Goodbye, Sammy

hyltonranchEighty years ago yesterday, on a lonely Saturday night high in the Laramie Mountains of Wyoming, the ‘king of them all,’ as his yearling breaker had called Sir Barton, breathed his last. Far away from the crowds that had heralded his triumphs, the recurring colic that had meant long nights for the Hylton ranch took its toll on America’s first Triple Crown winner. It took nearly two weeks for the news to make it to the newspapers, and, once it did, the obituaries took interesting turns.

At times, the Kentucky-bred Sir Barton was called the ‘greatest Canadian racer of all time,’ though he only raced in Canada once and his Canadian owner kept his American horses in Maryland most of the year. Of course, ever present in each inch devoted to memorializing Sir Barton was his connection to Man o’ War. Obituaries pointed out that the first Triple Crown winner was not fit to meet his rival that day in 1920, that his career was not as stellar as Man o’ War’s, that his stud career paled next to the big red horse’s. Inaccuracies about his career popped up in some places: that Sir Barton was sold at auction when Ross broke up his stable (he wasn’t); that the match race was his last race (it wasn’t); that he had been in retirement in Wyoming since his career ended (he hadn’t).

sir_bartonNowhere in these inches did the Triple Crown, which had its fourth winner in 1937, come up. Such misstatements and omissions continued the thousand small cuts to the reputation of the horse that pioneered the greatest pursuit in thoroughbred racing, a sad way to send Sir Barton off into history.

SBConfirmationHalf a year later, Margaret Phipps Leonard published a laudatory look at Sir Barton in The Horse, published by the American Remount Association. As the most famous horse to ever grace the rolls of the Remount, it was only fitting that the ARA would honor Sir Barton’s passing with this look at his life, sharing new details about the horse that had stood in the shadow of his Big Red rival for so long. My favorite? While standing stud at Audley, Sir Barton had accidentally kicked one of his grooms during his daily dressing down. As soon as he had kicked, Sammy (Sir Barton’s nickname from his racing days) jumped over and looked at the groom with an apology in his eyes. Sir Barton might have been more horse than pet, but he was as brilliant off the track as he was on it.

Eighty years ago, we said goodbye to Sammy. In spring 2019, we will say hello to him again in the pages of ‘Sir Barton and the Birth of the American Triple Crown’ (tentative title) from the University Press of Kentucky.

 

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Anticlimactic

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American Pharoah

America’s latest Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, ended his racing career with a bang two years ago, winning the Breeder’s Cup Classic in 2:00.07, easily a track record time. California Chrome, another fan favorite and winner of two-thirds of the Triple Crown, went to Gulfstream Park and faced Arrogate again; Chrome finished far back of the big grey colt that bested him in the Breeder’s Cup Classic mere weeks prior. Unlike Pharoah, Chrome’s last race was not a fitting end to the stellar career that included wins in the Dubai World Cup, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and more.
 

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California Chrome

When top horses end their careers with clunkers, hindsight says that the connections should have stopped when they were ahead. How can they allow this horse to go out and tarnish their careers with lackluster starts? The irony is, that any owner or trainer or jockey cannot know that this last start should have been the last start. We’d all like our favorites to go out on top, but rarely do they get to do that.

Man o’ War did, exiting the match race in October 1920 with his stellar reputation intact. The film of his long, twenty-eight-foot stride played across movie houses across the country. Sam Riddle showed him off both on film and in person before sending his prized immortal horse off to stud, satisfied that they had accomplished all that they could with their incomparable colt. The horse that finished second to him in that very same race, Sir Barton, did not fare as well.

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Voss painting of Sir Barton with Johnny Loftus aboard.

Many times as I have researched Sir Barton and his career, I have seen writers say that the match race was the last race for the first Triple Crown winner as it was for his rival. It was not, however; Sir Barton would start three more times before year’s end. The first was ninety-seven years ago, in the Laurel Handicap.

Carrying 125 pounds for this race, Sir Barton strode out onto the Laurel track for this one-mile race. He faced a field of five others, all horses he had seen in one capacity or another, usually when he beat them to the wire. The Laurel Handicap should have been a cakewalk for him, especially given the caliber of performance he had turned in when he won the Merchants and Citizens Handicap in late August. Instead, under a new-to-him jockey, Jack O’Brien, Sir Barton showed little of what had made him so great mere weeks earlier. After a lackluster warm-up, Sir Barton broke well enough, settling into third behind the front-runners. When it came time to make his move and challenge for the lead, O’Brien could not get his mount to respond. They barely held off a surging Sennings Park to finish third in a race with a brisk, but not sizzling pace.

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Sir Barton

Sir Barton would start two more times, both at Pimlico; he did not win either start, but he was in the money for all of them. The only horse seen fit to challenge Man o’ War was game enough to stay in it, but he didn’t seem to have enough left in his tank — or heart — to be the stellar racehorse that he had been so many times before. Following him throughout this was the towering shadow of his rival, always coloring the prose whenever his name came up in the papers of the day.

Like Chrome and so many others, those last starts did fit the career of the horse that paved the way for Secretariat and American Pharoah, a fitting testament to the uncertainty that is the sport of racing.

“The Race of the Age”

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Advertisement for “The Race of the Age” at a New York theatre

Today marks the ninety-seventh anniversary of the 1920 Kenilworth Gold Cup, better known as ‘The Race of the Century’ between Man o’ War and Sir Barton. The mile-and-a-quarter confrontation was meant to be the ultimate test of both horses, a chance for two record-breakers to thrill the crowd with the speed that their reputations were built on. Ringing the hard-packed dirt oval that October day at Kenilworth Park were fourteen cameras, each stationed at a vantage point that would allow them to film the two combatants. Those cameras created the first known complete horse race on film, billed as “The Race of the Ages.”

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Sir Barton

The two-reel film from the Educational Film Exchanges showed some of the preparations both stables undertook in order to get their horses to the barrier for the match race as well as the race from both ground level and high above the track. The filmmakers took great care to capture Man o’ War’s stride in slow motion in order to show audiences across the country what made the colt so dominant in his scant two years on the race course. Lost in all of this seemed to be his competitor, Sir Barton, himself a champion and a record-breaker, but certainly not the star of the show. Newspapers recorded that Samuel Riddle, Man o’ War’s owner, held a dinner to show off the film that featured his dominant and legendary stallion; when, how, and if Commander Ross viewed the film himself, was not information that any reader was privy to in 1920.

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Man o’ War

Advertisements for showings of “The Race of the Age” ran in newspapers across the country well into 1921 as articles giving Man o’ War’s every move chronicled his transition into retirement while controversy followed Sir Barton into the new year. Soon, the first Triple Crown winner’s name seemed to only appear alongside that of his ever-dominant rival, Sir Barton’s defeat at the heels of Man o’ War running on movie screens everywhere over and over again. The diminishing of the reputation of the first horse to complete the biggest accomplishment in racing accelerated with each advertisement. How easy it is to change public perception with something small like an ad, like a death by a thousand small cuts rather than great swinging lashes.

The two reels of “The Race of the Age” seem to be lost to history, a victim of the time that has elapsed between our era and theirs. Searches through a number of archives across the United States, including the National Archives, has produced no known copies of the film. Clips appear on YouTube, but the entirety of the race, as well as those precious images of both horses getting ready to run at Kenilworth, elude this researcher at present. I did find this short clip for you to enjoy as you think back to “The Race of the Age,” on this day ninety-seven years ago.