Some oft-told stories bear repeating, and as we head to a stakes-laden Fourth of July card at Belmont, the 1920 Dwyer comes to mind as one of those races whose story deserves to be told, yet again.
On July 10th, 1920, Samuel Riddle’s once-beaten Man o’ War faced off against the only colt said to be able to challenge him, Harry Payne Whitney’s John P. Grier. They had never met before, and while Man o’ War was a virtual lock for championship honors, beating the Whitney colt would put an indisputable end to any conversation about the best three year old colt in the country.
Four days before the Dwyer, John P. Grier raced at Aqueduct, then home to the Dwyer, winning the mile and a sixteenth Sir Walter Handicap by two lengths “without being extended.” According to the New York Times,
The interest that attached to the appearance of the Whitney colt was not in his victory so much, for that was expected, but in the possibility that he may give Man O’ War a tussle when they meet [in the Dwyer].
More than 25,000 showed up at Aqueduct to see what would come to be called “the greatest horse race that has been seen on the American turf in more than a decade,” a match race that hadn’t been designed that way, but which became one when only John P. Grier showed up to take on Man o’ War in a “whirlwind battle of speed and stamina.”
With the exception of the Sanford, Man o’ War’s one loss, the running lines for the chestnut’s races tell the story of a horse who hadn’t needed to work very hard to win: “Easily.” “Drew away.” “Eased final 1/16th.” “Speed in reserve.” The Dwyer would be different. Man o’ War carried 126 pounds, John P. Grier 108.
As the Times tells us, “At no time in the race up to the final fifty yards did daylight ever show between [the two horses],” and “The great thrill came from the fact that Man o’ War was finally put to a real test against a three-year-old which in any other year would be a champion, and was forced to do his best over a greater part of the distance to gain finally the decision.”
The race was scorchingly fast: the first quarter in :23.4, the half in :46, six furlongs in 1:09.6, it in itself a record, leading to Man o’ War running the mile and an eighth in new world record time: 1:39 1:49 and one-fifth seconds.
One of them had to crack—and Grier was the logical candidate—but after they entered the stretch still lapped on, the unbelievable happened. It was John P. Grier who began to inch away, getting his head in front at the three-sixteenths pole. (Robertson)
For just a second there loomed the possibility of the horse of the century meeting defeat. It was a rather sickening thought to those who had raised this colt to a pedestal. The same crowd would have hailed a new champion in the next breath. (New York Times)
A touch of the whip, though, and Man o’ War surged forward; not quite done, John P. Grier found another gear, too, but within strides, it was over, and Man o’ War, with a two length victory, asserted his claim to the title of the best horse in the country.
24 years later, on the 4th of July, anticipating that year’s Dwyer, Arthur Daley of the Times looked back at Man o’ War’s victory, waxing poetic over the chestnut characterized by his groom, Will Harbut, as “jes’ de mostest horse.”
In the year 1954 it may be a bit difficult to visualize the hold that Man o’ War had on the sports of public of 1920. He captivated folks even more than Native Dancer does today.
[He was a] horse of exquisite beauty in the giant economy size. The sun glinted through the window and struck the chestnut coat of Man o’ War so that his redness glowed until he almost seemed to stand in an aura of fire. There was a majestic lift to this head and his liquid brown eyes stared with imperious insolence. He was a king and he knew it.
Daley notes that Man o’ War’s performance in the Dwyer made it “an unforgettable race,” and others concur; the pole at which Man o’ War was briefly headed was preserved when the old Aqueduct gave way to the new. Upon the opening of the refurbished track in Ozone Park in 1959, NYRA president John Hanes dedicated that pole at the new track, and the Man o’ War Handicap was established (Levey).
In his excellent book on the history of racing in Saratoga, The Noble Animals, Landon Manning writes,
One of the things that make racing—both thoroughbred and standardbred —so great is that it is often an unabashedly sentimental sport. So the old eighth pole at the old Aqueduct track, symbolizing the spot where John P. Grier wrested the lead from Man o’War is the same eighth-pole at the new Aqueduct track today. If only the Off Track Betting patrons and politicians who are making a serious effort to turn the sport into a numbers game could appreciate these little nuances of tribute to the past. There may some day be a beautiful Hall of Fame for OTB, rivaling the one for thoroughbred horses at Saratoga, but the odds appear to be against it.
On Saturday at Belmont, visitors will see three races—the Suburban, the Dwyer, and the Prioress–that have been run a combined 276 times, won by horses whose names are a part of racing lore: Beldame, Easy Goer, Whirlaway, Assault, Dark Mirage, Ta Wee, Tom Fool, Salvatore, Kelso. The Grade I Suburban is the headliner, but even in its name, the Dwyer honors racing’s past by recalling Phil and Mike Dwyer, two men instrumental in establishing New York racing. Thanks to the anonymous Times writers, to Arthur Daley, to Walter H.P. Robertson, and to Landon Manning, that 1920 Dwyer can indeed be unforgettable, even to those of us who never saw it.
(some Times articles require a subscription)
Champions. New York: Daily Racing Form Press, 2000.
Daley, Arthur. “Sports of the Times; Tale of a Broken Heart.” New York Times. 4 July 1954. 2 July 2009.
“John P. Grier Now Defies Man O’War.” New York Times. 7 July 1920. 2 July 2009.
Levey, Stanley. “IND Racing Train Gets A Workout.” New York Times. 3 June 1959. 2 July 2009.
Manning, Landon. The Noble Animals, 1973.
“Man O’War Again Sets World Mark.” New York Times. 11 July 1920. 2 July 2009.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. New York: Bonanza Books, 1964