One Hundred Years Ago, a Defeat

Eternal had had enough of Sir Barton. As the day of the mile-and-an-eighth Dwyer bloomed gloomy with the summer rain, Kimball Patterson, the colt’s trainer, took the weather as a sign that perhaps it was time to say when. Eternal had faced Sir Barton three times in 1919 and all three times the son of Star Shoot had gotten the better of the juvenile co-champion of 1918. Sir Barton was simply the better of the two now.

SirBarton-Johnny_Loftus-1919PreaknessAlmost a month after his Belmont Stakes victory, Sir Barton was still a perfect four-for-four in 1919. After reeling off all of his victories in only 32 days, the winner of what we now know as the first Triple Crown had had a break, but now was ready to face the barrier for the Dwyer, Commander Ross eager to add another laurel to his champion’s resumé. The rain had driven all but two other horses from facing Sir Barton on July 10, 1919. Crystal Ford was clearly out of his element, but, hey, with only three horses in the field, the colt was bound to win some money. The show, though, belonged to Sir Barton and Purchase, two colts on hot streaks that begged for something extraordinary to happen.

Cook 220 - 1919 Willie Knapp on Purchase at SaratogaAfter being one of 1918’s most promising juveniles, Purchase had missed the spring classics after getting his leg caught in his hayrack in late April. His owner/trainer Sam Hildreth had planned to run the colt earlier in the spring, but that injury had kept him off the track until early June. When he did return to the races, Purchase reeled off three victories in four starts, his only defeat coming at the hands of Eternal in the Brooklyn Handicap. Despite four starts in four weeks, Purchase seemed ready to run in the Dwyer, the beneficiary of a nine-pound break in weights from Sir Barton.

At the Aqueduct barrier, Purchase stood on the rail with Crystal Ford and then Sir Barton to his right. The sloppy track made the outer lanes better for running so jockey Johnny Loftus kept Sir Barton for the first mile, with Crystal Ford running a length or so behind him and then Purchase bringing up the rear. Fractious at the start, Purchase had gotten away slowly, with Sir Barton already a couple of lengths ahead of him, but, once he found his stride, jockey Willie Knapp sat patiently waiting for the stretch. Once there, as Sir Barton pulled away from Crystal Ford, Knapp gave Purchase some rein and the colt took off, the Triple Crown winner in his sights. Sir Barton seemed to resist Loftus’s urging for more, sulking after another barrage of the whip. Purchase drew away to win by three lengths, with Sir Barton straggling home ahead of the outclassed Crystal Ford.

After such a stellar spring, the defeat in the Dwyer had a deleterious effect on Sir Barton’s reputation. Whereas Man o’ War’s defeat in the Sanford a month later would be almost heroic, the Dwyer left Sir Barton fans deflated. A bruised hoof and a tough spring campaign had left the son of Star Shoot short of the form that had made him a star, but trainer H.G. Bedwell wanted Sir Barton on the lead so Loftus had to use the whip early in the race to drive the colt to the front. Giving Purchase nine pounds on top of it meant that Sir Barton had to work harder than he had in previous starts to get as close to victory as he had. On top of the weight and the questions about his form, Sir Barton had also lost a shoe in the running of the Dwyer, another challenge he had had to overcome in the course of the nine furlongs.

With that defeat, Sir Barton went on the shelf, a necessary vacation after a hard spring campaign. Purchase moved on to Saratoga, carrying his new status as a contender for best three-year-old of 1919 into victories against horses like Exterminator at the Spa. Calls for Sir Barton to meet Purchase at the barrier again to decide the three-year-old championship went unanswered: an injury in October 1919 meant that the two would not race against each other again that year. Eventually, Sir Barton’s fall campaign would earn him the title of the year’s best three-year-old.

One hundred years ago today, Sir Barton suffered his first defeat after his pioneering Triple Crown victory. Contrasting the reaction to his defeat with that of Man o’ War’s defeat in the Sanford is an interesting portrait of how reputation can affect perception with long-term historical effects. Find more in Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, available from the University Press of Kentucky.

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