A Seed of Doubt

americanpharoah

Two years ago, American Pharaoh came into the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on an eight-race win streak, including the first Triple Crown in thirty-seven years. He had made his first post-Triple Crown start in the Haskell Invitational, where he had sailed to a two-and-a-quarter length win, showing that same easy running style familiar to race fans. He was the 1-5 favorite for the Travers and, despite shipping in from California at nearly the last minute, the victory seemed well in hand.

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Keen Ice passes American Pharoah in the stretch of the 2015 Travers Stakes. (SI.com)

That is, until that last quarter of a mile, when American Pharoah’s dominance gave way to the stalking trip of Keen Ice, who managed to pass the Triple Crown winner as the field flew toward the wire. For American Pharoah, it was his first loss since his two-year-old season. For race fans, it was a clear disappointment that made even owner Ahmed Zayat ponder retirement rather than let his horse risk another loss in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, their next intended target. The Graveyard of Champions had claimed another victim.

American Pharaoh, of course, went on to win the Classic, completing the Grand Slam. He was voted the best three-year-old of 2015 and the Horse of the Year. That one loss in the Travers, which came as a result of the Triple Crown winner trying to overcome the pressure of a speedy Frosted, never cast doubt on whether or not the son of Pioneerof the Nile was the best horse in America that year. It would be unimaginable to think that AP wasn’t the best of his age and the best of all ages that year, right? Surely, winning the Triple Crown at least would net a horse those sorts of honors?

The_Edwardsville_Intelligencer_Sat__Jul_5__1919_Nearly a hundred years ago, on July 10th, 1919, as Sir Barton returned to the track after his four-win streak that included our first Triple Crown, the three-year-old champion honors seemed to be his, no question. The win streak in itself was amazing; the way he did it, dominating each field in different ways, should have sealed it for him. Nearly a month after his romp in the Belmont Stakes, Commander Ross and H.G. Bedwell decided the Triple Crown winner would start in the Dwyer Stakes, a mile-and-an-eighth race named for the Dwyer Brothers, the New York brothers who owned a dominant racing stable in the late 19th century. Only two other horses met the Triple Crown winner at the barrier: Crystal Ford, a fair racer that was getting an eighteen-pound break from Sir Barton; and Purchase, who had missed the spring classics with an injury but had reeled off a series of wins in June. Purchase, despite his recent record, also got a weight break from Sir Barton, carrying fewer nine pounds at 118 pounds. Sir Barton’s 127 pounds was not a new impost for him and he had previously given weight to other horses and still dominated. The same level of expectation that followed American Pharoah into the Travers followed Sir Barton out onto the Aqueduct oval for the Dwyer.

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Purchase, with Earl Sande up. (The Jockey Club)

Sir Barton and his two competitors trotted out toward the barrier, lithe feet dancing through the sloppy dirt beneath them. Johnny Loftus had his usual seat on Sir Barton, the Dwyer his first race of the day. Willie Knapp, the jockey destined to beat Loftus on another legendary horse in August, had the mount on Purchase. Purchase stood on the rail in the first post, Sir Barton on the outside and Crystal Ford in between them. Knapp’s position on the rail would have clued him into the condition of the track there. He would have seen the way that the intermittent rain drained off the Aqueduct track, making the going at the rail deeper. It was that soft going that assured Commander Ross that starting Sir Barton on this particular day was a good idea.

He was wrong.

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Sir Barton

The Triple Crown winner had bruised himself in a workout the week before the Dwyer, forcing Bedwell to lay off training for a few days while he gave the colt time to heal. The morning of the Dwyer, Sir Barton appeared recovered from his mishap and Ross opted to send his ascendant colt to the post with a fresher and injury-free Purchase. At the start, the Triple Crown winner took his usual position as front-runner, with Crystal Ford and Purchase a couple of lengths behind him. As the field rounded that last turn, Knapp took Purchase behind Crystal Ford and then went around that colt, setting his sights on Sir Barton, still running on the front. Loftus, sensing that Knapp was making a run at them, urged his mount on, but Purchase and Knapp gained ground and then passed them in that final furlong. As he flashed under the wire, Purchase had beaten the Triple Crown winner by three lengths, stunning the Aqueduct crowd. Commander Ross lamented the loss, seeing now that the colt still wasn’t back to his previous form.

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Sir Barton winning at Saratoga.

Ross’s go-fever cost Sir Barton the stranglehold he had had on the three-year-old championship. Rather than enjoying a rest from his record-breaking spring campaign, the Triple Crown winner and his connections endured a summer of doubt, watching Purchase continue to turn in impressive performances on the track while Sir Barton stood idle in recovery. By the time Sir Barton returned to the track in the fall, Purchase was on the shelf himself after an injury had sidelined the upstart challenger before the two could meet again. At 1919’s end, Sir Barton’s fall campaign seemed to cinch the three-year-old championship, but the doubts about who was the best of the year lingered in 1920.

The rematch so many had been spoiling for never happened. Purchase returned to racing in 1921; Sir Barton retired that same year, standing stud at Audley Farm in Virginia after Commander Ross sold him to the Jones brothers. Sir Barton was recognized as the first Triple Crown winner, the three-year-old champion, and Horse of the Year many years later. The Dwyer was not his only loss for the year, but, in 1919, it was enough to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of fans and writers and inspire the same endless debates that we all engage in with our own contemporary favorites.

Four Years

MeProfileJourneys start with a step. Sometimes, you don’t realize you’re on them until a moment lights up your life, illuminating the scene so you finally can see it all clearly. I didn’t know I was on this journey until I got an email that showed me this path. That was four years ago today. Happy Birthday to The Sir Barton Project! 

My name is Jennifer Kelly, the author of this blog and First: Sir Barton and the Birth of the American Triple Crown (tentative title). I hope to bring you big news about what’s next for Sir Barton in the coming days. For now, I am glad for unexpected journeys and for the many moments of clarity that have brought you and me here today.

 

The Last Leg

The_Courier_Journal_Thu__Jun_12__1919_.jpgFrom maiden to monarch in a month, Sir Barton arrived at the barrier for the Belmont Stakes in a roundabout way. Speculation held that he would ship to Latonia for the Latonia Derby, but factors outside the control of both owner J.K.L. Ross and trainer H.G. Bedwell kept the Derby and Preakness winner in Gotham. So, on the last day of Belmont’s meet, the chestnut son of Star Shoot and Lady Sterling strode out onto the track with only two other challengers as the morning-line favorite to make history, unbeknownst to any of the 25,000 people present.

For his connections, the Belmont’s $11,950 was another rich purse to contend for, convenient because the stable was already in New York. For Sir Barton, it was his fourth start since May 10th and, given the number of horses that weren’t on the track with him, the race looked like his fourth win too. The large purse was a sign of progress for racing; the anti-gambling legislation that had shuttered the sport in New York for two years was fading into memory as big purses attracted big horses once more. The Belmont Stakes’ distance, a mile and three-eighths, made it one of a fast-fading number of long-distance races and a test of the colt’s ability to carry his speed over that much ground. He had done that in Louisville, but could he do it here, over this S-shaped route? Like most of the horses competing in the Belmont this weekend, this would be the longest race Sir Barton would ever run, earning the moniker “The Test of the Champion” that it has now.

SBDerbyWinnerThe crowd thronged Sir Barton and his connections in the paddock, craning to get a glimpse at the horse that had dominated in Louisville and Baltimore, winning an unprecedented double that had already made an impression. The colt was calm throughout, with only the call to the post sending him dancing with anticipation. At the barrier, he stood on the rail, Natural Bridge and Sweep On to his right, both earning their footnote in history as his only competition. When the barrier flew up, Sir Barton jumped into the lead, ready to run only to have his energy reined in by jockey Johnny Loftus. They sat a couple of lengths back of Natural Bridge for the better part of the race, Sweep On bringing up the rear. Entering the stretch, Loftus relented on the reins and Sir Barton took off, swallowing ground like a thirsty man in a desert as he caught up to and then passed Natural Bridge within a furlong. Once they were a couple of lengths in the clear, Loftus reined his mount in once more, Sir Barton still full of run but listening to the capable hands of the man who had been with him throughout this miracle run.

SirBartonHeadHe finished the mile and three-eighths in 2.17 2/5, a new American record. His performance made his supposedly high-class competition look like the commonest of platers as he beat them both with such ease that encomiums like ‘horse of the decade’ showered down on him from the throng of people present. In the winner’s circle, Ross shook hands with Loftus and playfully patted Sir Barton, accepting the silver plate that served as the Belmont trophy with overflowing joy. With that victory, Sir Barton had completed the first American Triple Crown, though it would be nearly another two decades before that accomplishment had its name and place in the pantheon of racing in America.

2017BelmontStakesAs we look at the ever-evolving picture of the 149th Belmont Stakes, a look back at the 51st running, the first that resulted in the very thing that so many racing fans look forward to each year, shows how little has changed about the phenomenon of racing. On Saturday, these good three-year-olds will take The Test of the Champion and one will emerge victorious. While Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing might be absent, a win in the Belmont is still an achievement to brag about: Triple Crown Classic winner at a mile and a half. Whoever finishes first, in the end, can etch their name in history alongside Sir Barton as winner of the Belmont Stakes.

Sir Barton on Bourbons & Barns

 

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Johnny Loftus on Sir Barton — Painting by Franklin Brooke Voss (National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame)

Griffin Coop was kind enough to do a Q&A with me about Sir Barton as we look forward to Always Dreaming’s attempt to win the Preakness Stakes after his win in the Kentucky Derby this past Saturday.

Please visit Bourbon & Barns for the Q & A and more.

 

Winless Wonders in the Kentucky Derby

2017_Kentucky_Derby_logoWith this year’s edition of the Kentucky Derby coming up fast, let’s look at something that a horse rarely can be entering Derby week: a maiden. With the Derby now requiring a certain number of points in order to make it into the gate, a horse will need to finish in the money in more than one race or finish second in the right races to join the cavalry charge of horses in Louisville. Before the points system became reality, a horse could come into the Derby as a real maiden; nine have done it since 1937. Their chances of winning, though, might not be as good since they may not have the experience or the talent to be the one in front at the wire at Churchill Downs.

These three maidens defied the odds and did just that, making the Run for the Roses their own.

Buchanan (1884)

buchananIn the last part of the 19th century, African-American jockey Isaac Burns Murphy won three Derbies (1884, 1890, 1891), his first on a firebrand chestnut named Buchanan.

Buchanan had not won a race prior to his start in the 1884 Kentucky Derby and was, from contemporary accounts, a difficult horse to ride. Murphy was one of the best jockeys of the day, though, and managed Buchanan well enough for the colt to break his maiden in the Run for the Roses. Buchanan went on to a record of 35: 8-14-10, winning the Ripple Stakes and the Clark Handicap before retiring at the age of three.

Buchanan stood stud at Senorita Stock Farm in Lexington, KY, the site of the present -day Kentucky Horse Park. He didn’t make much of an impression at stud, siring only three stakes winners, and died in either 1894 or 1897 (contemporary accounts differ) of an inflammation of the bowels.

Sir Barton (1919)

SBDerbyWinnerSir Barton made his last start of 1918 in the Futurity at Belmont in September; he was due to make additional starts in his two-year-old season before an illness put him out of commission for the remainder of the year. Trainer H.G. Bedwell declined to start the colt in any races in the first part of 1919, though stablemate and fellow Kentucky Derby starter Billy Kelly did have three starts prior to Derby Day. Sir Barton prepared instead through a series of workouts with other horses in the Ross Stable, demonstrating just how good the three-year-old son of Star Shoot* was.

Saturday, May 10th dawned rainy and wet, with the Churchill Downs oval heavy from rain. Twelve went to the post and one left the barrier flying: Sir Barton. He led at every pole and never surrendered, not even to Billy Kelly, for whom he was supposedly there to clear the way. Sir Barton went on to follow up that spectacular win with another speedy performance four days later in the Preakness. From there, he won the Withers and then the Belmont Stakes, completing America’s first Triple Crown.

From maiden to legend in the space of thirty-two days, the most successful horse to break his maiden in the Kentucky Derby.

Broker’s Tip (1933)

Black Toney had sired a Kentucky Derby winner already, a colt named Black Gold who won in 1924. His son Broker’s Tip had shown little of the form that Black Gold had and thus no one expected to see Broker’s Tip in a stretch battle in the 1933 Kentucky Derby and the near-fistfight that broke out as a result.

brokerstipBroker’s Tip’s jockey Don Meade sent his mount to the inside of frontrunner Head Play, ridden by Herb Fisher. Incensed that Meade had snuck up on him, Fisher tried to push Broker’s Tip into the rail, to which Meade responded by pushing back and attempting to pull Head Play’s saddlecloth. Fisher took a couple of swings at Meade with his whip and suddenly the two jockeys were exchanging blows as their mounts dueled down the stretch. At the wire, Broker’s Tip managed to get his nose in front, or at least that’s how the judges saw it. Fisher lodged an infraction claim against Meade, which went nowhere, and then the two continued their fight in the jock’s room. (The two made up and even came together years later to talk about that Derby.)

brokerstip2Both jockeys received suspensions for their rough riding in the Derby. Broker’s Tip got a trophy, the purse, and his lone win of his career, but that photo of Meade and Fisher fighting down the stretch stands more iconic than the horses involved.

These three horses show that it is possible to break your maiden in America’s most famous race. Could that happen again? Only time will tell.

Happy Birthday, Sir Barton!

“At the lonely hour of two on Thursday morning, April 26th, 1916, a beautiful chestnut colt was born to Lady Sterling…”

SBConfirmationSo begins writer Margaret Phipps Leonard’s obituary for America’s first Triple Crown winner in a 1938 issue of The Horse, a lovely tribute to the horse that brings us all here today.

He was foal #187-16, 187 his dam Lady Sterling’s number at John E. Madden’s Hamburg Place and 16 for the year of his birth. His coat was a shiny chestnut, like his sire and dam, and his face had a wide blaze of white that went to the right over his nose as it cascaded down his beautiful head. He almost had another name, but, like his half-brother Sir Martin, ended up with a moniker a bit more apropos for a horse with the great English sire Sterling and the English Triple Crown winner Isinglass in his pedigree.

He stood out from day one, labeled “the king of them all” by colt breaker Frank Brosche, who saw all of the young horses that came through Hamburg Place. At 15.2 1/2 hands, he might not have overwhelmed his competition with his size, but, when he got going, he could run the best of them into the ground — with one notable exception.

sbmarylandhandicapHis record of 13-6-5 in 31 starts includes a number of stellar performances, like his wire-to-wire win in the 1919 Kentucky Derby and his stakes and track record time in winning the 1920 Saratoga Handicap. In winning the Triple Crown before it was the Triple Crown, he set the stage for what has evolved into the pinnacle of achievement in American thoroughbred racing. In the nearly one hundred years since he crossed the finish line at Belmont, only eleven others have done it, demonstrating how big of a challenge navigating those three races can be. So great and so influential was Sir Barton that he was one of the first horses inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1957.

hyltonranchAside from his stats and accomplishments, Sir Barton was also a horse, flesh and blood with a personality, same as the horses that we see on our television and computer screens. John Veitch said of Alydar that his charge was “all horse,” one that didn’t tolerate hugs and possessed that something special, the drive that it took to stand up in the face of a challenge. Sir Barton possessed the same, a smart horse who was less pet and more competitor. As Phipps’s article relates, he “was not vicious, but played roughly.” Trainer H.G. Bedwell’s habit of playfully slapping him on the muzzle whenever Sir Barton had his head out of his stall led to a habit of grabbing someone whenever he or she came near; no wonder JKM Ross described the colt as he did in Boots and Saddles. I imagine that a teenager might see that sort of behavior from a horse as irascible and ‘downright evil.’ Being cooped up in a stall for the better part of the day seemed to inspire an abundance of attitude from Sir Barton.

SirBartonHeadHe was also a smart horse. B.B. Jones of Audley Farm told the story of Sir Barton kicking one of his grooms and then immediately jumping over and looking at the man in apparent apology. He didn’t give his groom any more trouble after that. He also caught Jones’s little finger in his teeth more than once, but turned it loose when Jones told him to do so. Sir Barton was ‘all horse’: smart and fast with the look of eagles and a desire to run — on his terms.

Happy 101st Birthday, Sir Barton!

Drumroll, Please…

preaknessticketsIf you’re going to be in Baltimore at Pimlico on May 20th, guess what? We will be there as well! That’s right: The Sir Barton Project (i.e., myself and my amazing husband) will be there to experience the joy and pageantry of Preakness weekend at Pimlico. I’ll be around for both Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness Days, another tick off my personal bucket list.

I went to the Kentucky Derby in 2007, the year that Street Sense won, the first time I had seen live racing in YEARS. Alabama isn’t exactly a hotbed of thoroughbred racing, sadly.

Now, if I could only pick a horse to root for in this year’s Triple Crown…