Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lost Legend Found: Meet Man o' War's Horseshoer (Finally)

by Fran Jurga | 28 March 2009 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog

The statue of champion racehorse Man o" War is the centerpiece of the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park outside Lexington, Kentucky. (Frank Parsons photo, used with permission)

Today is Man o' War's birthday. An announcement that 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba died last night made me think again about Man o' War and how little anyone seems to know about who shod him, or how he was shod.

One of my projects for this spring was to try to find out the names of horseshoers with Kentucky Derby winners to their credit. It turned out to be a tough assignment; anyone who has names, please contact me!

Man o' War, of course, did not run in the Kentucky Derby because (or so it is written) his owner, Mr. Riddle, wanted to spare him after his two-year-old races. He caught up with the other three-year-olds at the Preakness, which he won, of course.

Recently, I found this photograph of a New York horsehoer, Andrew McDermott, who wrote that he had been Man o' War's exclusive horseshoer throughout the colt's racing career. Andrew wrote a letter that was published in the journal of the Journeyman Horseshoers Union when Man o' War retired.

McDermott was a dedicated union horseshoer.

He also sent the magazine two of the great horse's shoes, from which the magazine claims to have made the drawings below. According to his letter, he was working on one of Man o' War's shoes when the photo below was taken.

Andrew McDermott working on one of Man o' War's shoes at the forge.

These shoes are quite a different shape from the shoe below, which is a collectible and believed to be one of Man o' War's. Double-click on either image for a larger view. I wonder where those two shoes given to horseshoers' union are now; it was a very generous gift for McDermott to make, but also indicative of how dedicated horseshoers were to their beloved union.

McDermott wrote to the magazine late in 1920, when Man o' War retired. He wrote the letter from Glen Riddle Farm in Berlin, Maryland, and described himself as "private horseshoer for Mr. Riddle".
Many of you will remember Mr. Riddle and the unflattering way he was portrayed in the movie Seabiscuit. Riddle not only owned Man o' War; he owned and raced his fastest and most famous son, War Admiral.

McDermott studiously wrote the weight of each plate on the steel--yes, steel. Man o' War conquered the world wearing full swedged steel plates, not aluminum plates. He also recorded the important information that Man o' War was shod for all the races of his career by this one man.
These are the drawings made from one front and one hind shoe given to the Journeyman Horseshoers Union published by Andrew McDermott, Man o' War's dedicated farrier.

But who was Andrew McDermott? A clue is that he signs his letter as "farrier and shoeing smith for Man o' War" and not as a horseshoer or blacksmith, so it is possible that he was from Great Britain or Ireland. McDermott is usually an Irish name and British shoers (and possibly Irish, considering the point in history) were called shoeing smiths and farriers.

Another interesting tidbit is that he addresses the Journeyman Horseshoers Union in ultra-polite, politically-correct terms for union members, calling the editor his "brother" and identifying himself as former member of the JHU Local Number 7, which was the chapter in Brooklyn, New York.

Brooklyn? Longtime readers of this blog will recall my revelation back in June 2008 when, during the trophy presentation at the Belmont Stakes, Brooklyn-born New York acting-governor David Patterson told the world that his great-grandfather, Mr. Gibbs, had been the blacksmith who shod Upset for the Whitney Stables. Upset was the only horse to ever beat Man o' War.

(Click here to read that story about how the horseshoer personally profited from one of Saratoga's most legendary races.)

Word origin books love to quote the story of Upset and Man o' War and claim that the word "upset" came to mean an unexpected victory because of that horse on that day. In other words, before the horse shod by Mr. Gibbs met the horse shod by Mr. McDermott.

As a reward for that one victory, Patterson's great-grandfather was given the gift of deed to a house in Brooklyn by the horse's owner, which was quite a move up for an African-American horseshoer. (I wonder if he was allowed to join the union?)

Patterson has said that that house was the start of his family's upward mobility that led to his Ivy League education and eventual political career.

Usually, the Upset-Patterson-Whitney story stops there. Am I the only one who is ready to ask the next big question about Whitney's horse? Was it a blacksmith who named the all-time dark horse of Saratoga? All Hoofcare and Lameness readers know that, up until then, upset was in the dictionary as a legitimate word: it's a blacksmithing verb. And still is. 

To upset a steel bar means holding it on end on the anvil's face and hammering straight down to thicken the steel at the base. McDermott may have upset the steel to form that little outside heel on Man o' War's hind shoe. It's the opposite of to "draw", which would make the steel longer.

But you knew that, and surely McDermott, Gibbs, Whitney, Riddle and everyone else in America did, too!

Man O'War
Man o' War portrait courtesy of Boston Public Library Print Department, Leslie Jones Collection

We always think that everything is out there and there is nothing left to be learned. But until now, 2009, Andrew MeDermott and the care of Man o' War's hooves had been lost in history. Now, if we just knew more about who Andrew McDermott was...and if he knew Mr. Gibbs. I like to think they were standing next to each other on the backside at Saratoga on the day that Upset beat Man o' War.

Those two horseshoers live on, on The Hoof Blog, at least.

Post script: as luck would have it, a letter arrived from Mr. McDermott's family, who had found this article. Jane McDermott wrote to say that Andrew was her father's great-grandfather and that they were interested in learning more about Andrew.

Click here to read an excellent and concise biography of Man o' War from ESPN. Click here to read more about Alysheba's death.

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