THE CASE OF THE MAN O’ WAR SHOES

Man o' War
The Man o’ War case, possibly in an exhibition sometime prior to 1957. Photo provided by Scott Mercer.

It has been just over one-hundred years since Man o’ War won the 1920 Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths in world record time for 1 3/8 miles, shattering the existing record at that distance by over two seconds and the American record by over three seconds. His 20 wins in 21 starts is lore in horse racing, separating him from even the immortal Secretariat.

And yet we’re still chasing Man o’ War.

Scott Mercer of Waynesboro, Virginia, wants to know whether a keepsake that’s been in his family for generations is what it purports to be: the actual horseshoes and bit of that Man o’ War wore in the 1920 Belmont Stakes. The artifacts have been enclosed in a casing that has been passed down from his grandfather, Larry Baldwin Mercer, thorough his father Donald Mercer, now both deceased.  

The casing is impressive. It includes Man o’ War’s racing record, his breeding, and a cutout of Man o’ War from a J. Martin lithograph. It includes his lineage and race results. The shoes and bit are painted gold, and significant to the casing is a brass plaque on the inside that reads as follows:

“SHOES AND BIT WORN IN BELMONT STAKES PRESENTED TO LARRY BALDWIN MERCER BY SAMUEL RIDDLE.”

It’s hard to comprehend exactly how good Man o’ War was, which is why these items matter. His longtime groom, Will Harbut, called him “the moistest hoss,” and even that may not go far enough.

Consider: though since debunked, it was thought for many years that the widespread use of the word “upset” to describe an unexpected outcome stemmed from Man o’ War’s lone defeat, when he was second, in the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga, to a horse named Upset.

The casing of the Mercer item can be verified as authentic to at least 1957, covering his lifespan and much of his fathers. Mercer, whose past interest in horse racing is negligible, knew the casing to be rare but was perhaps not aware of the value it could attain, not to mention its historical significance in racing memorabilia. Admittedly, the chances of such a valuable horse racing collectible coming to rest in a basement in Waynesboro are remote. Mercer believes the shoes to be legit, but research paints a murkier picture.

“I never had a conversation with anyone that questioned whether they were legitimate,” says Mercer. “The investigation has only led to more questions.”

There are conflicts. A single horseshoe of Man o’ War’s Belmont Stakes is located in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Farm in Saratoga Springs, NY donated by Walter Jeffords. Jeffords was married to the niece of Elizabeth, Sam Riddle’s wife. Jeffords competed as an owner versus Riddle and later partnered with him to own Faraway Farm near Lexington, KY, where Man o’ War stood at stud. The Riddles didn’t have offspring, Ken Grayson, a collector and expert on Man o’ War, said in an interview.

That poses a problem for the legitimacy of the Mercer case. Until learning of the Jeffords’ shoe in the Saratoga museum, Mercer had no reason to believe that shoes in his belonging were not legitimate. That Jeffords’ shoe that has the right side of the shoe “turned up,” as was documented in several accounts, including one by Andrew McDermott, Man o’ War’s blacksmith. McDermott, recognized as Man o’ War’s exclusive farrier, documented exercising his craft on Man o’ War in the journal of the Journeyman Horseshoers Union. The feature is absent on any of the shoes in the Mercer case.

Heritage Auctions offers yet another shoe that was sold in auction and later at a Philadelphia antique market. The company is seeking offers in excess of $40,000 for this shoe, which is mounted on a wooden display. It bears the following notes:

“These shoes were given to John Matthews in 1932 by Glen Riddle Farms, later given to his brother in Dicth (sic) Hills. Authenticated by Chick Lang, Pimlico, Balt. MD, Aug. 1974.”

An engraved plated below the shoe on obverse reports:

“Man o’ War, Property of Glen Riddle Farm, Plate worn by Man o’ War when he won the Belmont, 1920.”

If all of these are authentic, it’s no wonder Man o’ War won the 1920 Belmont Stakes impressively: he would have had to have had six legs.

A test for horseshoes can be a quick eliminator for fraud; according to Grayson, steel shoes were commonplace in the United States until the late 1920s, when aluminum shoes quickly replaced them. Upon hearing the news, Mercer opened the case for the first time in 70 years and applied a magnet. According to Mercer, the magnet nearly jumped out of his hand: they are, at the least, steel.

About a decade ago, Mercer brought the case to Staunton, VA where the Antiques Roadshow was holding a collectibles showcase. 

“They were thrilled about the case, but nobody knew enough about Man o’ War and believed it needed something in writing,” recalls Mercer.

Perhaps the Mercer case is not a complete set, but that does not eliminate the entire case. Are all of Man o’ War’s shoes from the Belmont Stakes accounted for? Might a couple of the Mercer shoes be legit?

The back history of Larry Mercer becomes compelling, and there are a number of mysteries in this history. 

A picture that can be dated to have been taken prior to 1957 shows the case prominently displayed on a wall among the many collectibles that Larry Mercer accumulated. Scott Mercer previously had little recollection of where the picture was taken and recently learned from his sister, Debbie Morris, that the picture may have been part of exhibit. 

The picture was produced by Irwin Photo Service located at 500 East 19th Street in Chester, PA. A look at the real estate records shows that the property where the photo studio was located sold in 1957. Sometime before grandfather Mercer passed in 1980, Scott’s father received the case and kept it on his home office wall next to his desk until he passed in 2003. From at least 1957 forward, the case was not altered until Mercer recently opened it to confirm the materials of the shoes, and the Mercer family had no reason to question the legitimacy of the shoes.

Larry Mercer and his wife, Lucille, were the subject of a Chester (PA) Times feature that displayed numerous horse artifacts in their home, yet there is no mention of the Man o’ War case. Mercer was a secretary of the Whippets’ Club in Pennsylvania and dealt with memorabilia.

Man O’ War Case

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“My grandfather had horse stuff everywhere,” explained Mercer. “He collected legitimate stuff. He was skilled at framing and had a workshop. I remember my father working with an art dealer in Pennsylvania when [my grandfather] died and they had an auction. I don’t know how the conversation went over the item.”

Sam Riddle, Sr., the father of Man o’ War’s owner, was married and divorced to a Martha Mercer without children. Scott Mercer cannot trace his genealogy past his great grandfather, Harry Royden Mercer, who was born and lived in Philadelphia, so there is no known link between the two Mercer families other than an identical last name. 

Riddle brought Man o’ War to Rose Tree Hunt Club in Delaware County, PA on several occasions placing Mercer, Riddle and Man o’ War himself in the same county. Larry Mercer lived less than a mile from Rose Tree Hunt Club in Media, Pennsylvania but his grandson hasn’t been able to determine his association with the club.

The Rose Tree Hunt, founded in 1859, bills itself as the oldest subscription hunt in America. The hunt took place in the vicinity of Media until 1960, when it relocated to York County.

“He was always in that area where Riddle was and competed in horse shows. My grandfather was an avid fox hunter. There must have been a connection with Riddle between hunting dogs, fox hunting and horses, but none of that lends itself toward authenticating the case on its own. The shoes don’t have the trailer [turned up feature] on it. If Man o’ War ran the race with the trailer on it, then that’s a dead giveaway,” concedes Mercer.

Man o’ War wintered early at the Glen Riddle Farm in Media, PA after his two-year-old year that concluded with the Belmont Futurity on September 12. He wouldn’t race again until May 18 the following year, winning the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. He returned to Media, after his last race, making a public appearance at the Rose Tree Hunt Club.

“I approach this is that I’m neutral to this whole thing. I go where the evidence leads me. I take anything I find as evidence. These were thought to be legitimate,” says Mercer. ‘I’d be disappointed to learn [that they are not]. He had a reputation in the art community. I can’t think of a reason why he would want to destroy that.”

A major missing link is how Larry Mercer knew Samuel Riddle, if at all.  Given common interests, and In a community like Media, it seems highly unlikely that their paths didn’t cross.

“I wish I paid more attention to my father’s discussion about it”, laments Mercer. “It was never brought up as being questionable.”

When Man o’ War’s crossed the Belmont Stakes finish line is not where this story ends; it’s where it begins. For Mercer and for now, the story lies up the track and in a case that hung on his grandfather’s wall.

Note: Scott Mercer and Nick Hahn are longtime friends dating to their days in grammar school.

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