Without This, The Triple Crown Isn’t

It’s not hard to think of the run for the classics as this statement about the noble pursuit of one’s best potential, a celebration of the right horse with the right jockey and trainer and owner and breeder. The intrinsic value of the attempt and the catharsis of losing or the exuberance of winning seem to be the very thing that brings us back to the Triple Crown races year after year. As the lovers of the thoroughbred, we seek the high regardless of the lows.

The Triple Crown as we know had its origins not necessarily in the noble, but in something far more practical and cynical: money. That’s right: War Cloud opened the door and Sir Barton kicked it open not for the mere doing of the thing, but because of the paychecks that came with it.

From the first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in 1919 to the second Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in 1930, the number of horses going for the triple increased as did the purses that they came with:

1918 Kentucky Derby – $18775
1919 Kentucky Derby – $24600
1920 Kentucky Derby – $36650
1921 Kentucky Derby – $55450
1922 Kentucky Derby – $63775
1923 Kentucky Derby – $63600 + $5000 Gold Cup
1924 Kentucky Derby – $62775 + gold cup
1925 Kentucky Derby – $62950 + gold cup
1926 Kentucky Derby – $60075 + gold cup
1927 Kentucky Derby – $61000 + gold cup
1928 Kentucky Derby – $65375 + gold cup
1929 Kentucky Derby – $63950 + gold cup
1930 Kentucky Derby – $60725 + gold cup
1918 Preakness – $17250* ($16250)
1919 Preakness – $30500
1920 Preakness – $29000
1921 Preakness – $53000
1922 Preakness – $61000
1923 Preakness – $62000
1924 Preakness – $64000
1925 Preakness – $62700
1926 Preakness – $63625
1927 Preakness – $63100
1928 Preakness – $70000
1929 Preakness – $62325
1930 Preakness – $61925
1918 Belmont – $10200
1919 Belmont – $14200
1920 Belmont – $9200
1921 Belmont – $10650
1922 Belmont – $46700
1923 Belmont – $46000
1924 Belmont – $50880
1925 Belmont – $46500
1926 Belmont – $56550
1927 Belmont – $72410
1928 Belmont – $74930
1929 Belmont – $71150
1930 Belmont – $77540

By the time Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown in 1930, each race’s purse was the equivalent of $1 million in 2016 dollars, tripling and even quadrupling the purses War Cloud (1918) ran for in some cases. So, while I do enjoy the romantic notion of the pursuit of the Triple Crown as this thing that is the ultimate accomplishment in the Sport of Kings, I know that at the heart of the whole thing, at least to start, was, quite simply, money.

(By the way, the 2016 Kentucky Derby purse will be a minimum of $2 million, the Preakness a minimum of $1.5 million, and the Belmont a minimum of $1.5 million.)

*The Preakness Stakes was run in two divisions in 1918; War Cloud won one division and Jack Hare, Jr. the other.

The Path to Immortality Started Here

Now, if you’re here, you can guess from the title of the site and the upcoming book that the first Triple Crown winner was Sir Barton. For the longest time, I never thought about it any more than that. For us, in this modern era of racing, it’s not unheard of for horses to run in all three classics, even when they don’t win the races; just the chance to run and win some money or play spoiler might be enough.

However, in the first part of the 20th century, before the Triple Crown existed as we know it, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes were just three stakes races in the spring. Sometimes the Preakness might precede the Derby and, on a couple of occasions, they were run on the same day. In fact, between 1875 and 1917, only three horses ever made the trip from Louisville to Baltimore to compete in the Derby and the Preakness.

The Maryland Jockey Club in 1918 changed that and set us on the path that we’re on today.

That year, the MJC offered a $15,000 purse for the Preakness, an extraordinary sum, but it was wartime and the powers that be wanted to keep racing going and knew that big purses were going to attract the good horses and thus bump attendance and betting. Thirty-four horses were entered and the MJC decided to split the Preakness into two divisions and then offered a $15,000 purse for each division. Only one horse made the trip from Louisville to Baltimore that year. His name was War Cloud (pictured below). He didn’t finish in the money in the Derby, but did win one of the Preakness’s divisions and then was shipped to New York.

In New York, at Belmont Park, War Cloud first started in the Withers Stakes, finishing seventh, and then in the Belmont Stakes on June 15th. For his efforts, War Cloud collected only about $16,000 in purse money, but he also drew attention to the profitability of the trek from Kentucky to Maryland to New York in such a short span of time, despite the logistical difficulties of such travel in the first part of the 20th century.

War Cloud proved that these three races could be a worthwhile endeavor; Sir Barton would seal the deal the follow year, as another increase in purse money for all three races would make what we now know as the Triple Crown an attractive path for years to come.

The Starting Barrier

When Sir Barton and company started a race, they didn’t load into a starting gate like we are so familiar with now. They stood at the barrier, sometimes webbing and other times rope or something similar, and then would go when that was raised. This brief video is from the 1918 Kentucky Derby, won by the legendary Exterminator. Watch it for the brief shot of the race’s start as well as the stretch run.

Welcome to the Sir Barton Project!


When I was ten years old, my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Scott, read The Black Stallion to my class and, thus, a love affair began. I remember my mom taking me to the bookstore and I bought the Black Stallion series one at a time. Then I discovered that a movie version had been made in 1978 and I rented the videocassette of that film weekly for months. Not too long after, I caught the Breeder’s Cup on television and fell head over heels for thoroughbred racing. But, as a racing fan living in Alabama, I am at a significant disadvantage. The closest racetrack currently running thoroughbreds is either in New Orleans, Hot Springs, or Lexington, five or six hours away. Needless to say, even though my love for thoroughbreds is unusual in this area, I pursue and cultivate it and now it’s brought me – and you – here.

In July 2013, I contemplated starting a project that I had thought about off and on over the years, but had not done any research on until that moment. I searched Amazon, Google, and more and discovered that the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton (pictured above), did not have his own book. The horse that started it all and put us on the path that we’re on now still had not had his whole story told in the nearly 100 years that have elapsed since he crossed the finish line on June 11, 1919, the first Triple Crown winner. Sure, each book that profiles the Triple Crown winners has a chapter on the champion and, of course, his story is inexorably linked with that of Man O’War, the Triple Crown winner that surely would have been had Samuel Riddle sent him to Louisville.

Since Sir Barton crossed that finish line, the Triple Crown has become the ultimate goal, the impossible made possible only twelve times in the history of American thoroughbred racing. However, in order to understand how we got here, we need to see where we’ve been. To fully comprehend the impact of American Pharoah in 2015, we need to understand what happened in 1919. We need to see how the right horse was in the right place at the right time to create history.

And that’s what this biography of Sir Barton, tentatively titled First, will do. It will show how America’s Triple Crown evolved from a series of disparate races to the ultimate pursuit in thoroughbred racing. We’ll meet War Cloud and Billy Kelly. We’ll see how a Canadian businessman rose to the zenith of thoroughbred racing thanks to a legendary trainer and a string of champion horses, including the chestnut son of Star Shoot and Lady Sterling. We’ll see how the first Triple Crown winner rose so high only to be eclipsed by Big Red and then knocked down into near obscurity.

This blog will accompany the journey of this book from research to realization. The goal is that, at journey’s end, you’ll be holding a copy of First starting May 10, 2019 (or June 11, 2019), the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown.

Thanks for being here. I hope you enjoy the ride!