Friday, August 13, 2010

August 13, 1919: Upset pulls the upset

QUEENS, N.Y. - From the start, it didn't look like it would be Man O'War's day.

In 1919, there were no starting gates in horse racing, just a rope held across the track. The horses were supposed to line up in order behind the rope to start a race, except it didn't work that way at the Stanford Stakes on August 13. For whatever reason, the starter on this day didn't wait for all the horses to be ready before he pulled the rope. As a result, only four horses were actually prepared for the start. Man O'War wasn't, and wasn't even up at the line when the race began.

No worries, though. He was a truly brilliant horse. Even his name sounds like it belongs to a champion. So despite the bad start that left him in last place in the short six-furlong race, and despite carrying up to 20 pounds more than the rest of his opponents, Man O'War began the comeback.

One by one, the other horses in the field fell behind the hard-charging chesnut. He went from last to third on the back stretch, and he had moved into second, two lengths behind, as the entered the top of the home stretch. Man O'War continued reducing the deficit, cutting it first to a length, then a half-length, then a neck, then... well, then it was over. The race wasn't quite long enough, and Man O'War had lost for the first time in his career.

The people at the Aqueduct Racetrack knew better, however. While it was true that Man O'War had lost, everybody knew that he had proven to be far and away the best horse in the field, and that if he had gotten a fair start, he would have won going away.

The fact that he didn't win almost adds to the legacy of Man O'War. That race in August was the only race he lost in 21 career starts, and many of his wins were by laughable margins. Beating him was a horse named Upset (no. 4 at left, with Man O'War right behind), leading to the belief that this horse's victory over the great Man O'War was the origin of the term "upset" for surprising sports victories; alas, the term predated this race, and it was just a coincidince that it took Upset to upset Man O'War.

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