Happy Birthday, Sir Barton — Part Two

Today was Sir Barton’s 100th birthday. He is buried in Douglas, Wyoming, home of the Hylton family, his final owners, and, because of the distance between the two of us, I was unable to be in Douglas to lay flowers on his grave in honor of his birthday. Thankfully, Lori and her staff at The Boondocks Flowers and Gifts in Douglas helped me out by creating a bouquet of roses — the flower of the Kentucky Derby — and laid them on Sir Barton’s grave. They even sent me pictures!

Happy Birthday, SB! Thank you, Lori, for helping me on this important day!

Happy Birthday, Sir Barton!

One hundred years ago today, in a foaling barn on Hamburg Place in Lexington, Kentucky, Lady Sterling gave birth to one of only a handful of foals she was able to produce in her lifetime. His coat was chestnut and his face had a crooked blaze that flared to the right, covering the right side of his muzzle. His foal number was 187-16, 187 his dam’s number and 16 the year he was born.

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Welcome, Harry Hale?

John E. Madden, the colt’s breeder, wanted to name Lady Sterling’s foal, a son of Star Shoot, then one of America’s leading sires, Harry Hale after his son’s commanding officer. Concerned about the appearance of brown-nosing, his son convinced Madden to name the foal Sir Barton, after Sir Andrew Barton, noted privateer and High Admiral of the kingdom of Scotland in the late 15th century. The colt was a half-brother to Sir Martin, Madden’s own champion who was standing stud at Hamburg Place as well. Much like his half-brother, Sir Barton’s pedigree held promise, with two English Triple Crown winners and other champions in his lineage.

From the get-go, Sir Barton stood out. A visitor to Hamburg Place asked about the yearlings currently there; the operation regularly turned out hundreds of thoroughbreds in a year. Frank Brosche, the farm’s colt breaker, brought out the chestnut colt and declared him “king of them all.” Madden took Sir Barton to the races at age two, but, as a late spring foal, it took him several races before he began to show any glimmer of the potential Brosche saw.

At the Races

John E. Madden’s philosophy was that it was better to sell than to hold on to his horses, no matter how dear to him they might be. He knew J.K.L. Ross was trying to build a championship stable and so Madden approached him about adding Sir Barton to his burgeoning string of racers. The Canadian purchased the colt in August 1918, for a reported $10,000 (though some newspapers had the purchase price as $20,000). At first, the colt didn’t do much for Ross; he didn’t like to work so trainer H.G. Bedwell had to stage races as workouts for Sir Barton, using other horses in the stable to round the colt into form. During one workout, he got too close to another horse, Foreground, and received a kick in the stifle for it. The wounds from that kick festered and Sir Barton nearly died of blood poisoning in the fall of 1918. Bedwell nursed him back to health himself, but it meant that Sir Barton went to Louisville for the 1919 Derby still a maiden.

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Bedwell wanted Sir Barton in the Derby to set a fast pace and wear out the other favorites so that Billy Kelly would have a chance to score, but, if Sir Barton seemed to be able to win on his own merits, the trainer encouraged jockey Johnny Loftus to let him. The colt did, breaking his maiden in one of the racing world’s biggest events. Some dismissed the win as a fluke, with a maiden allowance of ten pounds possibly giving Sir Barton an advantage. The son of Star Shoot was no flash in the pan, though, as he proved four days later in Baltimore.

Sir Barton followed up his unexpected win in the Kentucky Derby with another win in the Preakness Stakes, a double that had never happened before, and then wins in the Withers Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, all coming within a month. He set the world on fire with his new form, named the top three-year-old of 1919 and then became a highly regarded older horse at age four. He might even be counted among one of the greats of his era had he not run up against the 20th century’s greatest thoroughbred, Man O’War, who was one year his junior. After a defeat at the hands of Man O’War in an October 1920 match race, Sir Barton ran three more times, losing each race, and then was retired the following year.

After the Glory

Ross then sold the champion to Audley Farm and the Jones brothers, who themselves had a fledgling racing and breeding operation. When his stud career failed to match the luster of his racing career, the Jones brothers turned Sir Barton over to the Remount Service, which supplied horses for the military. Sir Barton started out at Fort Royal in Virginia, then went to Nebraska, and finally ended up in Wyoming, at the ranch of Dr. Joseph Roy Hylton. There, Sir Barton spent his remaining years, showing little of the cantankerousness that he had had during his racing career. The champion died October 30, 1937 after a bout of colic. He was twenty-one years old. Hylton buried him on the family’s property in the Laramie Mountains.

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Dr. Hylton passed away in 1946 and eventually the ranch changed hands. Concerned about Sir Barton’s grave being lost, Douglas, WY resident Gordon Turner worked along with the Douglas Chamber of Commerce to raise the funds to move Sir Barton’s remains from that near-anonymous grave to his current resting place in Washington Park.

Above All, the Legacy

For all of the things that this son of Star Shoot and Lady Sterling was – sore-footed grouch, lackluster stallion, or second fiddle to the greatest horse of an entire century – Sir Barton’s legacy of winning the Triple Crown, the first to claim all three and only the second horse ever to run in the three classics, has shaped thoroughbred racing as we know it today. As we celebrate American Pharoah’s feat in 2015, as we look forward to asking Can it can happen again? this year and every year, we can look toward Douglas, Wyoming and the final resting place of the first Triple Crown winner and contemplate his place in racing history.

Happy 100th Birthday, Sir Barton!

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Kentucky Derby Preps, Then and Now

In 1919, when Sir Barton and Billy Kelly walked up to the starting barrier on May 10th for the Kentucky Derby, only one of the two in the entry had had any prep races prior to Derby Day. Billy Kelly had run three times before the Derby, but Sir Barton had been kept off the track as he recovered from blood poisoning the previous fall. His workouts, though, grabbed the attention of those around Churchill Downs as they watched the son of Star Shoot & Lady Sterling prepare for the Derby. Being a maiden and lightly raced next to his highly regarded stablemate, Sir Barton was not the name that came up most often when talking about who would win the 1919 Kentucky Derby.

Just like Alabama had one guy, Corky Simpson, voting for them to win the national championship in 1992, long before anyone else thought the Tide was the best team in the nation, Sir Barton had a guy. He was Sam McMeekin, the sports editor for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the only person who had predicted that the colt was capable of being the first to cross the finish line on Derby Day. McMeekin even went on the next day to publish an ‘I Told You So’ in the LCJ. Despite his status as a second-rater that Bedwell wasn’t even sure was going to start if the going was muddy, Sir Barton came off of a better than six month layoff to dominate the Derby field and, within a month, the Preakness and the Belmont (with the Withers thrown in) to become the first Triple Crown winner ever.

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This year, the same speculation abounds, with the same attention to workouts and past performances and pedigrees. Gun Runner and Nyquist sit 1-2 atop the Kentucky Derby points standings, but, with a maximum of 20 horses potentially in the starting gate, the chances of predicting a winner are a bit more complicated than in Sir Barton’s day, when only 12 horses went to the post. A horse can’t get into the Derby gate without running in a prep race and accruing points, which means that the path the first Triple Crown winner took to immortality is vastly different than what American Pharoah faced in 2015.

The Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, May 7th at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Stay tuned for my unscientific thoughts on this year’s running!