British ambassador was, to say the east, fascinated. It lasted something like twenty minutes, and Lord Halifax never took his eyes off the groom, who was unrolling the long glories of Man o’ War and had proceeded on to his sons and daughters. (‘… and War Admiral looked over at Pompoon and he said, “Pompoon, my daddy broke John P. Grier’s heart, come on.”). Like Tennyson on the passing of Arthur.
“The ending is almost art as Harbut returned to Man o’ War, whom he always called Red: ‘He broke all the records and he broke down all the horses, so there wasn’t nothing left for him to do but retire. He’s got everything a horse ought to have, and he’s got it where a horse ought to have it. He’s just the mostest horse. Stand still, Red.’ ”