One Hundred Years Ago, a Triple Crown

JUNE 11, 1919

This Wednesday in New York dawned bright and warm, the almost-summer sun beating down on the regal space of Belmont Park. The trains brought in more and more people, to the point that the grounds swelled with 25,000 in attendance, twice the usual number of fans for mid-week at the track we know as Big Sandy. The first race went off at 2.44 pm, with a steeplechase and a stakes race to follow, but the throng wasn’t there for that. No, they had turned out for one race and one horse. The fourth race was the Belmont Stakes and the horse they all came to see was racing’s newest star, the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, Sir Barton.

Commander Ross was there, joined by his wife and his children, Hylda and Jim, and others to watch Ross’s newly minted champion compete against only two others in the Belmont. The crowd gathered around the Belmont paddock, under the track’s signature white pine, their eyes solely on the chestnut colt, his white blaze cascading down his lovely face, veering to the left over one nostril. Sir Barton was class personified, his sinewy muscle rippling with each step, his strong legs calling to mind the power and speed that he showed each time he galloped down a racetrack. The blaze was soon eclipsed by his customary blinkers while a tiny saddle was secured to his back. H.G. Bedwell boosted Johnny Loftus into place and they all looked forward, toward the bugle’s call and the task at hand. The masses watched the wonder horse in front of them, cognizant of greatness and yet unaware of the history they were all about to witness.

The three horses walked from that grand white pine toward the wide Belmont course, taking their place at the barrier. These were the days when Belmont Park ran its races clockwise rather than the customary counter-clockwise so they were close to where today’s fans would find the finish line. Mars Cassidy took his place in the starter’s stand, with Sir Barton on the rail, then Natural Bridge and Sweep On to his outside. Cassidy waited for the three to still and then up flew the barrier! Sir Barton was on his toes and ready, flying out to the lead before Loftus wrapped him up and allowed Natural Bridge to run on the lead. They continued like this for the first six furlongs of the race’s eleven, Natural Bridge a handful of lengths in front until they hit the stretch.

When Loftus gave Sir Barton some rein, the colt exulted at the freedom, striding away from Natural Bridge to take a three-length lead. Sweep On came on at the same time, but his attempt to challenge the chestnut colt was futile: no one was catching Sir Barton this day. His lead stretched out to five lengths in the blink of an eye, Loftus again taking up the reins. Even with that, Sir Barton hit the wire in American record time, 2:17 2/5. Loftus brought Sir Barton back around to the winner’s circle, greeted by vociferous cheers from that 25,000 that had turned out for the day’s racing. Commander Ross was exultant, thronged by the crowd of cries of “horse of the decade” and even more lavishly “horse of the century.” No word on the blanket of carnations, but Commander Ross did receive a lovely silver platter for Sir Barton’s Belmont victory.

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With that, Sir Barton had completed America’s first Triple Crown, though it would take at least four or five years before the moniker became attached to the accomplishment. The feat had to be done before the name could come; once others realized the value of those three races, the money and the prestige to be had with winning them, the Triple Crown began to take root in the consciousness of the sport. By 1930, William Woodward saw the value of those three races to the point where he sent both Gallant Fox after them in that year and then, five years later, Gallant Fox’s greatest son Omaha completed the third Triple Crown, the first to see that term used widely. War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), and then Citation (1948) would all add their names before the Thoroughbred Racing Associations officially recognized the Triple Crown in 1950 with a trophy they would eventually award to each of them, starting with Sir Barton. Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015), and Justify (2018) all have won the Triple Crown in the last fifty years.

Now, one hundred years later, the Triple Crown remains one of the most elusive and elite prizes in the sport of horse racing. Sir Barton’s pioneering victories forever altered the course of the sport, from how we breed thoroughbreds to how they are trained to how we schedule races in any given year. The Triple Crown is often the only part of racing that so many Americans see in a given year. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes all had achieved some level of renown in the sport before Sir Barton, but his wins and the subsequent coalescence of those three races into the Triple Crown elevated the prestige of all three to bucket-list level. A Triple Crown has become the goal of many a breeder, owner, trainer, jockey, and fan, a life-changing moment for anyone associated with the sport.

We owe all of this to a chestnut colt with English and American classic winners in his pedigree, a horse who stood out from birth as “the king of them all,” Sir Barton. Today, I hope you will raise a glass to the horse that started it all and celebrate with me.

If you want to read more about Sir Barton’s Triple Crown as well as his life and career beyond 1919, please pick up Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown from the University Press of Kentucky. Old Smoke also has a wonderful Sir Barton shirt to help you share your excitement about the 100th anniversary. 

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