Two years ago, American Pharaoh came into the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on an eight-race win streak, including the first Triple Crown in thirty-seven years. He had made his first post-Triple Crown start in the Haskell Invitational, where he had sailed to a two-and-a-quarter length win, showing that same easy running style familiar to race fans. He was the 1-5 favorite for the Travers and, despite shipping in from California at nearly the last minute, the victory seemed well in hand.
That is, until that last quarter of a mile, when American Pharoah’s dominance gave way to the stalking trip of Keen Ice, who managed to pass the Triple Crown winner as the field flew toward the wire. For American Pharoah, it was his first loss since his two-year-old season. For race fans, it was a clear disappointment that made even owner Ahmed Zayat ponder retirement rather than let his horse risk another loss in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, their next intended target. The Graveyard of Champions had claimed another victim.
American Pharaoh, of course, went on to win the Classic, completing the Grand Slam. He was voted the best three-year-old of 2015 and the Horse of the Year. That one loss in the Travers, which came as a result of the Triple Crown winner trying to overcome the pressure of a speedy Frosted, never cast doubt on whether or not the son of Pioneerof the Nile was the best horse in America that year. It would be unimaginable to think that AP wasn’t the best of his age and the best of all ages that year, right? Surely, winning the Triple Crown at least would net a horse those sorts of honors?
Nearly a hundred years ago, on July 10th, 1919, as Sir Barton returned to the track after his four-win streak that included our first Triple Crown, the three-year-old champion honors seemed to be his, no question. The win streak in itself was amazing; the way he did it, dominating each field in different ways, should have sealed it for him. Nearly a month after his romp in the Belmont Stakes, Commander Ross and H.G. Bedwell decided the Triple Crown winner would start in the Dwyer Stakes, a mile-and-an-eighth race named for the Dwyer Brothers, the New York brothers who owned a dominant racing stable in the late 19th century. Only two other horses met the Triple Crown winner at the barrier: Crystal Ford, a fair racer that was getting an eighteen-pound break from Sir Barton; and Purchase, who had missed the spring classics with an injury but had reeled off a series of wins in June. Purchase, despite his recent record, also got a weight break from Sir Barton, carrying fewer nine pounds at 118 pounds. Sir Barton’s 127 pounds was not a new impost for him and he had previously given weight to other horses and still dominated. The same level of expectation that followed American Pharoah into the Travers followed Sir Barton out onto the Aqueduct oval for the Dwyer.
Sir Barton and his two competitors trotted out toward the barrier, lithe feet dancing through the sloppy dirt beneath them. Johnny Loftus had his usual seat on Sir Barton, the Dwyer his first race of the day. Willie Knapp, the jockey destined to beat Loftus on another legendary horse in August, had the mount on Purchase. Purchase stood on the rail in the first post, Sir Barton on the outside and Crystal Ford in between them. Knapp’s position on the rail would have clued him into the condition of the track there. He would have seen the way that the intermittent rain drained off the Aqueduct track, making the going at the rail deeper. It was that soft going that assured Commander Ross that starting Sir Barton on this particular day was a good idea.
He was wrong.
The Triple Crown winner had bruised himself in a workout the week before the Dwyer, forcing Bedwell to lay off training for a few days while he gave the colt time to heal. The morning of the Dwyer, Sir Barton appeared recovered from his mishap and Ross opted to send his ascendant colt to the post with a fresher and injury-free Purchase. At the start, the Triple Crown winner took his usual position as front-runner, with Crystal Ford and Purchase a couple of lengths behind him. As the field rounded that last turn, Knapp took Purchase behind Crystal Ford and then went around that colt, setting his sights on Sir Barton, still running on the front. Loftus, sensing that Knapp was making a run at them, urged his mount on, but Purchase and Knapp gained ground and then passed them in that final furlong. As he flashed under the wire, Purchase had beaten the Triple Crown winner by three lengths, stunning the Aqueduct crowd. Commander Ross lamented the loss, seeing now that the colt still wasn’t back to his previous form.
Ross’s go-fever cost Sir Barton the stranglehold he had had on the three-year-old championship. Rather than enjoying a rest from his record-breaking spring campaign, the Triple Crown winner and his connections endured a summer of doubt, watching Purchase continue to turn in impressive performances on the track while Sir Barton stood idle in recovery. By the time Sir Barton returned to the track in the fall, Purchase was on the shelf himself after an injury had sidelined the upstart challenger before the two could meet again. At 1919’s end, Sir Barton’s fall campaign seemed to cinch the three-year-old championship, but the doubts about who was the best of the year lingered in 1920.
The rematch so many had been spoiling for never happened. Purchase returned to racing in 1921; Sir Barton retired that same year, standing stud at Audley Farm in Virginia after Commander Ross sold him to the Jones brothers. Sir Barton was recognized as the first Triple Crown winner, the three-year-old champion, and Horse of the Year many years later. The Dwyer was not his only loss for the year, but, in 1919, it was enough to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of fans and writers and inspire the same endless debates that we all engage in with our own contemporary favorites.