The 1920s – Thoroughbred Racing’s Golden Age

As with the baseball stars of that era – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth – the names of the greatest horses of the Roaring Decade are with us still, decades after most of those who witnessed their glory are dead. Who hasn’t heard of Man O’War? In an iconic decade, great race horses became icons, and icons they remain.


1922’s Horse of the Year was originally intended as a mere workout partner for rival Sun Briar. Willis Sharpe Kilmer, who bought Exterminator prior to his three-year season, thought that he’d been taken for a ride when his trainer Henry McDaniel paid far more than authorized for the chestnut-colored gelding. But there was a problem: Exterminator kept matching Sun Briar, a champion juvenile horse, speed for speed in workouts.

The horse also seemed to have an instinctive understanding of race strategy – speeding up when necessary, holding back when McDaniel told him to. So when Sun Briar developed ringbone, McDaniel encouraged Kilmer to enter his understudy in the upcoming Kentucky Derby. At first Kilmer rejected the plan, until the President of Churchill Downs, who had seen Exterminator’s workouts, intervened.

Suddenly the inexperienced, underraced Exterminator found himself facing a particularly muddy Derby morning. But his furious final kick brought him from the back of the pack, where he’d waited comfortably through the race, biding his time, to the font, where he won by a length.

He continued to mature, racing up to the unusual age of nine and beating horses who had, in prior years, outraced him. In all, he took 33 stakes wins – a record not beaten by any North American Thoroughbred.

Mad Hatter & Mad Play

Though they tend to be overshadowed by more-famous half-brother Man O’War, these brother Thoroughbreds – both sired by Man O’War’s father Fair Play on mare Mad Cap – took top honors in important races during the early 1920s.

During his two-year season, elder brother Mad Hatter took the Bellerose Stakes, while acquiring a reputation as a temperamental, occasionally cranky horse, best understood by jockey Earl Sande. After his third-year-season loss to Sir Barton at the Maryland Handicap race, these two horses contracted a rivalry, which added sweetness to Mad Hatter’s Pimlico victory over Sir Barton. But it was as a mature racing Thoroughbred that Mad Hatter really shone, winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup and continuing to win stakes races throughout the early twenties.

Mad Play, the younger of the two brothers (foaled in 1921), also benefited from the expert riding of the great Earl Sande. His three-year season saw impressive third places in the Preakness Stakes, but at Belmont (the final Triple Crown event) he earned lasting fame, beating his closest rival by one and a half lengths.

Both horses were found, after retirement, to be sterile, thus ending the possibility of a Mad dynasty.

Man O’War

Was Man O’War (1917-1947), as many have argued, the greatest Thoroughbred racehorse of all time? It depends on the criteria you use. Consistency? (Man O’War won 9 of 10 races in his two-year season. His sole loss came at the Sanford Memorial Stakes, where his jockey failed to get him turned around at the start in this race from the era before starting gates, and in which he was boxed in at least three times, and still took second.

The following year he won every race in which he ran, yielding a 20-1 record.) Blazing speed? (He set several world and American records.) Competitive will? (See that 20-1 record again.) Overall effect on the sport? (Man O’War sired 64 stakes winners, despite complaints from horse buffs that he was matched with inferior mares. He was also Seabiscuit’s grandfather.)

No matter how one judges, it’s difficult to argue too much with Blood Horse magazine’s declaration, in their list of the top 100 US Thoroughbred champions of the 20th century, that Man O’War belonged in the top spot on that list.