Fresh off a victory in the Dominion Handicap, Sir Barton had made the trip from Fort Erie back to Saratoga, where he had won the Saratoga Handicap earlier in the month. His Dominion victory was a special one for owner J.K.L. Ross, who was deeply involved in growing racing in Canada now that the War was over. Sir Barton was the most accomplished horse in his stable and Ross was thrilled to be able to show him off in his native land. Now, though, it was back to business as the Triple Crown champion marched toward a date with the ascendant Man O’War.
The Merchants and Citizens’ Handicap was a 1 3/16 mile feature on the card for August 29, 1920. Sir Barton originally had four other competitors, including his stablemate, Boniface. By post time, though, the field was down to three: the champion, Gnome, and Jack Stuart. Earl Sande was back on Sir Barton, as he had been for much of 1920, and Frank Keogh was on Gnome. The purse was about $7,000, with $5,200 going to the winner.
As the three horse rolled toward the barrier for the start, rumors persisted that Sir Barton had not shipped well, reducing his backing in the betting somewhat. A lackluster warm-up before the race further solidified doubts about his condition. Couple that with the weight he was carrying (133 pounds) and the weight he was giving to his competition (18-24 pounds) and it was clear to see why Sir Barton wasn’t as sure of a bet as he might have been.
From the start, Sir Barton jumped out to the lead and never let it go. His fractions were fast: 23 2/5, 47 2/5, 1.12 3/5, 1.36 2/5. He led by a length for most of the race, with Jack Stuart behind and then Gnome. In the stretch, though, Keogh sent Gnome to challenge the champion and it took all of Earl Sande’s talent as a rider to keep Sir Barton’s head in front of Gnome’s. As they thundered down the stretch, as depicted in the photo above, the Triple Crown winner bobbed his nose just in front of Gnome’s, finally flashing under the wire to the roar of the Saratoga crowd. The photo finish system had not been invented yet and so close finishes came down to the judges, who ruled in favor of Sir Barton. The time? 1.55 3/5, a new American record.
With this race, Sir Barton set his second American record in a month and the calls for a match race with Man O’War grew in volume. Rumors of their meeting in the Saratoga Cup among other races would finally give way to a match race at Kenilworth within six weeks of this race, Sir Barton’s last win.