A Writer’s Ode

drffrontpageoldI first stepped onto a racetrack at age 12, thanks to my aunt Betty indulging my burgeoning interest in the sport with a trip to the Birmingham Race Course. I don’t remember much about that trip — outside of the grizzled old gamblers who thought I was some sort of betting prodigy — but I do remember the Daily Racing Forms scattered throughout the track, as ubiquitous as the discarded losing tickets. Every visit to the racetrack means a trip to the newsstand to grab the Form and consult its pages before I hand over my money for any bet, whether it’s the Preakness or the third race on a weekday at Keeneland. So, today, on the 123rd birthday of the Form, I wanted to explore the impact of this historic publication and the institution that has endeavored to preserve it.

Four years ago, the Sir Barton Project started as an idea that led to a search that then turned into the hubris necessary to think that one is the right person to take that idea to fruition. From high school to college to graduate school, I learned how to research topics of all kinds, from high literary questions to the mundane inquiries about daily tasks. When I undertook the challenging task of bringing Sir Barton’s complete story to print, I knew that the place I needed to go to find his story and to bring its scattered pieces together lay in one place: Kentucky. More specifically, the Keeneland Library and the Daily Racing Form archive.

splash_projects_equestrian_keeneland_libraryI have spent many hours in the stacks at Keeneland, wanting to break into song at the richness of their collections. How many times have I heard “Have you been to the Keeneland Library?” as I inquire with other places about resources I’m trying to find? The Library is the first place and the best place to go whenever I need an article, a photograph, or a hard-to-find book.

Keeneland Library interiorIn addition, the Library gave writers and researchers the most thorough collection of the essential publication for racing across history, the Daily Racing Form archive. My time on the DRF archive, searching through form charts, workout reports, and articles for horses from Sir Barton to Man o’ War to War Cloud, would probably total in years at this point. This book about Sir Barton came to be because I was able to trace the milestones of his career from the first mentions of him as a yearling up to his death in 1937 and beyond. The efforts of Becky Ryder and every person who worked on this archive have been essential to projects like mine. I cannot thank them for this resource enough.

DRFlogoHappy Birthday to you, Daily Racing Form, first published on this day in 1894! Thank you for bringing racing to your readers day after day for 123 years. You hold the history of racing within your pages each day, preserving it for generations of racing fans. Many thanks to the Keeneland Library as well for making the DRF‘s past available to the present and future of thoroughbred racing.

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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.

 

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.

The Big Three Face Off — Again

2017_TraversThis Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing, and Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit will square off in the mile-and-a-quarter Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Thirty-five years earlier, in 1982, the three classic winners — Gato Del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler, and Conquistador Cielo — all met in the Travers as well, but Runaway Groom, winner of the Prince of Wales Stakes in Canada, surprised them all in the stretch to win. In 1918, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont winners all faced off in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, also with a surprising result.

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Exterminator on the rail, with Sun Briar on the outside.

Early on in 1918, Sun Briar had been one of the leading two-year-olds from the previous year looking to dominate again in his three-year-old season. Along with War Cloud, he was one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby, but an injury that spring meant that trainer Henry McDaniel would not have the colt ready for the Run for the Roses. Owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer was in danger of going without a Derby horse until he picked up the gangly gelding Exterminator in the weeks leading up to the race. Exterminator surprised everyone by winning the Kentucky Derby. Now Kilmer had two great horses in his barn: Exterminator and Sun Briar, but the owner still preferred his bay champion over the chestnut newcomer.

Continue reading “The Big Three Face Off — Again”

Great Expectations

Last year, I stood in the hot August sun holding my phone, looking puzzled at the conversation I was having with my husband.

“Who won the Travers?” I asked him over chat.

“Arrogate.” He replied.

“Who?” I asked.

After watching the 2016 Triple Crown season, from preps to the Travers, I thought I knew every three-year-old out there. Having been a Nyquist fan to that point, I reluctantly had picked Exaggerator to win after his win in the Haskell. After watching Arrogate’s speedy triumph later, I was more than happy to be wrong about my pick.

I rooted for Arrogate against California Chrome in the Breeder’s Cup Classic even though I had been a Chromie since his Kentucky Derby win in 2014. I rooted for Arrogate again in the Pegasus World Cup. I cried when Arrogate valiantly moved like a comet around the crowded field of horses to win the Dubai World Cup.

I’m an Arrogater through and through.

Before the San Diego Handicap, though, I had felt a twinge of doubt in my gut. What if? What if? ran through my mind as I read bedtime stories to my sons, anticipating watching the race after both were safely ensconced in their beds. As my phone blew up with tweets and comments, I knew that twinge had grown into a storm that was raining on my Facebook feed.

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Arrogate struggles in fourth behind Accelerate, the winner of the San Diego Handicap.

“What did I just see?” “Did that just happen?” “What’s wrong with Arrogate?”

The way he had struggled home behind the aptly named Accelerate, the only horse to that point that had finished in front of Arrogate in all of his starts since his late start on the track in 2016, felt like a punch to the gut. After all, despite my years of watching horses run and studying the ups and downs on countless horses over the last 100 years, I’m still a fan and this horse had captured my heart in a way that few had.

As Baffert and the rest of us tried to understand Arrogate’s performance, I felt like I had seen a moment like this before. Horses lose: Man o’War, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Songbird, etc. They aren’t machines, but animals and, like their human handlers, they have bad days too. Yet, when a horse is the class of one like Arrogate or Man o’War or Secretariat or California Chrome, losing a race is a different animal altogether. When had I seen a moment like this one, where a super-sized favorite barely seems to show up? Sir Barton had his own moment like this and its repercussions reverberated beyond the race itself.

November 5, 1919, the Autumn Handicap at Pimlico.

Continue reading “Great Expectations”

We Have a Home!

UPK logoThat’s right! My first book, tentatively titled First: Sir Barton and the Birth of the American Triple Crown (also known as The Sir Barton Project), now has a home with The University Press of Kentucky. You will be able to find the book at your local bookstore and online in Spring 2019. In the meantime, I will be sharing more moments from Sir Barton’s career here as well as more details about the book itself as we get closer to the publication date.

You can also find me here at my author page on Facebook and on Twitter. I look forward to bringing you Sir Barton’s story in full in 2019.

A Seed of Doubt

americanpharoah

Two years ago, American Pharaoh came into the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on an eight-race win streak, including the first Triple Crown in thirty-seven years. He had made his first post-Triple Crown start in the Haskell Invitational, where he had sailed to a two-and-a-quarter length win, showing that same easy running style familiar to race fans. He was the 1-5 favorite for the Travers and, despite shipping in from California at nearly the last minute, the victory seemed well in hand.

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Keen Ice passes American Pharoah in the stretch of the 2015 Travers Stakes. (SI.com)

That is, until that last quarter of a mile, when American Pharoah’s dominance gave way to the stalking trip of Keen Ice, who managed to pass the Triple Crown winner as the field flew toward the wire. For American Pharoah, it was his first loss since his two-year-old season. For race fans, it was a clear disappointment that made even owner Ahmed Zayat ponder retirement rather than let his horse risk another loss in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, their next intended target. The Graveyard of Champions had claimed another victim.

American Pharaoh, of course, went on to win the Classic, completing the Grand Slam. He was voted the best three-year-old of 2015 and the Horse of the Year. That one loss in the Travers, which came as a result of the Triple Crown winner trying to overcome the pressure of a speedy Frosted, never cast doubt on whether or not the son of Pioneerof the Nile was the best horse in America that year. It would be unimaginable to think that AP wasn’t the best of his age and the best of all ages that year, right? Surely, winning the Triple Crown at least would net a horse those sorts of honors?

The_Edwardsville_Intelligencer_Sat__Jul_5__1919_Nearly a hundred years ago, on July 10th, 1919, as Sir Barton returned to the track after his four-win streak that included our first Triple Crown, the three-year-old champion honors seemed to be his, no question. The win streak in itself was amazing; the way he did it, dominating each field in different ways, should have sealed it for him. Nearly a month after his romp in the Belmont Stakes, Commander Ross and H.G. Bedwell decided the Triple Crown winner would start in the Dwyer Stakes, a mile-and-an-eighth race named for the Dwyer Brothers, the New York brothers who owned a dominant racing stable in the late 19th century. Only two other horses met the Triple Crown winner at the barrier: Crystal Ford, a fair racer that was getting an eighteen-pound break from Sir Barton; and Purchase, who had missed the spring classics with an injury but had reeled off a series of wins in June. Purchase, despite his recent record, also got a weight break from Sir Barton, carrying fewer nine pounds at 118 pounds. Sir Barton’s 127 pounds was not a new impost for him and he had previously given weight to other horses and still dominated. The same level of expectation that followed American Pharoah into the Travers followed Sir Barton out onto the Aqueduct oval for the Dwyer.

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Purchase, with Earl Sande up. (The Jockey Club)

Sir Barton and his two competitors trotted out toward the barrier, lithe feet dancing through the sloppy dirt beneath them. Johnny Loftus had his usual seat on Sir Barton, the Dwyer his first race of the day. Willie Knapp, the jockey destined to beat Loftus on another legendary horse in August, had the mount on Purchase. Purchase stood on the rail in the first post, Sir Barton on the outside and Crystal Ford in between them. Knapp’s position on the rail would have clued him into the condition of the track there. He would have seen the way that the intermittent rain drained off the Aqueduct track, making the going at the rail deeper. It was that soft going that assured Commander Ross that starting Sir Barton on this particular day was a good idea.

He was wrong.

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Sir Barton

The Triple Crown winner had bruised himself in a workout the week before the Dwyer, forcing Bedwell to lay off training for a few days while he gave the colt time to heal. The morning of the Dwyer, Sir Barton appeared recovered from his mishap and Ross opted to send his ascendant colt to the post with a fresher and injury-free Purchase. At the start, the Triple Crown winner took his usual position as front-runner, with Crystal Ford and Purchase a couple of lengths behind him. As the field rounded that last turn, Knapp took Purchase behind Crystal Ford and then went around that colt, setting his sights on Sir Barton, still running on the front. Loftus, sensing that Knapp was making a run at them, urged his mount on, but Purchase and Knapp gained ground and then passed them in that final furlong. As he flashed under the wire, Purchase had beaten the Triple Crown winner by three lengths, stunning the Aqueduct crowd. Commander Ross lamented the loss, seeing now that the colt still wasn’t back to his previous form.

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Sir Barton winning at Saratoga.

Ross’s go-fever cost Sir Barton the stranglehold he had had on the three-year-old championship. Rather than enjoying a rest from his record-breaking spring campaign, the Triple Crown winner and his connections endured a summer of doubt, watching Purchase continue to turn in impressive performances on the track while Sir Barton stood idle in recovery. By the time Sir Barton returned to the track in the fall, Purchase was on the shelf himself after an injury had sidelined the upstart challenger before the two could meet again. At 1919’s end, Sir Barton’s fall campaign seemed to cinch the three-year-old championship, but the doubts about who was the best of the year lingered in 1920.

The rematch so many had been spoiling for never happened. Purchase returned to racing in 1921; Sir Barton retired that same year, standing stud at Audley Farm in Virginia after Commander Ross sold him to the Jones brothers. Sir Barton was recognized as the first Triple Crown winner, the three-year-old champion, and Horse of the Year many years later. The Dwyer was not his only loss for the year, but, in 1919, it was enough to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of fans and writers and inspire the same endless debates that we all engage in with our own contemporary favorites.

Four Years

MeProfileJourneys start with a step. Sometimes, you don’t realize you’re on them until a moment lights up your life, illuminating the scene so you finally can see it all clearly. I didn’t know I was on this journey until I got an email that showed me this path. That was four years ago today. Happy Birthday to The Sir Barton Project! 

My name is Jennifer Kelly, the author of this blog and First: Sir Barton and the Birth of the American Triple Crown (tentative title). I hope to bring you big news about what’s next for Sir Barton in the coming days. For now, I am glad for unexpected journeys and for the many moments of clarity that have brought you and me here today.

 

The Last Leg

The_Courier_Journal_Thu__Jun_12__1919_.jpgFrom maiden to monarch in a month, Sir Barton arrived at the barrier for the Belmont Stakes in a roundabout way. Speculation held that he would ship to Latonia for the Latonia Derby, but factors outside the control of both owner J.K.L. Ross and trainer H.G. Bedwell kept the Derby and Preakness winner in Gotham. So, on the last day of Belmont’s meet, the chestnut son of Star Shoot and Lady Sterling strode out onto the track with only two other challengers as the morning-line favorite to make history, unbeknownst to any of the 25,000 people present.

For his connections, the Belmont’s $11,950 was another rich purse to contend for, convenient because the stable was already in New York. For Sir Barton, it was his fourth start since May 10th and, given the number of horses that weren’t on the track with him, the race looked like his fourth win too. The large purse was a sign of progress for racing; the anti-gambling legislation that had shuttered the sport in New York for two years was fading into memory as big purses attracted big horses once more. The Belmont Stakes’ distance, a mile and three-eighths, made it one of a fast-fading number of long-distance races and a test of the colt’s ability to carry his speed over that much ground. He had done that in Louisville, but could he do it here, over this S-shaped route? Like most of the horses competing in the Belmont this weekend, this would be the longest race Sir Barton would ever run, earning the moniker “The Test of the Champion” that it has now.

SBDerbyWinnerThe crowd thronged Sir Barton and his connections in the paddock, craning to get a glimpse at the horse that had dominated in Louisville and Baltimore, winning an unprecedented double that had already made an impression. The colt was calm throughout, with only the call to the post sending him dancing with anticipation. At the barrier, he stood on the rail, Natural Bridge and Sweep On to his right, both earning their footnote in history as his only competition. When the barrier flew up, Sir Barton jumped into the lead, ready to run only to have his energy reined in by jockey Johnny Loftus. They sat a couple of lengths back of Natural Bridge for the better part of the race, Sweep On bringing up the rear. Entering the stretch, Loftus relented on the reins and Sir Barton took off, swallowing ground like a thirsty man in a desert as he caught up to and then passed Natural Bridge within a furlong. Once they were a couple of lengths in the clear, Loftus reined his mount in once more, Sir Barton still full of run but listening to the capable hands of the man who had been with him throughout this miracle run.

SirBartonHeadHe finished the mile and three-eighths in 2.17 2/5, a new American record. His performance made his supposedly high-class competition look like the commonest of platers as he beat them both with such ease that encomiums like ‘horse of the decade’ showered down on him from the throng of people present. In the winner’s circle, Ross shook hands with Loftus and playfully patted Sir Barton, accepting the silver plate that served as the Belmont trophy with overflowing joy. With that victory, Sir Barton had completed the first American Triple Crown, though it would be nearly another two decades before that accomplishment had its name and place in the pantheon of racing in America.

2017BelmontStakesAs we look at the ever-evolving picture of the 149th Belmont Stakes, a look back at the 51st running, the first that resulted in the very thing that so many racing fans look forward to each year, shows how little has changed about the phenomenon of racing. On Saturday, these good three-year-olds will take The Test of the Champion and one will emerge victorious. While Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing might be absent, a win in the Belmont is still an achievement to brag about: Triple Crown Classic winner at a mile and a half. Whoever finishes first, in the end, can etch their name in history alongside Sir Barton as winner of the Belmont Stakes.