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.
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!