Philly's Horse Racing Heritage
The Philadelphia's area's racing roots are deep and ancient, and include such familiar names in the sport as Man O' War, Samuel Riddle and George Widener.
Philly's Horse Racing Heritage
Frank Fitzpatrick, Inquirer Sports Columnist
(This week, when the Preakness Stakes is run in Baltimre and the Radnor Hunt Races in Willistown Township, seems like a good time to reflect on the Philadelphia area’s remarkable racing roots. Here are a couple of stories I did on that subject, the first in 2004, the second in 1999.)
By Frank Fitzpatrick
Inquirer Staff Writer
It might be hard to recall amid all the hoopla his Kentucky Derby victory has created, but the history of horse racing in the Philadelphia area did not begin with Smarty Jones' maiden race.
George Washington attended local races staged by the Philadelphia Jockey Club; Hunting Park, in the 1830s, was the site of one of the country's leading tracks; and a 19th-century Philadelphian, John C. Craig, had not only a popular racetrack on his Germantown estate, Carlton, but also one of America's top stud farms.
Later, even though horse racing remained illegal in Pennsylvania throughout most of it, the 20th century was filled with intriguing stories that had powerful local connections.
They involved four-legged immortals (Man o' War, War Admiral, Seabiscuit), the top shelf of Philadelphia aristocrats (Samuel Riddle, George D. Widener Jr., George Elkins), major historic events (the Civil War and the sinking of the Titanic), and even the Philadelphia 76ers.
Here are three of those stories:
George D. Widener Jr.: Along with Whitney, Belmont, Phipps and Vanderbilt, Widener was one of those wealth-drenched names at the heart of thoroughbred racing. Horses George Jr. bred and raced won 1,243 races, more than $9 million, five Travers Stakes, the 1962 Belmont Stakes, and five Eclipse Awards.
No Widener horse ever won the Kentucky Derby, but then again, he never entered one, believing a 1 1/4-mile test in early May was too rigorous for 3-year-olds. (Riddle, his friend and contemporary, felt the same way, which is why Man o' War is not a Triple Crown winner.)
The Philadelphia-born patrician, whose family lent its name to the prestigious Widener Handicap, as well as to Widener College and numerous other local institutions, was the offspring of German immigrants who arrived here in 1752.
The Wideners began as butchers with shops in the old Spring Garden Market and elsewhere. Prominent Republicans and strong supporters of President Abraham Lincoln, they got rich during the Civil War supplying mutton to Union troops.
The family built an ornate mansion on North Broad Street and parlayed its windfall through co-ownership of the Philadelphia Traction Co. (which operated the city's streetcars) and heavy investments in two new businesses named U.S. Steel and the American Tobacco Co.
It was George Jr., born in 1889, who directed the family money toward thoroughbreds. That interest developed after his father, George Sr., and brother, Harry (in whose posthumous honor Harvard University's library is named), died aboard the Titanic in 1912. His mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, from yet another Philadelphia blue-blood family, survived in a lifeboat.
Widener began breeding horses at his Erdenheim Farm estate in Chestnut Hill and at his Kentucky farm. His holdings grew along with his reputation, and he soon became one of the sport's most prosperous figures.
Five Widener horses - Battlefield, Jaipur, Platter, Stefanita and What A Treat - won Eclipse Awards.
Widener, who summered in Saratoga, N.Y., was a particularly powerful figure in racing circles in New York, where, unlike Pennsylvania, pari-mutuel wagering was legal. He also served as chairman of the Jockey Club.
Widener died childless in 1971, but his fortune stayed in the sporting business.
His principal heir was a nephew, Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr., who not long afterward purchased the Philadelphia 76ers.
Man o' War and Samuel Riddle: Man o' War, perhaps the greatest horse in racing history, spent considerable time at Glen Riddle Farm, Riddle's Delaware County estate.
Riddle, the son of a textile merchant who also became wealthy during the Civil War, by manufacturing Union uniforms, purchased the colt from August Belmont for $5,500 at the Saratoga Yearling sale in 1918.
He sent the horse to his 6,000-acre Middletown Township estate, where Man o' War found his legs on the steep hillsides just east of the Baltimore Pike. Eventually, he was dispatched to another Riddle-owned farm in Maryland, where he began to display the racing prowess that would make him a legend.
Following the horse's 1920 retirement, Riddle took Man o' War on a tour of America, a farewell journey that brought Big Red back to his old Glen Riddle barn.
Eager to show him off to fox-hunting friends, Riddle brought Man o' War to the Rose Tree Hunt (the site of which is now Rose Tree Park along Route 252) on a Sunday afternoon in October. Word leaked out, and the remote grounds soon were teeming with thousands of people and cars.
In some ways, Riddle might have been the most successful thoroughbred owner ever. He also owned War Admiral, a son of Man o' War who probably ranks among the top 20 racehorses ever and who won the 1937 Triple Crown.
A year later, Riddle and War Admiral were back in the headlines when the sleek black horse and Seabiscuit hooked up in the Pimlico match race immortalized recently in the movie “Seabiscuit”.
Riddle died at 89 in 1951. He, too, had no natural heirs, and his estate went to fund Riddle Memorial Hospital, built on the edge of his property.
His home, On the Hill, was torn down and replaced by an elderly care center, where, now hanging on a wall near the lobby, is one of Man o' War's old shoes, unearthed during the demolition.
Justa Farm: While pari-mutuel wagering had long been legal in states like New York, Kentucky, Maryland, Florida and California, Pennsylvania was late to the game. That, however, didn't stop aristocratic horse lovers from having their fun.
George Elkins, whose family partnered with the Wideners in the Philadelphia Traction Co., owned Justa Farm, a 600-acre Montgomery County estate near Bryn Athyn.
Like most wealthy Philadelphians of the era, the Elkinses raised horses. George's daughter Sarah became an accomplished steeplechaser, and, in 1928, when she was 18, she persuaded her father to build a track and stables.
The name of Elkins' farm and some of the grand homes he built there for himself and family members - Justamere House and Justa Corner - were meant to be ironic. George Elkins did nothing in just a small way.
So, at a cost of $500,000 on the eve of the Great Depression, he began constructing stables, a steeplechase course, and a state-of-the-art half-mile racetrack that was one of the nation's finest such private facilities.
The track was so spectacular that races there rapidly became a significant society event. Horses owned by Elkins and his friends gradually were joined by others, and the crowds grew progressively larger.
Though wagering was illegal, there was, according to anecdotal evidence, considerable betting taking place during the races.
A photo from Oct. 7, 1939, portrays a moment from the 29th Race Meeting of the Huntingdon Valley Hunt. In what looks as if it might be a scene at Belmont or Santa Anita, thousands of spectators pack the area near the finish line as several horses gallop around a beautifully maintained white-fenced oval.
Eventually, Elkins died, the farm was subdivided, and by the time gambling was legalized and Keystone Race Track became Pennsylvania's first track devoted entirely to thoroughbreds in 1974, the Justa Farm track had vanished.
By Frank Fitzpatrick
Inquirer Staff Writer
In 1999, the only hint that one of the greatest sports heroes of this just-about-finished century roamed the Delaware County hillsides is the name on a street sign, just off Route 452: Man O’ War Drive
Selected recently by Blood-Horse magazine as the No. 1 racehorse of the 20th century, Man O’ War became a cultural phenomenon with spectacular victories in 20 of 21 races during 1919 and 1920. And eight decades later, even with interest in horse racing greatly diminished, 700,000 people continue to visit his Kentucky gravesite annually.
Though he was born and died in the bluegrass country near Lexington, Ky., Man O' War had solid Philadelphia-area connections - connections that, like Glen Riddle Farm, where the great horse gamboled in Middletown Township, have been obscured by time.
Housing developments rose long ago on the farm's rolling hills. “On the Hill” - the stately green-and-white mansion of Man O' War's owner, Samuel Riddle - went on the auction block in 1951. It was razed a few years ago to make way for a retirement home.
Riddle was the dapper country squire whose Scottish-Irish father established a Delaware County textile mill in 1842 and, soon afterward, a 6,000-acre estate adjoining it. It was at Glen Riddle, in 1918, that Man O’ War first took a saddle and bridle. And it was at the nearby Rose Tree Hunt Club - now Rose Tree Park - in Upper Providence Township that nearly 30,000 people turned out for a look at the legendary thoroughbred in the fall of 1920.
“If you look closely at Man O' War's story,” said Henry Pearson, a Middletown Township historian, “you'll find that a good deal of it took place right here in Delaware County. Not many people know that.”
Philadelphia's turn-of-the-century aristocrats loved the Sport of Kings. Like Riddle, many of them raised horses here and in Kentucky. Each summer, they traveled to their Saratoga mansions for racing season in the upstate New York village.
The Wideners were one of horse racing's most successful families.
Riddle's niece and her husband, Sara and Walter Jeffords - whose estate is now Ridley Creek State Park - owned several great thoroughbreds, including Golden Broom, a contemporary of Man O' War's.
But none had Riddle's good fortune. The bespectacled horseman was 56 when he purchased Man O' War on Aug. 17, 1918, for $5,000 at the Saratoga yearling sale. He subsequently turned down offers of $1 million for the horse. In 1937, Man O' War's most famous offspring, War Admiral, captured the Triple Crown for Riddle.
Yet, as Riddle himself acknowledged before his death at 89 in 1951, War Admiral was not in Man O' War's class as a racehorse. And no thoroughbred, not even the great Secretariat, was ever as beloved.
The 1,120-pound chestnut colt won three times at odds of 1-100, six times as a 2-year-old carrying more than 130 pounds, and once by 100 lengths. He set five world records as a 3-year-old. In retirement, his birthdays annually attracted celebrities and large crowds to Faraway Farm in Lexington. When he died, at 30 in 1947, he lay in state for two days as thousands filed by his casket, a large box dressed out in Riddle's black-and-primrose racing colors. The funeral service, featuring nine eulogists, was broadcast nationally on radio.
“He was so beautiful that it almost made you cry,” said the starter at the 1920 Travers Stakes, “and so full of fire that he made you thank your God you got to come close to him.”
The fortunes of war delivered the horse with the martial name into Riddle's hands. His original owner, Col. August Belmont 2d, was so distracted by World War I in 1917 that he ordered the sale of all 21 of the horses foaled that year at his Nursery Stud in Kentucky.
At the 1918 Saratoga sale, Riddle's trainer, Louis Feustel, liked three horses in particular and urged his boss to buy them. The strapping red one - Mrs. Belmont had called him “My Man O' War” - went for $5,000, the sale's third-highest price. If nothing else, Riddle thought, he might make a good hunting horse.
Feustel brought his three new charges immediately to Glen Riddle, where he broke them before taking them for more intense training at another Riddle farm in Berlin, Md. As the young thoroughbreds romped over property that now includes Riddle Memorial Hospital, it was clear that the long-limbed red one, his name shortened by then to Man O' War, was something special.
Feustel moved him to Maryland for on-track workouts at the Pimlico and Havre de Grace racetracks. Man O' War would not allow another horse to pass him - and with racing strides measured at between 24 and 28 feet, that was rarely a problem. In his first start, a $500 maiden special on June 6, 1919, at Belmont, he went off at 3-5, won by six lengths, and breezed through the five furlongs in 59 seconds.
“He made a half-dozen high-class youngsters look like $200 horses,” wrote the turf editor in the next day's New York Morning Telegraph.
Man O' War won five more times before the Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 13. Horses then started not in enclosed gates but behind a wire-mesh tape controlled by a single starter. False starts were commonplace.
Man O' War broke prematurely five times that day. As jockey Johnny Loftus lined him up for a sixth try, the starter suddenly dropped the tape. The 11-20 favorite, facing sideways, had to turn himself around before getting under way.
Despite carrying 130 pounds - the winner carried 15 less - Man O' War made up all but a half-length of that deficit. It would be his only loss, and it came to the most aptly named horse in racing history, Upset.
Except for the Travers Stakes in 1920, when he had to rally past the formidable John P. Grier, he would never be seriously challenged again.
Riddle did not enter Man O' War in the 1920 Kentucky Derby. The more lucrative racing still took place in the East, and Riddle wasn't convinced that 1 1/4 miles was right for a rawboned horse at the start of his 3-year-old season.
But he won 11 races as a 3-year-old, including the Preakness and the Belmont, the latter by 20 lengths. He took the 1 5/8-mile Lawrence Realization by 100 lengths. He carried an unheard of 138 pounds in the Potomac Stakes and won by six.
The excessive weights being assigned to his horse concerned Riddle. He asked Walter Vosburgh, a Jockey Club handicapper, how much Man O' War might be assigned as a 4-year-old.
“When he told me 145 to 150, I knew it was time for Red to stop,” Riddle said.
Man O' War's final race took place early in October 1920. It was a match with Sir Barton, who in 1919 had become the first Triple Crown winner. At Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario, Man O' War romped by seven lengths, shattering the track's record for 1 1/4 miles by six seconds.
Afterward, on a kind of farewell tour, Riddle brought his great horse to Glen Riddle for some R&R. Along the way, he had stopped at various tracks where, even on dark days, thousands gathered for a glimpse of Big Red.
Riddle was a fox-hunting enthusiast, and his friends at Rose Tree begged him to bring Man O' War there before the horse went to stud in Kentucky. On a bright Sunday in October, in the then sparsely populated rural area, the club's fields were overrun by cars and visitors as Riddle proudly displayed his four-legged icon.
Later that year, the Philadelphia police arrested a man who had been trying to extort $10,000 from Riddle by threatening to kill Man O' War.
As a sire, Man O' War produced 64 stakes winners, including War Admiral and Clyde Van Dusen, the 1929 Derby winner. On Nov. 1, 1947, he passed away.
Riddle died in 1951. His will was bitterly contested by family members distressed that he had left the bulk of it, including the stud fees for War Admiral, to establish a hospital near his beloved home. Riddle Memorial opened in 1961.
Riddle often dined in Media, just two miles north of his estate, riding into the county seat in a horse and carriage during the gas-rationing days of World War II. In one of those establishments, D'Ignazio's Towne House, there is a framed photograph of Man O' War. It was taken on the day the horse visited Rose Tree.
The eye is drawn immediately to the enormous horse, who stood more than 16 hands high. The diamond-shaped white spot on his forehead sparkles like a jewel. The two men flanking him seem inconsequential. It's only after a closer look that you realize the identity of these completely overshadowed figures.
One is Riddle. The other is Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion.
“He did not beat, he merely annihilated,” the racing historian Joe Palmer wrote of Man O' War in the 1947 edition of America's Race Horses. “He did not run to world records, he galloped to them. He was so far superior to his contemporaries that . . . they could not extend him. He dominated racing as perhaps no athlete - not Tilden or Jones or Dempsey or Louis or Nurmi or Thorpe or any human athlete - had dominated his sport.”