Man o' War
On Saturday afternoon, May 1, as you raise your mint julep to toast the Kentucky Derby, make a few extra clinks to honor past stars of the famous race, those Thoroughbred horses who once whipped around the tracks at lightning speed and often captured our hearts.
Arguably the nation’s most famous Thoroughbred, Man o’War is buried at the entrance to Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. “Big Red,” as the chestnut stallion was nicknamed, won 20 of the 21 races he entered; the one he lost went to the appropriately named steed Upset.
Man o’ War was born in Lexington on March 29, 1917, during World War I (hence his name). Two years later, he breezed through his first race, winning by six lengths. A slew of wins and broken records followed. Big Red famously did not like having any horses in front of him, and it showed. While he never raced in the Derby, he won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the two other components of racing’s Triple Crown. The record he set in the latter held for 50 years.
Man o’ War was a star off the track as well. He sired 64 champions, including War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner, and was Seabiscuit’s grandfather. He died in 1948 of a heart attack.
He and War Admiral are buried side by side in Kentucky Horse Park. Their graves are among the most popular sites for the thousands of people who visit the park and its museums every year.
“Even if they don’t know why Man o’War was famous, they know his name,” says Cindy Rullman, who handles public relations for the park. “They know he was a great horse.”
Jim the Wonder Dog
This handsome Llewellyn setter sure could pick a winner. Shortly before Derby Day, his owner, Sam VanArsdale, would write the names of Derby entrants on slips of paper and then place them in front of the dog. After Jim sniffed his favorite, VanArsdale would put it away until the race was over. For seven years in a row, Jim made the right choice.
Jim’s ability to play the ponies was just one of the many things that endeared him to his two-legged neighbors in Marshall, Missouri. He could pick out cars by color, make and license plate. He could identify people and carry out commands in numerous languages. And he could hunt; VanArsdale said he stopped counting how many birds he bagged after 5,000.
He was written up in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, as well as in newspapers and magazines.
The Wonder Dog died in 1937 at the age of 12. But he has by no means been forgotten. In 1998, fans dedicated a small park to him on the site of the Ruff (we kid you not) Hotel, where he lived in downtown Marshall. Visitors can stroll through the flower garden, listen to the waterfall and pat the nose on a bronze statue of Jim. (The real Jim is buried nearby in Ridge Park Cemetery.)
Keiko the Orca
The beloved orca made a huge splash in 1993 as the star of Free Willy, a movie about a boy who saves an orca from captivity. In Keiko’s case, the story rang all too true; the killer whale had spent most of his life in a variety of aquariums since he was captured as a youngster off the coast of Iceland in 1979. His sad plight in a Mexican aquarium galvanized the movie studio and millions of animal lovers across the globe to raise money to liberate him. In 1996, he was transported—courtesy of UPS—to new digs in Oregon, where he was nursed back to health and rehabilitated so he could be returned to the wild.
Keiko was released off the coast of Iceland in 2002, and eventually took up residence near the Norwegian fishing village of Halsa. In December of the following year, the orca beached himself on the shore and died, probably of pneumonia. Vets estimated he was 26 years old.
Some of Keiko’s caregivers and fans in Halsa used a machine to dig a grave for him and moved his six-ton body over the snow and into it. The site is covered with a cairn of hundreds of stones, some from as far away as Ecuador.
HAM the Chimp
Yuri Gagarin lost out to a chimp.
The Soviet astronaut who was the first man in space actually was the second upright hominid to make the jaunt. First place went to a 37-and-a-half-pound, well-tempered chimpanzee named HAM. He went into space January 31, 1961, as an integral part of NASA’s Project Mercury and spent what was no doubt a harrowing 16 minutes 36 seconds there before splashing down in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida.
“By the time the recovery choppers showed up to lift the craft out of the waves, it was on its side, filled with so much water they had a sputtering, choking, near-drowned chimp on their hands,” wrote astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Malcoln McConnell in Men From Earth.
HAM was a survivor, however. Born in July 1956, he was caught by trappers in his native Cameroon and sent to a farm in Florida. The U.S. Air Force bought the chimp three years later and took him to Holloman Aerospace Medical Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where he was used to study how animals might handle space exploration. He was named after the center—an acronym that also fit his personality.
His space days behind him, HAM spent the rest of his life at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the North Carolina Zoo. After he died in 1983, his remains were sent back to Alamogordo and were interred at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. His marker reads, “HAM proved mankind could live and work in space.”
Sirius the Dog
The memory of the only known canine casualty of September 11, 2001, is in good company. Sirius, a 4-year-old golden Labrador retriever who perished when the World Trade Center’s South Tower collapsed, has a marker near the War Dog Memorial in the Hartsdale, New York Pet Cemetery & Crematory.
Sirius and his handler, David Lim, worked for the New York/New Jersey Port Authority inspecting vehicles that came to the World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11, the duo was in their office in the South Tower basement when the first plane hit the adjoining tower. Lim put his partner into his crate and promised he’d be back after the situation was clear.
While in the North Tower, Lim got trapped in debris. Five hours later, he was freed and ran back to get Sirius. But by then, the South Tower had collapsed, taking the dog with it.
Lim’s final reunion with his dog came on January 22, 2002, when workers found Sirius’ remains. He was cremated at Hartsdale, and Lim kept the ashes. Shortly afterward, the cemetery installed a memorial for Sirius. Each June, he and all other creatures who have helped mankind are honored with a special ceremony (this year scheduled for June 13).
Sirius also has a dog run named after him in Battery Park City’s Kowsky Plaza, on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Elsa the Lioness
In 1966, everyone was either singing or humming “Born Free,” the Academy Award-winning song from the like-named movie about Elsa the lioness. The story of the great cat reared by a couple in Kenya was already a best-selling book, and the film laid the foundations for more movies and a TV show.
The golden-haired star of Born Free is buried in Meru National Park in Kenya, not far from where she died—in the arms of George Adamson, one of her human “parents”—in 1961.
Elsa was a tiny cub in 1959 when Adamson, a game warden, shot her mother, who was about to charge him. He then discovered Elsa and her two sisters, and realized that the lioness had been protecting them when she charged. He and his wife, Joy, raised the three cubs through infancy. After a few months, two of her cubs went to a European zoo, and Elsa, the smallest, stayed with the Adamsons until she could be returned to the wild.
To get her to that point required months of training, teaching her how to hunt and survive on her own. Finally Elsa was released into Meru.
She never lost contact with the Adamsons. When she was about 3 years old, she showed up at their home with her own three cubs. She died two years later of a tic-born disease called babesiosis.