The other day, I had someone ask me where I put Sir Barton in the pantheon of Triple Crown winners. Where did the first Triple Crown winner rank amongst the thirteen that have won the honor of being the most elite of this sport? In order to answer this question, I sat down with a notebook and my trusty copy of Champions and contemplated exactly how I was going to rank all thirteen.
Criteria: The Measuring Sticks
How does one compare thirteen horses who ran over the course of 100 years? All thirteen ran the Derby at the same distance, a mile and a quarter, but the Preakness and Belmont Stakes both changed distances between 1919 and 1930. Sir Barton’s Preakness and Belmont were a furlong shorter than what his successors ran. Does that mean that one throws out his times when comparing the three? Secretariat ran all three races in record time, the only one of the thirteen with a sub-2:00 Kentucky Derby time. Citation won the Preakness in 2:02 2/5, running the mile and three-sixteenths in the same time as the average Derby! That’s nearly ten seconds slower than Secretariat and several seconds slower than every other Triple Crown winner. Can one fault Citation for his slow times? Does that mean that he belongs lower on the list than a horse like Gallant Fox, who had similar slower times but still outpaced Citation?
How does the condition of the track affect one’s perception of the performance? Justify ran two of his three classic races on sloppy tracks and still beat American Pharoah’s Preakness time (also run on a sloppy track) by a couple of seconds? But Pharoah ran the Belmont faster than Justify; in fact, AP and Affirmed both had the fastest Belmont times after Secretariat’s record. Same with Sir Barton; his Derby is the slowest of all thirteen, 2:09 4/5, but he also ran on a muddy track much like the one Justify blazed over last year. How much weight should the surface carry in discussing the merits of one Triple Crown winner over another?
Then I thought about birthdays: I thought Sir Barton’s was the latest of all thirteen, but his April 26th birthday is six days before War Admiral’s. Does that make their performances more impressive than the others on this list? Six of the thirteen were born in March, with three in February and three in April. War Admiral won the Derby on May 8, 1937, just six days after his birthday, though his official birthday would have made him three years old on January 1st, like all other thoroughbreds. War Admiral must have been an outstanding horse to be so close to his actual foaling date in winning the first leg of the Triple Crown. However, weren’t all of the horses that won these three races outstanding?
Lastly, in my informal attempt to compare these thirteen icons of horse racing, I looked at win-loss records. Whirlaway had the most starts, 60, while Justify had the fewest, six. If one considers their records in terms of starts versus top three finishes, all of the Triple Crown winners except three have a better than 90% record of finishing in the top three in their lifetime starts. Only Sir Barton, Omaha, and Assault were under 90%. Justify has the lone perfect record of six wins in six starts, but Count Fleet finished in the money in all of his twenty-one starts. Because the vast majority of Triple Crown winners had such consistent records of in-the-money finishes, this criteria makes ranking them even more difficult. How can one compare sixty starts with six, forty-five with eleven?
Conclusion: The Pioneer
I realize that these statistics are a mere fraction of the data one could consider when comparing these thirteen elite horses. I did not look at the number of starters in each Triple Crown race or the other champion or stakes-winning horses that each faced. Sure, I could leave you with my own personal list based on the criteria that I feel best defines each of these horses. However, I answered that question of where Sir Barton ranks among the other Triple Crown winners with this: he may not have been the best of them, but he was the first, the reason for this book. He pioneered the chase for the crown, opening the doors for all of these champions that followed him to race their way into our collective esteem.
Who is your favorite Triple Crown winner? How do you rank these thirteen champions?
One More Thing…
While I have you here, will you help me? Sir Barton’s birthday is April 26th and I thought it would be a great way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his Triple Crown by placing a large, triple-crown-shaped flower arrangement for his grave in Douglas, Wyoming. We are so close to our goal! Any amount you would like to pitch in will be greatly appreciated!