The names and stories of the men and women who were primary caregivers to thoroughbreds, whether great champions or hard-working horses who ran on local racetracks, are largely unknown. Since many of these people were perceived as menial workers employed in the stables of the wealthy, they were overlooked by turf writers and the general public. However, even though fragmentary, a few stories of thoroughbreds and the men who loved them have come down to us from the past.
One such narrative fragment concerns Will Harbut and the legendary Man O’ War.
The Latin “texere” from which the word “text” derives means texture and was first used to describe the process of weaving textiles. There is a kind of lovely rapport between the concept of storytelling and weaving. Both involve the choice of a pattern, colour and intricate stitchery that produces a design. And both are human endeavours that seek to warm, beautify and inspire.
It is in that spirit that we offer you another narrative of Will and his big, copper-red stallion.
As frequent readers of THE VAULT know, I have long been a collector of old thoroughbred photographs. Many years ago now, I found this image of Will and Man O’ War. Unlike the version of the Meadors photo above, the one I purchased has a ‘whited out” background, so that only man, horse and a portion of the ground they walk upon are depicted. What transfixed me about the “revised” rendering of the famous Meadors photo is that Man O’ War and the man he loved have been pulled out of time. There is no car or other visual cue to bind them to a specific time or place. Will and Man O’ War appear deep in communion and their intimacy fills the eye.
Will Harbut was born in 1885 and as a young man, moved to Maddoxtown, where he built one of its first houses on the land he purchased. Maddoxtown was one of many “free towns” that sprung up in Kentucky after the Civil War where freed men and women could settle, farm and raise their families. The South of the pre-Civil War was a place where landowners and slaves contributed to a thriving economy. As we understand today, the master-slave relationship was a very complex one and, with the emancipation, was forced into a state of social upheaval that saw newly-liberated men, women and children leaving homesteads and flocking into Southern cities. And just as suddenly, these families found themselves homeless and jobless. In an attempt to restore social and economic order, the state of Kentucky opened free towns to Afro-Americans as a means of attracting them to rural areas where they would find some measure of security and employment.
The residents of Maddoxtown farmed their land, while also working on the horse farms of the Bluegrass. As such, they were simply continuing a tradition of long-standing, since Afro-American men had cared for and ridden Kentucky thoroughbreds in the pre-Civil War era. Their contribution to thoroughbred history had been vital and important: 12 of the 15 jockeys who rode in the very first Kentucky Derby were Afro-Americans and thoroughbreds carrying Afro-American riders would wear the roses 15 times over the next 28 years. Men from the free towns around Lexington also served as trainers, as well as grooms, passing on their thoroughbred expertise from father-to-son.
Will Harbut’s Maddoxtown home, where he and his wife, Mary, raised their 12 children, faces out onto the rolling pastures of the world’s thoroughbred heartland. On any given morning, Will could stand on his porch and watch bands of thoroughbreds grazing and rollicking in the lush bluegrass. By the time he was hired by farm manager Harry/Harrie B. Scott, Will Harbut had already gotten the reputation for being a fine horseman and, some said, a horse whisperer. And when Scott was asked to run the operations at Faraway Farm in 1930, he took Will with him.
Man O’ War had been at stud for over a decade when Will Harbut walked into his life. His stud career had started off at Elizabeth Daingerfield’s Hinata Farm, outside Lexington. Daingerfield was a consummate horsewoman and an expert breeder. She went on to purchase and set up Faraway Farm for Riddle and served as its manager until 1930, when Scott took over. So it was that Will became Man O’ War’s new stud groom and the two would be together, each and every day, for more than 15 years.
Will had never seen Man O’ War race, but at the time he became the stallion’s handler he certainly knew he was rubbing a living legend. Did Will also know that he had just met his soul mate, a thoroughbred who would make Will his (equine) family? Perhaps not in that first meeting, but I would wager that it wasn’t long before both horse and man knew that they had found the truest expression of themselves in the light of the other’s eye.
Man O’ War was the kind of thoroughbred that brought you closer to divinity than most people had ever been before.
The magnificent chestnut had an indomitable will and an almost uncanny sense of his own power. The starter of the Travers Stakes the year Man O’ War ran, said this of him,” …[he was] so beautiful it made you want to cry, and so full of fire you thanked your God you could come close to him.” Joe H. Palmer, the celebrated turf writer, said, ” He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else…It was that even when he was standing motionless in his stall, with his ears pricked forward, and his eyes focused on something above the horizon which mere people never see, energy still poured from him. He could get in no position which suggested actual repose, and his very stillness was that of a coiled spring, of the crouched tiger…”
Here is live footage of Man O’ War that allows us a glimpse of him in all of his glory:
Man O’ War probably found his life as a breeding stallion far more satisfactory than he did the highly structured and controlled life of a race horse. Intelligent and high strung by nature, life on the farm offered Big Red great distractions, as well as time to churn up his paddock on a regular basis, kicking up sod as though he were being chased by a predator. For his part, Will Harbut provided a firm and loving hand and a routine that made Big Red feel secure and happy within himself. The man who had broken more thoroughbreds than he could count and who owned not one, but two teams of draft horses understood the equine soul. And, as a father of 12, there was probably little Man O’ War could do that would surprise him.
Will Harbut had a rich, melodic voice and wide, smooth hands. According to Will’s son, Tom Harbut, it wasn’t long before his father and Man O’ War became as one. Of his father, Tom had this to say when interviewed by D. Cameron Lawrence for an article published in the October 2006 issue of Kentucky Humanities, ” He was well respected and I admired him for his accomplishments because for one thing, he was closer to the slave era. At that time, he wasn’t allowed to read or write. And to get where he did was amazing.”
Will was Man O’ War’s everything, the first face he saw in the morning and the last he saw at night. Will fed him, bathed him, mucked out his stall, groomed him, hand-walked him, brought him water and turned him out into his paddock. It was Will who brought him to the breeding shed or led him out to meet the steady stream of admirers who came to visit. And it was Will who reminded him to be gentle with the children that brought him a carrot or a lump of sugar and Will who admonished him to behave himself, which he did by snapping the shank and demanding, “Stand still, Red” or “Stop fidgeting, Red” or “Stop messin’ around, Red.”
Having a best friend like Will Harbut also assured the champion some privacy and respect. Samuel Riddle was most generous in allowing fans access to Man O’ War, for Faraway Farm was open to visitors every day from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Although he greeted over a million visitors, Will refused to wake the stallion up if visitors arrived when the horse was napping, telling them rather curtly, ” When Man O’ War wants to get up, he get up. And when he wants to lie down, he lie down.” If it was time for Man O’ War to be fed, Will would shoo people away and ask them to wait. If the stallion was out in his paddock and if Red appeared to be inviting company, Will might take one or two people right up to him. Although dignitaries from all walks of life, including film star Jeanette MacDonald, Henry M. Leland (founder of Cadillac Co.), Lord Halifax and government officials visited on a regular basis, Will never distinguished between famous and average folks. Everyone was treated with the same respect and everyone was made to understand that the only dignitary at Faraway was Man O’ War himself and, as time went on, his sons.
It was during these public visits that Will became famous for giving Man O’ War a voice. When visitors arrived, they first received a tour of Faraway Farm and some of its other equine superstars and, when anticipation had mounted enough to make even the hardiest mouth go dry, Will would disappear into the small barn to emerge with Red. As men and women gaped, Man O’ War struck what was to become an archetypal pose — head held high, muscles rippling under his copper coat, feet firmly planted and eyes that looked away, towards the horizon.
If he judged his audience worthy, Will would tell them a story or two. To be thus acknowledged, Will needed to feel that his visitors were in awe of the champion. Otherwise, he led the stallion out, waited a bit and then led him back to his stall. But whether or not Will so acknowledged you, a visit with Man O’ War always began with, “Folks, this is Man O’ War. He’s the greatest horse that ever lived. He’s the most and he’s going to go on being the most as long as you and I can tell about it.” Although he was famous for his declaration that Man O’ War was “… just the mostest horse,” Will spun a whole anthology of tales for his rapt listeners, holding the mighty stallion on a loose shank with one hand. His stories were never exactly the same and when he was storying, Will talked as much to Red as he did to his admirers. And Red always listened, punctuating the anecdotes with nods, nickers or snorts.
In most of the popular photos of Will and Man O’ War, the two are posing. But what was lovely about the shots taken in 1941 by Ivan Dmitri for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post (below) was the way they articulated Will and his horse ….. or, Man O’ War with his Will.
The famous cover shot would also inspire equine artist, Fred Stone, whose collectors’ plate, “Forever Friends” remains one of his most popular. Had they seen Stone’s plate, neither Will nor Man O’ War would have been surprised. The most famous photographers, artists and sculptors of the day immortalized the champion, who stood for sittings patiently because Will was almost always at his side.
Even though Man O’ War, unlike most thoroughbreds, found the love of his life after retirement, there came a day when Will did not come to Faraway Farm. In 1946, Red’s best friend was the victim of a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and blind. Joe Palmer, writing of Big Red’s upcoming birthday that year, began this way, “When Man O’ War celebrates his next birthday here the party will have already been spoiled. Will Harbut, the groom who tended the big red stallion for nearly 20 years, was stricken with an attack which has at least temporarily deprived him of his sight as well as his powers of motion.” He went on to say, talking about Will’s legendary stories of Man O’ War’s exploits, “…It was, indeed, a full-blown and well-flavored narrative, now apparently never to be told again, for Will’s chances of complete recovery seem slight…It has for years been a half-jesting comment in Lexington that neither Man O’ War nor Will Harbut would be able to live without the other, and the jest is now getting a little bitter…”
Palmer’s observations proved prophetic.
Will Harbut died on October 3, 1947. His obituary in The Blood Horse listed among his survivors his wife, six sons, three daughters and Man O’ War.
Less than a month later, as photographer James W. Sames recounted to The Blood-Horse, he visited Faraway Farm at the request of farm manager, Patrick O’Neill, to take some pictures of Man O’ War. Little did he know that the last photo he took, in colour, would be the final image of a legend. When his new groom, Cunningham Graves, affectionately known as Bub, took Man O’ War back to his stall, the stallion balked. His head held high, he looked out and down the driveway, perhaps searching for a familiar figure. Finally, Man O’ War entered his stall at Faraway Farm and lay down.
He never got up again.
Postscript: Man O’ War died on November 1, 1947. Given the thousands who wished to pay their final respects, he was laid out in his coffin before being buried at Faraway Farm. When Man O’ War’s remains were disinterred and re-settled at the Kentucky Horse Park, the Harbut family declined a request to move Will Harbut from his burial spot, in the Maddoxtown cemetery, to a grave near the Man O’ War memorial. Instead, a plaque was erected beside the statue that tells the story of their long and loving relationship.
TO SEE SOME WONDERFUL, RARE PHOTOS OF MAN O’ WAR, READERS SHOULD VISIT THE KENTUCKIANA ONLINE DIGITAL LIBRARY. Here are a few links to some of the photos of Man O’ War and Will (below). To SEARCH the collection, go to this address http://kdl.kyvl.org/ AND type Man O’ War into the BOX above SEARCH ALL COLLECTIONS.