Saturday, April 27, 2019

Samuel Doyle Riddle

Joe Palmer (1904–1952)
From The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns

Man o' War In the summer of 1920. Stock photo by Brown Brothers. Courtesy of New York Public Library Photograph Division.
Whenever horse racing aficionados compile lists of the all-time greatest thoroughbreds — and they do this sort of thing quite often — Man o’ War always holds one of the top two spots, forever nosing it out with Secretariat. And if you scan further down the list, you’ll usually find somewhere in the top 25 Man o’ War’s son, War Admiral (somewhat unfairly portrayed as a snobbish rival to his underdog “nephew,” Seabiscuit, in the 2003 hit movie).

Both Man o’ War and War Admiral were owned by Samuel Doyle Riddle, an American businessman in textile manufacturing who bred and raced horses. Man o’ War’s fame comes from just two seasons, during which he won for his owner a cool quarter of a million dollars — a hefty sum one hundred year ago. In 1919 the two-year-old horse won 9 of 10 races. His only loss occurred when the starter began the race before all the horses were in position. Man o'War started the race “three to four lengths” behind but ended up placing second, neck and neck with an ironically named — and otherwise forgotten — colt named Upset. Man o’ War’s year of glory, however, was 1920, when he won all eleven of his starts, including the Belmont and Preakness Stakes, and set three world records. He didn’t capture the Triple Crown, however, because at the beginning of the year Riddle decided to skip the Kentucky Derby, in part because he thought Man o’ War was too young to run a mile and a quarter so early in the year.

Then, in 1921, Riddle surprised everyone and retired his star horse, out of concern for the weight Man o’ War would have to carry in most races for older horses. (In handicap races, the better the horse’s past record, the more weight the horse must bear in order to level the field with other horses and insure that each race will be a little more unpredictable. This is a betting sport, after all.) Over the next quarter century more than one million visitors went to Riddle’s farm to see Man o’ War in his retirement; during this period he became the sire of nearly four hundred foals, including the Triple Crown–winning War Admiral and 61 other stakes winners. The revered stallion died at the ripe old age of thirty on November 1, 1947.

Riddle died a little over three years later, and journalist Joe Palmer wrote for The New York Herald Tribune the eulogy that we present as our Story of the Week selection, which has also been included in the new Library of America anthology The Great American Sports Page. The collection includes the following headnote by John Schulian summarizing Palmer’s career:

Joe Palmer was a comet who streaked across the sky for six short years at the New York Herald Tribune and then did his readers the great disservice of dying at forty-eight. He wrote about horse racing with such joy, wit, and integrity that his prose was devoured even by those who didn’t know a fetlock from a furlong. To Palmer the great Man o’ War “was as near to a living flame as horses ever get,” but he brought the winner’s circle into perspective by writing “All men are equal on the turf or under it.” And to think this University of Kentucky graduate and University of Michigan Ph.D. candidate almost took a wrong turn into academe. Employment at a horse breeders’ magazine rescued him, and Red Smith, recognizing a rare talent, steered him to the Herald Tribune. The best of Palmer’s work was collected in a book called This Was Racing. It is, alas, out of print.

In a recent interview, Schulian adds that Smith and Palmer “had a prayer they uttered when it was time to work: ‘Give us this day our daily plinth.’ Plinth is the Greek word for the base of a building or statue. The plinth that Smith and Palmer sought was something worth writing about.” Then, when once Palmer had found the plinth and was ready to write, he was “a blur, capable of turning out an entire column in the time it took Smith to bleed out his opening paragraph.”

Notes: Colonel Martin J. (Matt) Winn was president of Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. John Masefield was a prolific British poet, whose works include the 1920 book-length Right Royal, a ballad about a race horse. Palmer borrows from a line from Masefield's poem “The Wild Swan" (1931): "Where wild mares run; oh make your own / That fiery thing of blood and bone / The Horse, for you shall live by him: / The Blood Horse with the muscled limb."

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.
You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Samuel Doyle Riddle
On June 30, 1861, Matt Winn was born in Louisville, Ky. On the following day Samuel Doyle Riddle was born in Glen Riddle, Pa. Being an extremely stubborn man, Mr. Riddle outlived his contemporary by something more than a year. His death a few days ago removed one of the few remaining links which bound racing of today to the racing of the previous century, and in fact if there is any older man now living who played an important part in the long pageant of racing his name escapes me at the moment.

This tourist knew Mr. Riddle for some fifteen years, and had various arguments ranging from mild to bitter with him, as anyone who knew him that long was sure to have. But he has always been honored in this corner for one somewhat peculiar reason: he never forgot that Man o’ War was a horse.

If this seems an obvious thing to remember, then you were not well acquainted with Man o’ War. He was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else. It was not merely that he smashed his opposition, sometimes by a hundred lengths, or that he set world records, or that he cared not a tinker’s curse for weight or distance or track or horses.

It was that even when he was standing motionless in his stall, with his ears pricked forward and his eyes focused on something slightly 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 the coiled spring, of the crouched tiger.

All horses, and particularly all stallions, like to run, exultant in their strength and power. Most of them run within themselves, as children run at play. But Man o’ War, loose in his paddock at Faraway, dug in as if the prince of all the fallen angels were at his throat-latch, and great chunks of sod sailed up behind the lash of his power. Watching, you felt that there had never been, nor could ever be again, a horse like this.

Well, this fiery thing of blood and bone (a bow to Mr. Masefield here) was Mr. Riddle’s own. It could very easily have gone to his head. I tell you this as one who has seen people make fools of themselves over far lesser horses. Mr. Riddle was much prouder of Man o’ War than you are of your children, and probably with more reason, and possession of him was a stately music. But he didn’t spend his time feeding sugar to the horse, or drooling over him. He remembered that even if Man o’ War was the most magnificent horse ever, he was still a horse, and that his interests lay in hard oats and clean hay and good grooming and a comfortable stall, and that is what he got.

Any number of people had bright ideas about Man o’ War, nearly always to their personal enrichment. The movies wanted him. There was a very remunerative scheme to tour him around the country for exhibition. At all such propositions Mr. Riddle snorted. The verb here has been very carefully chosen, and when Mr. Riddle snorted at a proposition, then that proposition lay dead and partly decomposed.

With the hundreds of thousands of people who wanted to see Man o’ War he was always very fair. Faraway lay open, from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, and anyone who wished could drive up and park and go into the stable and see Man o’ War. It must have been expensive, because it involved keeping one groom always on duty to show the horse, and another to step on the cigarettes which visitors threw down in the stable, but there was never any variance to the pattern.

Mr. Riddle was not always a model of old southern Pennsylvania courtesy. The day that Whirlaway beat War Relic by the length of one flaring nostril in the Saranac Handicap was an instance. Mr. Riddle had looked at the motion pictures (Saratoga had a different camera then) and was convinced War Relic had won. He said so in clear ringing tones, and the entrance to the Saratoga clubhouse, which I should estimate at about ten feet wide, fit him just about the way the Panama Canal fits the U.S.S. Missouri. He had a cane in one hand and a racing paper in the other, and there were only a few inches of clearance on each side.

But he could be a very good companion and a gracious host, and a fine teller of tales, particularly of the days when racing had not bartered color and intrigue and verve for mere dull honesty. I suppose his death releases one of these which, since it happened when Mr. Riddle was a young man, must antedate 1900.

It was at a hunt race meeting, which included a jumping race with eight starters, all ridden by amateur riders. Naturally they fixed it, and because they did not trust one another inordinately, each rider was required to put up a $300 bond that he would let the elected horse win.

Some of this seeped out to the bookmakers in residence, so the prices went crazy and one rider, who was on a horse which should have been a legitimate second choice at perhaps 3 to 1, noted that he was being held instead at 10 to 1. So, through a confederate, he bet $400 on himself and stole off to a long lead.

Nobody bothered about him, because it was assumed that in due course his horse would “bolt” or that he would roll off at the next low fence. By the time anyone realized that the double steal sign was on, it was too late for anyone to go out and throw him down, though it was tried. So he forfeited his $300 bond and won $4000.

“There was a little hotel near the course where the riders and some of the trainers stayed,” Mr. Riddle remembered. “I was over there after the race. The winner was barricaded in his room, and the others were outside the door, howling in the hall.” He did not say whether, when he departed, six or seven riders were left howling in the hall, and it did not seem good manners to ask.

“I always remember that fellow,” he chuckled. “He was one man whose word was as good — just exactly as good — as his bond.”

Originally published in 1951 in The New York Herald Tribune and collected in This Was Racing (1953). Copyright © 1951 by Joe Palmer. Used by permission of the Estate of Joe Palmer.