(This blog post is the first in a series of four, profiling the first horse to traverse what we now know as the Triple Crown trail. In 1918, one horse started in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes for the first time, inspiring Sir Barton’s run in all three the following year.)
After dominating victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Sir Barton won the Belmont Stakes on June 11, 1919, sealing America’s first Triple Crown. Sir Barton was the first to win all three, but he was not the first to run in all three classics. That distinction belongs to War Cloud, a British-bred colt owned by adventurer and financier turned breeder and owner Abraham Kingsley (A. K.) Macomber. In 1918, War Cloud’s trip through what we now know as the Triple Crown trail was a pursuit fueled by money and prestige, a chase that caught the eye of the racing industry, including Commander Ross and H.G. Bedwell.
A Little History
Prior to War Cloud, only three horses – Vagabond (1876), Hindus (1900), and Norse King (1915) – had started in the Kentucky Derby and then shipped to Baltimore (or New York, in Hindus’ case) to run in the Preakness Stakes. The Preakness and Belmont Stakes count 27 horses that were starters in both prior to 1918, aided in part by the Preakness was run in the New York area between 1890 and 1908, once at Morris Park and then at Gravesend. Apart from the races’ inconsistent scheduling, the distances between each city made owners and trainers reluctant to ship their horses – until 1918.
Instead, the Triple Crown, this now-essential test of horses, came about because of two important elements: money and prestige. A.K. Macomber, already wealthy in his own right, may not have chased the money, but he did desire the prestige that came with running his horses in the sport’s most prestigious races. And, like Sir Barton’s owner Commander Ross, he was not afraid to use his considerable fortune to make his mark on the sport forever.
Looking for Greatness, Ready to Play
Macomber entered the sport of horse racing about the same time as Commander J.K.L. Ross, in the middle of the 1910s, as the Great War in Europe was disrupting that sport in England and France. Macomber, who had made his money dabbling in banking, real estate, and mining, was married to the former Myrtle Harkness, daughter of Lamon Harkness. The elder Harkness’s fortune came from his family’s investment in Standard Oil, and he had used that wealth to invest a number of ventures, including Walnut Hall Farm, one of the best-known Standardbred breeding farms of this era. A.K. and Myrtle parlayed their love of horses into their own breeding operation. Even though they made their home primarily in California, the Macombers wanted to be a part of the prestigious Eastern racing scene in New York, Kentucky, and Maryland. As they began their racing career, the couple even commissioned a specially outfitted rail car for traveling to the eastern states to watch their horses run.
Macomber’s initial group of horses came not from the United States, but from England, where he sent trainer Walter Jennings to search for good racing stock. With Macomber’s considerable wealth behind him, Jennings bought horses from brothers Solomon and Jack B. Joel, owners of prestigious sires like Polymelus, who now figures in the pedigrees of horses like Secretariat and Northern Dancer. In 1916, Macomber bought seventeen yearlings from the Joels, including a colt by Polymelus, out of the mare Dreamy. Shipped to the United States in August 1916, that bay colt became War Cloud.
Macomber had already whetted his appetite for the Kentucky Derby when his colt Star Hawk, also a British import, ran second in 1916, losing by only a neck to George Smith. Encouraged by this initial success, Macomber looked for another potential Derby starter among his imports and found War Cloud to have the most potential.
Good Horse, Great Potential
At two, War Cloud quickly inserted himself into the competition for the best two-year-old of 1917. Even though he was a “leggy and light” bay colt, he demonstrated he was capable of speed when he broke his maiden at Saratoga by three lengths in a fast time. Then, in his second start, he clipped heels with another horse and found himself running behind for a chunk of the six-furlong race, finally getting clear of traffic and whipping around his competition “as though they were fenceposts.” That start impressed so many observers that he was soon thought of as a possible challenger to the year’s leading juvenile, Sun Briar. The two horses met in the Hopeful, the richest stakes race of 1917 and one of Saratoga’s premier races for juveniles. Sun Briar bested War Cloud, who finished sixth, and sixteen other horses while carrying 130 pounds over a heavy track.
In his next start, the Nursery Handicap at Belmont Park, War Cloud again was one of the favorites in the field of ten, but his driving late move in the stretch was too little too late and the Macomber colt finished second by a neck. Nearly three weeks later, on October 4th, War Cloud faced five other horses at Laurel for the Annapolis Stakes. Macomber’s colt held off his competition and took the six-furlong Annapolis in 1:12 2/5, just two-fifths of a second off the record. Beating another good juvenile Jack Hare, Jr. in such a fast time again pushed War Cloud toward the top of the list of two-year-olds.
With Sun Briar done for the season, War Cloud was deemed the class of the field in the Walden Stakes at Pimlico. The race was one mile with eleven other starters, including Jack Hare, Jr. War Cloud sat behind the front runners and passed them all when they began to tire in the stretch, winning by a length and a half. The Walden was the colt’s fourth victory in six starts in 1917. He had beaten Jack Hare, Jr. twice now and was in the conversation for the 1918 Kentucky Derby. Christopher Fitz Gerald, presiding steward at Havre de Grace, even went so far as to call Macomber’s colt the next year’s Derby winner.
Going into 1918, War Cloud’s name remained among those at the top of the list for that year’s Kentucky Derby, behind Sun Briar and Jack Hare, Jr. He carried A. K. Macomber’s hope for a Derby victory of his own into Louisville, ready to face Sun Briar again. Instead, the 1918 Kentucky Derby would feature the premiere of another legend in horse racing, the great “Old Bones,” Exterminator.