From 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.
The 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.
He 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.
As 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.
He was born John Patrick Loftus in Chicago, Illinois, the son of parents who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. His father was an engineer; his mother birthed five sons: John, Martin, David, Frank, and Robert. Nothing in his background made horses a clear choice for young Johnny, but, nevertheless, he gravitated toward the racing life and made it his own.
When Johnny came of age, he was attracted to horses just as the racetracks around him closed, felled by the movement against gambling in the United States. Unscrupulous gamblers and the resultant scandals led to a wave of anti-gambling legislation in the United States. By the time young Johnny Loftus rode in his first race in 1909, the racing world within the vast expanse of American soil was shrinking down to just Kentucky and Maryland, with limited racing in far-flung corners like Jacksonville, Florida, where young Mr. Loftus rode his first race. He finished last.
Not an auspicious start to his career, but the young Loftus was determined to make a go of it. He loved horses, inhaled them even, content to sleep in their stalls and learn everything he could about them. Horses responded to him; he learned to become a master of pace, knowing how fast the horses around him were going and judging when to move his own mount in response. The skills he acquired in his years of traveling from place to place in search of mounts netted him wins in prestigious races like the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Travers Stakes, and more. He rode the big name horses of the day: Exterminator, Regret, War Cloud, and more.
His biggest problem wasn’t getting the mounts, though; it was his physique. Loftus teetered on the brink of unemployment with every pound. His powerful legs might have helped him balance on the brief width of leather beneath him, but those muscles were also weight that he couldn’t shed. Johnny tried to ride at 110 pounds or less; often, he couldn’t manage to get below 112. A brief stint in Europe and the heavier weights horses carried there gave him some respite from the struggle, but, when he returned to the United States, the fight was on again. He could never escape the ravages of weight, but it wouldn’t stop his ascendency either. Johnny Loftus was one of the elite riders of his day, and, as a master of pace; his services would be needed for one Commander JKL Ross to win the 1919 Kentucky Derby and his bet with Arnold Rothstein.
The 1919 Kentucky Derby showed just how tough a fight it was for Loftus to maintain his weight. Sir Barton was assigned 110 pounds, the beneficiary of a twelve-pound break in weight because of his maiden status. His jockey Johnny had a body that rebelled against such light imposts; Sir Barton carried 112.5 pounds because Loftus’s physique, already haggard and sunken from the battles with weight, refused to shed the difference. The extra weight meant little to Commander Ross; Loftus was still one of the best jockeys in the country. He piloted Sir Barton exactly as planned, sending the speedy colt to the front with unexpected results: rather than burning off the speed horses and giving way to his stablemate Billy Kelly, Sir Barton won a wire-to-wire Kentucky Derby in the slop. The Derby winner’s circle photo shows Loftus looking lean and hungry, unable to crack a smile despite the fact that he had just won his second Kentucky Derby. That struggle with weight might mean that Loftus would ride a pound or so overweight, but his skills and record were such that it never seemed to matter to his employers. Johnny had more than his fair share of winners, with 580 winners from 2,449 mounts in his ten-year career.
In his career, Loftus won most of the major American stakes races, including the classics and, of course, the first Triple Crown. He rode Man O’War, Sir Barton, War Cloud, Regret, and many more top horses of that era. The first part of the twentieth century was a time when jockeys had no union and operated with contracts that could be bought and sold like the horses they rode, but Loftus was among the elite, riding for the top owners of the day, including A.K. Macomber, Commander JKL Ross, H.P. Whitney, and Samuel Riddle. For all of the laurels he collected, though, he has the misfortune of one black mark on his record: the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes.
One of the first skills that jockeys in this era had to learn was how to balance the plethora of sensory inputs that were the starting barrier for any race. Long before the starting gate became a reality, horses stood in front of a stretched white fabric webbing before them which marked the starting line. On a stand on the other side of the rail was the starter, a man whose goal was to get all of the horses standing still and facing forward in line at the same time and then releasing them. Assistant starters, usually strapping men with horse whips, stood behind them, helping to get anyone unruly into line. Jockeys needed to have their own mounts in position while also watching for the starter to pull the lever and spring the barrier to start the race and do all of this with any number of other horses and jockeys trying to do the same thing. Kicks and shouts and false starts were all trials to be borne for the chance at the perfect start. Loftus mastered this skill as did many of the era’s greatest jockeys, all angling for the flying start that would catch their mounts already in stride as the barrier gave way to the action.
August 13, 1919 saw Saratoga without their usual starter, Mars Cassidy. Loftus was well aware of Cassidy’s tells, but was not at all familiar with his replacement Charles Pettingill. Pettingill, who had once been a starter before becoming a judge, was known for the seeming inability to do his job; a number of the races on the Saratoga card that day had terrible starts, with Pettingill unable to keep things tidy and orderly. Then came the Sanford Memorial Stakes.
Laden with 130 pounds, Man O’War was one of the high weights in the race, Golden Broom the other, also with 130 pounds. Loftus’s instructions were to let Golden Broom set the pace and then to move when he tired, rather than running on the front. The race was only six furlongs with every other horse massive underdogs next to the strapping Big Red. All Johnny had to do was avoid trouble and surely this start would end as all of the others would, with Red coming home first. Pettingill’s inability to get the horses at the start under control meant that Loftus, trying to get Man O’War back into position for a fresh start, wasn’t ready for the lever’s fall. The field got a jump on him and the greatest horse of the 20th century was nearly left at the post.
Doing his best to follow instructions, Johnny kept his mount behind the front runners, but soon realized that he was boxed in. Upset kept Golden Broom close to the rail, preventing him from squeezing through when the latter might bear out on the turn. Next to him was Donnaconna, just back on his flank. If he took Man O’War to the outside, going around all of this horseflesh, he would expend quite a bit of energy, that 130 pounds telling on any mortal body. If they stayed where they were, they would have to wait for an opportunity or create it. Loftus tried to create it, shouting for room to come through. Neither Golden Broom nor Upset gave way. The box was closing quickly as the ground between them and the finish line grew smaller and smaller.
Finally, Golden Broom gave way, the 130-pound impost too much. He fell back, leaving only one horse in front, and finally Loftus was able to swing Big Red to the outside. With only a furlong left, Loftus unleashed Man O’War, urging him to make up ground. Willie Knapp, Upset’s jockey, did the same on his mount and, though the gap between the two was starting to close, the bare furlong turned in mere yards and then only feet for Man O’War to close the gap and then eclipse Upset. But Upset carried only 115 pounds to Man O’War’s 130 pounds, enough to make a difference. The crazy start plus the rough trip meant that despite every inch of the twenty-eight-foot stride that Man O’War possessed was not enough to catch the elusive Upset. They crossed the finish line, with the aptly named Upset a bare half-length in front. In the next couple of strides, Man O’War had caught the upstart, but it was too little too late.
It would be Man O’War’s only loss. It would contribute to Loftus’s undoing.
Despite going on to win three more starts on Man O’War that year, Johnny’s legacy became forever tied to the misfortunes that resulted in Big Red’s only loss. He mysteriously lost his jockey’s license the following year and was never able to regain it; he applied for a trainer’s license, though, and was granted that immediately. He stayed in the game as long as he could, training stakes winners for prominent owners, but, when he had a streak of bad luck, he gave up the racing game for something far calmer and less risky: carpentry. He died in 1976, far away from the bugle’s call and the tiny square of leather that had been his office for so long.
In the end, John Patrick Loftus was remembered less for the classics he won and the Triple Crown he helped to pioneer and more for the bad start and even worse racing luck that plagued Man O’War on that fateful day, the one black mark on Big Red’s career that haunted the jockey, not the horse, for years to come.
His name was Johnny, an Irish boy who rode horses and became one of the era’s best and brightest jockeys. He was one of the First, the right pilot for the right horse at the moment when history was made.
Many great & glorious thanks to Dorothy Ours & her book on Man O’War for giving me inspiration as well as serving as a wonderful source on Johnny Loftus & many other topics.
On October 12, 1920, about 3.37 pm, two horses stood at the barrier on Kenilworth Park’s dirt oval. The largest crowd ever to grace the stands watched as the two took to the track, one clad in Ross orange and black and the other in the yellow and black of Samuel Riddle, each known as the best of his class. As they lined up by the starter, one towering over the other, their riders took their positions, gripping the leather reins and waiting for this particular job to begin.
The match race itself had come together rather quickly, a response to the drumbeat of desire that threatened to drown out everything else in thoroughbred racing that fall. Man O’War had conquered all comers to that point, save for a slight blip on the map named Upset, but his owner’s caution had left one question still to be answered: how would Big Red fare amongst older horses? When Willis Sharpe Kilmer dropped his Exterminator out of the mix, Sir Barton became the symbol of the best that the older class had to offer: record setter under heavy weights, Triple Crown winner, the star of the Ross Stable. For the champion, though, the one who had done what Man O’War hadn’t, 1920 had been a hard campaign, with eight starts, three in August alone, after thirteen in 1919. Sure, Man O’War had had ten starts in 1920, but he didn’t have the shelly hooves that plagued Sir Barton. The track at Kenilworth was hard and fast, thanks to Abe Orpen’s hope for a speed duel. For Sir Barton, the solid surface and the residual soreness of a long campaign brought on lingering questions about soundness, but no one in the Ross camp was going to give their hand away. Kenilworth, though, had taken on a dour air as a result. As J.K.M. Ross laments in Boots and Saddles, this was “a battleground for greatness and a breeding ground for disappointment and distortion” (207).
With his obvious advantages in height and muscle, it was clear how tremendous Man O’War was next to Sir Barton. While the Triple Crown winner was not the largest horse, he clearly showed why he had been so good on the track versus so many of the era’s best horses. Standing there at the barrier, though, Sir Barton looked like a common plater next to Man O’War. The race was nearly a foregone conclusion, but Ross’s sense of sportsmanship wouldn’t allow him to withdraw from the contest. In the end, Man O’War’s conquering of his competition only intensified the ascendency of his star. For Sir Barton, though, it might have been the contributing factor to his slow fade into near obscurity.
Ninety-six years ago today, the Kenilworth Gold Cup was the match race that turned out to be no match at all. For Man O’War, the race resulted drinking champagne from the race’s gold trophy and retiring to stud to make an indelible and lasting mark on the pedigree of all thoroughbreds racing today. For Sir Barton, it was the end. He ran two more times, but his soundness and heart weren’t up to the task. He went quietly to stud and then, because of death and circumstance, to the Wild West, resting for all time in rural Wyoming.
But he left his mark loudly even if he went off quietly into the night. It’s in the walls of noise at Churchill Downs and Pimlico and Belmont in the spring. It’s in the vaunted places of horses like Citation, Secretariat, Affirmed, and now American Pharoah in the pantheon of thoroughbred racing. He may not have been a behemoth on the track, but his achievement on those spring days in 1919 has become the yardstick by which we measure all horses to this day.
Yesterday, Winstar Farms announced that 2016 Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator (Curlin-Dawn Raid, by Vindication) was retiring from active racing to stand at Winstar. The colt retires with six wins in fifteen starts, including the Santa Anita Derby and the Haskell Invitational, and a number of finishes in the money, including finishing second in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. He joins Belmont Stakes winner Creator (Tapit-Morea, by Privately Held), who was sold to breeding interests in Japan and retired from racing to stand there, much like Sunday Silence and I’ll Have Another.
Today, classic winners like Exaggerator, Creator, and others who retire at three years old go that route because their genetics prove to be more valuable long term than their prowess on the track might. For Sir Barton, though, in 1919, the expectations were a bit different. Since the Triple Crown as we know it did not exist yet, though Sir Barton had conquered it just a few weeks before, his stock at stud wasn’t yet proven. In the Golden Age of racing, this early part of the 20th century, a horse made his reputation through speed and weight, i.e., handicaps. Ross and company turned their attention to running Sir Barton and his stablemate Billy Kelly in the day’s most famous races, handicaps like the Potomac Handicap at Havre de Grace.
The Potomac’s field was small: only five horses, three of which were from Ross’s own stable. Sir Barton was assigned 132 pounds, giving weight to them all of his competitors — even Billy Kelly, his accomplished stablemate — anywhere from seven to thirty-two pounds. This start was only two days after his previous effort in the Hip Hip Hooray Purse, a timeline that is almost unheard of today.
None of it mattered. He started from the outside post and jumped out to a flying start, taking the lead immediately. The others never threatened him, jockeying for position behind him, but still a length and more back of Sir Barton. The Triple Crown winner took home $6,900 for his efforts, adding to the rich purses he had already won in 1919.
The Potomac would not be Sir Barton’s last start for 1919; he had six more to go in his three-year-old season. Toward the end of the year, Commander J.K.L. Ross contemplated retiring his big-money horse, the unexpected star of his stable, but Sir Barton would go on to run one more season before retiring to stud. For horses like Exaggerator and Creator today, though, we bid them both ‘Adieu’ before they even see the end of their three-year-old season. Thanks to Sir Barton and the tradition of the Triple Crown that started with his win in 1919, those two colts and their status as classic winners means that the potential inherent in their genetics is now far more valuable than the money they would bring home on the track.
The term ‘Triple Crown’ was coined in the decade after Sir Barton’s springtime domination of the classics, which, at the time, had yet to solidify their reputation as such. Though War Cloud completed the triple first, showing that making the trip from Louisville to Baltimore to New York was worth the trouble, the money that Sir Barton amassed in purses in his pursuit of the first Triple Crown is really what set the stage for the classics and the Triple Crown to become the gold standard for thoroughbreds. The chestnut son of Star Shoot* completed the triple in only 32 days — throwing in the Withers in between — a schedule that no trainer today would dream of following. By the time he got to the one-mile Dwyer in early July, Sir Barton was sore and tired and his performance in that race showed it. He earned a much-deserved long layoff, until September 11th, 1919, when he ran in the Hip Hip Hooray Purse.
When American Pharoah came back from his Triple Crown triumph in 2015, his owners chose the Haskell Invitational, another mile-and-a-quarter race, for his return after eight weeks off. In all honesty, American Pharoah could have retired the moment he crossed the finish line at Belmont and no one would have batted an eye, such is the rarity of the accomplishment. AP had two more starts after the Haskell in 2015, the Travers Stakes and then Breeders Cup Classic, where he completed the first-ever Grand Slam. After he walked out of the winner’s circle at Keeneland, American Pharoah took his place at Coolmore Ashford Stud and hasn’t been under saddle since. For Sir Barton, though, it was a different time, where the Triple Crown wasn’t a thing yet and horses ran well into their fourth and fifth years and even beyond. He would run eight more times after the Dwyer in 1919, the first of those being the Hip Hip Hooray purse.
His performance showed that he needed a race to round him back into shape. Sir Barton took the lead at the race’s start, but faded by the end of the six-furlong dash, holding on to finish second behind his stablemate Billy Kelly. Both of them gave weight to their competition, 15 to 18 pounds, and both outlasted the others, but the eight-week layoff showed in Sir Barton’s performance. Two days later, though, he would be back on the track for the Potomac Handicap, also at Havre de Grace.
It’s not hard to think of the run for the classics as this statement about the noble pursuit of one’s best potential, a celebration of the right horse with the right jockey and trainer and owner and breeder. The intrinsic value of the attempt and the catharsis of losing or the exuberance of winning seem to be the very thing that brings us back to the Triple Crown races year after year. As the lovers of the thoroughbred, we seek the high regardless of the lows.
The Triple Crown as we know had its origins not necessarily in the noble, but in something far more practical and cynical: money. That’s right: War Cloud opened the door and Sir Barton kicked it open not for the mere doing of the thing, but because of the paychecks that came with it.
From the first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in 1919 to the second Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in 1930, the number of horses going for the triple increased as did the purses that they came with:
By the time Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown in 1930, each race’s purse was the equivalent of $1 million in 2016 dollars, tripling and even quadrupling the purses War Cloud (1918) ran for in some cases. So, while I do enjoy the romantic notion of the pursuit of the Triple Crown as this thing that is the ultimate accomplishment in the Sport of Kings, I know that at the heart of the whole thing, at least to start, was, quite simply, money.
(By the way, the 2016 Kentucky Derby purse will be a minimum of $2 million, the Preakness a minimum of $1.5 million, and the Belmont a minimum of $1.5 million.)
*The Preakness Stakes was run in two divisions in 1918; War Cloud won one division and Jack Hare, Jr. the other.