Making and Breaking Reputations


On October 12, 1920, about 3.37 pm, two horses stood at the barrier on Kenilworth Park’s dirt oval. The largest crowd ever to grace the stands watched as the two took to the track, one clad in Ross orange and black and the other in the yellow and black of Samuel Riddle, each known as the best of his class. As they lined up by the starter, one towering over the other, their riders took their positions, gripping the leather reins and waiting for this particular job to begin.

The match race itself had come together rather quickly, a response to the drumbeat of desire that threatened to drown out everything else in thoroughbred racing that fall. Man O’War had conquered all comers to that point, save for a slight blip on the map named Upset, but his owner’s caution had left one question still to be answered: how would Big Red fare amongst older horses? When Willis Sharpe Kilmer dropped his Exterminator out of the mix, Sir Barton became the symbol of the best that the older class had to offer: record setter under heavy weights, Triple Crown winner, the star of the Ross Stable. For the champion, though, the one who had done what Man O’War hadn’t, 1920 had been a hard campaign, with eight starts, three in August alone, after thirteen in 1919. Sure, Man O’War had had ten starts in 1920, but he didn’t have the shelly hooves that plagued Sir Barton. The track at Kenilworth was hard and fast, thanks to Abe Orpen’s hope for a speed duel. For Sir Barton, the solid surface and the residual soreness of a long campaign brought on lingering questions about soundness, but no one in the Ross camp was going to give their hand away. Kenilworth, though, had taken on a dour air as a result. As J.K.M. Ross laments in Boots and Saddles, this was “a battleground for greatness and a breeding ground for disappointment and distortion” (207).

With his obvious advantages in height and muscle, it was clear how tremendous Man O’War was next to Sir Barton. While the Triple Crown winner was not the largest horse, he clearly showed why he had been so good on the track versus so many of the era’s best horses. Standing there at the barrier, though, Sir Barton looked like a common plater next to Man O’War. The race was nearly a foregone conclusion, but Ross’s sense of sportsmanship wouldn’t allow him to withdraw from the contest. In the end, Man O’War’s conquering of his competition only intensified the ascendency of his star. For Sir Barton, though, it might have been the contributing factor to his slow fade into near obscurity.

Ninety-six years ago today, the Kenilworth Gold Cup was the match race that turned out to be no match at all. For Man O’War, the race resulted drinking champagne from the race’s gold trophy and retiring to stud to make an indelible and lasting mark on the pedigree of all thoroughbreds racing today. For Sir Barton, it was the end. He ran two more times, but his soundness and heart weren’t up to the task. He went quietly to stud and then, because of death and circumstance, to the Wild West, resting for all time in rural Wyoming.

But he left his mark loudly even if he went off quietly into the night. It’s in the walls of noise at Churchill Downs and Pimlico and Belmont in the spring. It’s in the vaunted places of horses like Citation, Secretariat, Affirmed, and now American Pharoah in the pantheon of thoroughbred racing. He may not have been a behemoth on the track, but his achievement on those spring days in 1919 has become the yardstick by which we measure all horses to this day.

Not even Big Red wears his crown.


Greatness Knows No Weight

In the Triple Crown races, colts and geldings carry 126 pounds and fillies carry 121 pounds. The idea is that a male horse holds a physical advantage over fillies (though I know fillies and mares throughout history that might challenge that idea) so the difference in weights gives each horse an equal chance at the same goal. So goes the wisdom behind assigning weights in a handicap: horses with good records and more talent receive higher weights than others who may not have shown such. With that in mind, let’s look at Sir Barton’s start in the 1919 Maryland Handicap.

By early October, racing in Maryland had shifted from Havre de Grace to Laurel for its fall meet. The question of who owned the three-year-old crown still lingered in the air as Purchase had wowed in his other starts in 1919 while Sir Barton had won those spring classics, but had had a series of mixed performance since then. The scuttlebutt had the two meeting at some point that autumn to decide the thing outright, but, in the meantime, Ross and company shifted their focus to Laurel’s slate of handicaps, including the Maryland Handicap.

Though the race had six starters, unlike his previous start in the Havre de Grace Handicap, Sir Barton’s competition was not nearly as stellar. No Cudgel, no Exterminator, and no Purchase; instead, the other starters were all colts that he gave anywhere from fifteen to twenty-seven pounds to, enough weight that these lightweights had a fighting chance, in theory.

Truly, they had none. Rather than engage in a speed battle on the front end, jockey Johnny Loftus hung at the back of the pack, waiting for the front-runners to burn themselves out before moving for the lead. As the field went around the last turn, Thunderclap surged wide, taking Sir Barton with him. The Triple Crown winner recovered and started picking off horses one-by-one until he only had Mad Hatter in front of him in the stretch. By the time the field hit the wire, Sir Barton had pulled ahead of Mad Hatter by two lengths, finishing in a time just two-fifths off the record for the mile and a quarter.

The race was called one of Sir Barton’s best performances to date, an exciting end to another rich race for the Ross Stable. Finally, the champion earned a break and didn’t start again until November.

Uneven Performances

Eleven days after his win in the Potomac Handicap, Sir Barton was back on the track at Havre de Grace, this time for the Record Purse. This first edition of the race was a one-mile allowance dash, a chance for the champion to carry lighter weight, 110 pounds rather than the 132 he carried in the Potomac. As he was to start three days later in the Havre de Grace Handicap, no doubt trainer H.G. Bedwell intended the Record Purse to be a tune-up for that next start, but it was Sir Barton’s eighth start in 1919 and perhaps the wear was starting to show.

Starting from the three post, Sir Barton jumped out just behind Midnight Sun at the start, sitting just behind him by the quarter pole and a head in front of The Porter. As the field reached the half-mile pole, though, The Porter passed both Sir Barton and Midnight Sun to take the lead and pulled away, winning by five lengths. As the Daily Racing Form put it, Sir Barton was ‘hard ridden throughout, but could never overtake the winner” (9/25/1919).

His next start in the Havre de Grace Handicap on September 27th wasn’t much better. Sir Barton jumped out to the lead at the start, while his stablemate Cudgel and the legendary Exterminator hung toward the back of the pack. By the stretch, though, the Triple Crown winner began to tire and Cudgel and Exterminator passed him, with his stablemate flashing under the wire as the winner. It took a new track record, 1.50 for the mile and an eighth, to beat him, but, nevertheless, the champion had been beaten again.

Sir Barton wouldn’t get much of a layoff as racing in Maryland shifted from Havre de Grace to Laurel, with his next start coming one week later, in the Maryland Handicap at Laurel.

Racing (and Retiring) a Classic Winner

Yesterday, Winstar Farms announced that 2016 Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator (Curlin-Dawn Raid, by Vindication) was retiring from active racing to stand at Winstar. The colt retires with six wins in fifteen starts, including the Santa Anita Derby and the Haskell Invitational, and a number of finishes in the money, including finishing second in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. He joins Belmont Stakes winner Creator (Tapit-Morea, by Privately Held), who was sold to breeding interests in Japan and retired from racing to stand there, much like Sunday Silence and I’ll Have Another.

Today, classic winners like Exaggerator, Creator, and others who retire at three years old go that route because their genetics prove to be more valuable long term than their prowess on the track might. For Sir Barton, though, in 1919, the expectations were a bit different. Since the Triple Crown as we know it did not exist yet, though Sir Barton had conquered it just a few weeks before, his stock at stud wasn’t yet proven. In the Golden Age of racing, this early part of the 20th century, a horse made his reputation through speed and weight, i.e., handicaps. Ross and company turned their attention to running Sir Barton and his stablemate Billy Kelly in the day’s most famous races, handicaps like the Potomac Handicap at Havre de Grace.

The Potomac’s field was small: only five horses, three of which were from Ross’s own stable. Sir Barton was assigned 132 pounds, giving weight to them all of his competitors — even Billy Kelly, his accomplished stablemate — anywhere from seven to thirty-two pounds. This start was only two days after his previous effort in the Hip Hip Hooray Purse, a timeline that is almost unheard of today.

None of it mattered. He started from the outside post and jumped out to a flying start, taking the lead immediately. The others never threatened him, jockeying for position behind him, but still a length and more back of Sir Barton. The Triple Crown winner took home $6,900 for his efforts, adding to the rich purses he had already won in 1919.

The Potomac would not be Sir Barton’s last start for 1919; he had six more to go in his three-year-old season. Toward the end of the year, Commander J.K.L. Ross contemplated retiring his big-money horse, the unexpected star of his stable, but Sir Barton would go on to run one more season before retiring to stud. For horses like Exaggerator and Creator today, though, we bid them both ‘Adieu’ before they even see the end of their three-year-old season. Thanks to Sir Barton and the tradition of the Triple Crown that started with his win in 1919, those two colts and their status as classic winners means that the potential inherent in their genetics is now far more valuable than the money they would bring home on the track.