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.
(Photograph courtesy of the Cook Collection at Keeneland Library, Lexington, KY.)