Triple Crown Turning Point: How War Admiral Nearly Slipped Away From Owner Riddle

Into each horse’s career comes a fateful moment, a decision or an injury or some outside force that changes the trajectory of their career. For Sir Barton, it was a cough caught from a stablemate. Gallant Fox’s came when Earl Sande agreed to ride the Belair colt in every start of his Triple Crown season in 1930. The third Triple Crown winner’s came when an injury forced Omaha to shorten his 3-year-old season, opening the door for his try in the Ascot Gold Cup the next year.

Two years after Omaha became the third, War Admiral added his name to the short list of horses who were victorious in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. For this son of Man o’ War, the turning point came not during his days on the racetrack, but in his earliest years, when owner Samuel Riddle almost let this future champion slip through his fingers.

Big Dreams

Man o’ War’s story is a familiar one for generations of racing fans. A century later, this son of Fair Play and Mahubah stands head and shoulders above nearly every horse that has come after him. Owner Samuel Riddle was proud of his great horse and was choosy about the mares Man o’ War covered, limiting outside owners’ access to the stallion and then upgrading his own broodmare band with imports from Europe, including a mare named Annette K.

Annette K. became part of the Riddle collective of broodmares at Faraway Farm, where Man o’ War stood stud, after her short and unsuccessful career on the racetrack. With only one race under her belt, Annette K. was retired and sent to the stallion Sweep, winner of the 1910 Belmont Stakes. From that pairing came the filly Brushup in 1929, who is notable not for her time on the racetrack, but for her turn in the breeding shed.

Deeply rooted in the traditions of horsemanship that have evolved over the centuries is the measurement we know of as the hand. Standardized to four inches in 1541, horses are generally measured in hands, so, Man o’ War, for example, was measured at 16 hands, 2 inches. Since horses are measured from the ground to their withers, where their shoulders meet their necks, 16 hands, 2 inches meant that Man o’ War was 5’6”. Brushup was smaller, 14 hands, 3 ¼ inches, or just over 4’11”. But Annette K. had produced multiple stakes winner War Glory when paired with Man o’ War, so Riddle decided to send her daughter Brushup to his immortal stallion in 1933.

Their foal would make racing history as his sire’s best, but he almost did not wear the Riddle black and gold while doing it.

Small Packages

When Brushup foaled her colt by Man o’ War on May 2, 1934, the rich brown colt was more like his dam than his lauded sire, with a small and almost runtish physique that was the opposite of what Samuel Riddle looked for in Man o’ War’s offspring. Both American Flag and Crusader bore greater resemblance to their sire and raced like it, with Belmont and Withers Stakes wins on their resumes.

Brushup’s new colt did not inspire the same confidence in his breeder and owner, who sought to gift the foal to Walter Jeffords, his nephew by marriage. The Riddles and the Jeffords co-owned Faraway Farm and had competed against each other on the track multiple times. It was the Jeffords’s Golden Broom that had beaten Man o’ War in morning workouts, but the Jeffords had also provided Hoodwink for the 1920 Lawrence Realization so that the race did not turn into a walkover. Those ties prompted Riddle to offer Brushup’s foal to Jeffords.

But Walter Jeffords did not want to complicate family ties by taking the colt. If Brushup’s colt were to be successful in his colors rather than his uncle’s, then it might cause some family rancor. No, it was better to say no to the deal. Sure, the colt looked less like his sire, eventually growing to 15.2 hands at age 3, and more like his dam, the small mare who had started three times at age 2 with only two in-the-money finishes to her. Even if the colt’s size did not inspire Riddle’s confidence, the way he ran eventually did.

Riddle named the colt War Admiral, continuing the theme of names that evoked his sire’s. At 2, the colt won three of his six starts, breaking his maiden in his first race and finished the season with three other in-the-money finishes behind horses like Pompoon, winner of the Futurity and other juvenile stakes. At 3, though, War Admiral was unstoppable, to the point that he broke his sire’s record for 1½ miles in his Belmont Stakes victory despite stumbling at the start and opening a gash in his right front foot.

In a career that spanned four seasons, Brushup’s colt won 21 of 26 races, proving over and over that despite War Admiral’s diminutive size he was indeed a son of Man o’ War, worthy of wearing the Riddle black and gold – and a crown.

The Might Atom

The 2003 movie “Seabiscuit” portrays War Admiral as a horse as large as his accomplishments, the literal embodiment of Goliath to the titular Seabiscuit’s turn as David. In reality, the two horses, both with the blood of the immortal Big Red running through their veins, were essentially the same size, Seabiscuit a mere half-inch taller than the Triple Crown winner.

At 15 hands, 2 inches, War Admiral might not have had the same mighty physique as his cinematic version, but he certainly had the stamina, the speed, and the spirit necessary to win the Triple Crown and a spot in the Hall of Fame alongside his immortal sire all because of that turning point, when one man decided that family harmony meant saying no to a potential champion.