It wasn’t love at first sight for Red and Will. In fact, Red’s first instinct upon meeting Will was to kick him in the head. Fortunately, Will ducked out of the way just in time. Otherwise, their relationship might have been doomed from the start.
At the time, some may have considered them an unlikely pair. But even today their bond lives on in legend and lore. That fateful day when Will met Big Red, could he have possibly known he was looking into the eyes of the greatest racehorse of all time? After all, as a yearling Red hardly had the appearance of a champion. He was much too tall and gangly, with ribs that poked out of his skinny frame. As a black man in 1930’s America, Will knew something about being different. Perhaps that truth formed the foundation for their remarkable friendship.
Upon their pairing, Will spent many hours meticulously caring for Red. Despite his fiery temperament, the stallion stood patiently while Will ran the curry comb over his chestnut coat for hours. Will spoke kindly to Red as he worked, all the while running his hands over the horse’s smooth body. When he was finished, Red’s coat always gleamed and glistened in the morning sun. Then, Will started on his hooves. He whistled as he carefully picked away the dirt and pebbles from under Red’s feet. He shined the great horse’s hooves until he could see his own face smiling back at himself. Lastly, Will gently combed Red’s tail and mane until every hair hung in unison.
Red was grateful for the attention Will lavished upon him. He was a new horse on a strange farm, with an unknown future. Other people came to see him and some even rode on his back. But, no one treated him the way Will did. He grew strong and muscular under his groom’s watchful eye. And when his friend was with him, caring for him and whispering in his ear, Red felt like a champion.
Soon, Red began running like a champion. No one had ever seen anything like it. Always the biggest horse in the race, often with the heaviest rider, Red’s carefully polished hooves thundered down the track. Sometimes, he finished so far ahead the other horses wondered where he had gone. Afterward, people swarmed all around the big red horse. They snapped his picture and patted his rump with giddy delight.
But, in the stillness of the night air, it was always Will who remained with him in his stall.
Gently massaging Red’s sore muscles, Will told him, “Red, you are da mostest hoss.”
Eventually the day came when Red lost a race. The loss ushered in dark days for Red, who suffered from terrifying dreams for weeks. He thrashed around violently in his stall and no one dared approach him. Except for Will.
“Don’t you worry now, Red. You are still da mostest hoss. It was a lie. No one could beat my Red.” Then the groom made a bed for himself alongside his friend and slept with him among the clean pine shavings.
Red was rejuvenated and never lost another race. He fathered many other champions, as well. He was loved and admired the world over. When he retired, over a million people came to visit him. He was always alongside his closest companion, Will, who greeted every visitor with the same phrase. “Here is just the mostest hoss that ever was.”
Will and Red were inseparable. They were a team. Will’s face was the last thing Red saw at night and the first thing when he woke every morning. Until one cool October day when Red awoke to see a stranger in his stall. Red snorted and craned his neck in an effort to find his friend. But he was gone.
Many familiar people came and cared for Red. When he refused to eat they said to him, “It’s okay, Red. We’re still here. We’ll always take care of you.”
But it made no difference to Red. He just stood and hung his head. What they didn’t understand was that Will was special because he had been his friend not only during the peaks, but in the valleys as well.
No one could say for certain what caused Red’s death so soon after Will’s passing. Some said it was colic and some said a heart attack. But the simple truth was that the mostest hoss that ever was died of a broken heart.
This story was inspired by the great racehorse Man o’ War (affectionately known as “Big Red”) and the special bond he shared with his groom, Will Harbut. Will Harbut suffered a heart attack and died suddenly in October, 1947, and less than a month later, Man o’ War followed.
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