In 1978, as Affirmed and Alydar sizzled down the stretch of the Belmont Stakes, I was a one-year-old toddler oblivious to the drama playing out between these two colts. It would be a decade before I would learn of their legendary battles amid the backdrop of racing’s most elite pursuit, the Triple Crown. To this day, I imagine that, like any rivalry, I would find fans who would be firmly on one side or the other. Affirmed or Alydar? The golden chestnut of Harbor View Farm & his owners Lou & Patricia Wolfson or the reddish-gold son of Raise a Native, the last great hope of the Markeys and the legendary Calumet Farm?
By early 1989, horse racing had dug itself deep into my heart, the sport destined to define my life in one way or another. At the tender age of twelve, I had been writing letters to institutions like the National Museum of Racing, seeking the information that my local libraries were woefully bereft of, and creating my own cast of characters that were pursuing the sport’s greatest heights in a handwritten novel housed in one of my old school notebooks. I was hooked and bereft of opportunities to share the enthusiasm for the upcoming Triple Crown campaign, but I didn’t let that stop me from being parked in front of the television each Saturday.
Over the last century, Man o’ War has dominated the lists of the best horses of the 20th century, claiming the imaginations and hearts of racing fans everywhere. His burnished red coat and distinctive blaze are well known to even the most casual of fan alongside tales of his titanic speed and overpowering wins. As a fan of Walter Farley, I read his novel about Man o’ War; falling in love with racing meant that I had heard those same stories of his dominance familiar to anyone who loves thoroughbreds. When I started working on Sir Barton’s story, I knew I would have to delve deeper into the careers of both my horse and his big red rival. One of the first books I picked up to research the match race and all that lead up to it was Dorothy Ours’s Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning. What I found in Ours’s book was more than a recounting of Man o’ War’s exploits: it was an exploration of the rich context that both created and benefitted from the champion that set the standard for every horse that followed in his wake.
From the first, this book sets up the stories of the people behind the moments that made Man o’ War. She opens with glimpses at Johnny Loftus, H.G. Bedwell, August Belmont, Louis Feustel, and Samuel Riddle, introducing you to these major players with context that helps you understand how small decisions play into big moments. Johnny Loftus’s honesty, steadfast in the face of unsavory influences, is part of his fame and fortune, but also contributes to his downfall. Ours’s anecdote from the first chapter pays off later in the book, when you see just how much it matters that Loftus was honest almost to a fault. Man o’ War’s story is not just the speed records and overwhelming dominance that he displayed under rider. It is also in these behind-the-scenes glimpses into the people who decided when and where he would run.
In the 1920 Lawrence Realization, Man o’ War set a world record for a mile and five-eighths, besting the old record by nearly two seconds. Owner Samuel Riddle had originally ordered that the colt would run freely only during that last quarter mile, but his wife Elizabeth persuaded her husband to let Man o’ War run as he wished throughout the entire thirteen furlongs so that the crowd could see what the colt truly could do. While Samuel Riddle might have been the face that people saw, his wife’s influence, brought to the fore by Ours’s storytelling, was as much of a force behind this great red racer as her husband.
Anecdotes and details like these are what makes Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning an essential read for any racing fan, whether you are new to the game or have loved racing for years. We all know the legend, but Ours gives you more than that. She gives you the rest, the moments and memories that made Man o’ War and his time so essential to the history of this sport. The richness she adds to his story is why I wanted to make this book the first one I would profile in my countdown to the publication of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. In addition to the fountain of information Ours’s work became for my book, it also provided an engrossing reading experience I have been happy to return to over and over.
In 1919, a colt named Sir Barton dazzled everyone with wins in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. This trio of victories changed the sport of horse racing in the United States forever, evolving into the Triple Crown, one of horse racing’s most elite accomplishments.
In 2019, horse racing will celebrate the 100th anniversary of his domination of the American classics, duplicated only twelve times since. From Gallant Fox to Citation, Secretariat to Justify, we will celebrate the pioneering horse whose accomplishment a century ago helped to make the horses that followed him household names.
In May 2019, Sir Barton’s story comes to a bookseller near you, told in full for the first time. From his royal pedigree to his unusual final resting place, learn about America’s first Triple Crown winner and his human connections, from his ambitious owner to his controversial trainer to the Hall of Fame jockeys that guided him to victory after victory. Follow Sir Barton and Man o’ War through their historic 1920 seasons, culminating in a match race in an unexpected place.
Here on the Sir Barton Project, I will count down to the release of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown with a weekly series of blog posts. Each month, I will profile a book on horse racing and its author, covering a variety of the sport’s iconic personalities. You will find more on Sir Barton and his era, posts that preview what you will find in the book. As a long-time horse racing fan, I will also share my own memories of the sport I love. As we await the 2019 Triple Crown season, please join me here each week in this run-up to the 100th anniversary of Sir Barton’s accomplishment.
Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown will be brought to you in May 2019 from the University Press of Kentucky.
Normally, I stick to linking the present with the past, finding all of the ways that Sir Barton has echoes in our time. News like this, though, necessitates that I take a break from bringing our history forward. For a moment, I have to revel in the joyous sadness of saying not “Goodbye,” but “See you later” to this champion.
See you soon, Justify (I hope!) and thanks for the memories! Have lots of babies and pass on your insane stamina and talent to generations to come.
Ninety-nine years ago, a chestnut colt with a wide white blaze whipped across the finish line at Belmont Park, followed by only two others. Johnny Loftus might have waved his whip in celebration as his mount galloped out, finally trotting over to the judge’s stand to raucous waves of applause from the crowd of 25,000 straining to see the new champion. As Sir Barton received pats of congrats, as Commander Ross stood in the winner’s circle to receive the Belmont’s silver platter, horse racing was forever changed.
First and foremost, I am a fan of horse racing and a few other sports, including tennis. I love the championship moment, that instant when it’s game, set, and match and the player collapses on the court in elation. I love Larry Collmus’s call of the 2015 Belmont Stakes, when, finally, American Pharoah was the ONE. I love those moments because, in an instant, life smiles on the player, the horse, the people who love them, and those watching it all play out. Those are moments that overshadow the dark ones in their lives and ours as well.
Those moments of triumph make getting up each morning and working toward a goal worth all of the hard work, the long hours, the absolute commitment. Today, we may see yet another of those moments. I have been around long enough to have seen my share of almosts: Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, I’ll Have Another, California Chrome. Finally, though, I saw greatness incarnate when AP wowed us at Big Sandy. I cried in elation for hours afterward. I hope today that I get to do the same, that we will see Justify echo what American Pharoah did three years ago and bring us all to another one of those moments, the kind that you remember where you were and what you were doing when it happened.
He has done the improbable so far: broken the curse of Apollo in a driving rain, won the Preakness on a swamp track, and now come to New York, to Belmont, on the precipice of immortality. All that stands between him and that elite fraternity is 12 furlongs and nine other horses. I hope that I will need to revise my manuscript to reflect the addition of another name to this pantheon of greatness.
Good luck, Justify! Good luck to you and Mike Smith and Bob Baffert and all of the smiling faces behind you! We can’t wait to see you fly!
(This blog post is the first in a series of four, profiling the first horse to traverse what we now know as the Triple Crown trail. In 1918, one horse started in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes for the first time, inspiring Sir Barton’s run in all three the following year.)
After dominating victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Sir Barton won the Belmont Stakes on June 11, 1919, sealing America’s first Triple Crown. Sir Barton was the first to win all three, but he was not the first to run in all three classics. That distinction belongs to War Cloud, a British-bred colt owned by adventurer and financier turned breeder and owner Abraham Kingsley (A. K.) Macomber. In 1918, War Cloud’s trip through what we now know as the Triple Crown trail was a pursuit fueled by money and prestige, a chase that caught the eye of the racing industry, including Commander Ross and H.G. Bedwell.
A Little History
Prior to War Cloud, only three horses – Vagabond (1876), Hindus (1900), and Norse King (1915) – had started in the Kentucky Derby and then shipped to Baltimore (or New York, in Hindus’ case) to run in the Preakness Stakes. The Preakness and Belmont Stakes count 27 horses that were starters in both prior to 1918, aided in part by the Preakness was run in the New York area between 1890 and 1908, once at Morris Park and then at Gravesend. Apart from the races’ inconsistent scheduling, the distances between each city made owners and trainers reluctant to ship their horses – until 1918.
Instead, the Triple Crown, this now-essential test of horses, came about because of two important elements: money and prestige. A.K. Macomber, already wealthy in his own right, may not have chased the money, but he did desire the prestige that came with running his horses in the sport’s most prestigious races. And, like Sir Barton’s owner Commander Ross, he was not afraid to use his considerable fortune to make his mark on the sport forever.
One hundred and two years ago, Lady Sterling dropped to the straw of the foaling stall she had been laboring in and, about two in the morning, delivered a beautiful chestnut colt, one of about a hundred born at Hamburg Place that year. The colt had a wide blaze that started high on his forehead, just under his ears, and cascaded down his lovely face, veering off over his left nostril. Half-brother to Sir Martin, the best two-year-old of 1908, the colt that would become Sir Barton was the son of Star Shoot, a descendant of an English Triple Crown winner, and Lady Sterling, a daughter of Hanover, 1887 Belmont Stakes winner. He was royally bred and, as he grew, his potential glowed.
Hamburg Place’s yearling breaker, Frank Brosche, singled him out from the beginning. When showing a visitor the yearlings at the farm in 1917, Brosche saved Sir Barton for last, calling him “the king of them all.” His breeder, John E. Madden, kept the colt in his racing stable, and, in 1918, he ran Sir Barton in a number of prestigious two-year-old races until Commander J.K.L. Ross bought the colt in August 1918. As part of Ross’s stable, Sir Barton would go on to a historic career, winning what became known as the first Triple Crown in 1919, and, in 1920, becoming the older horse tapped as rival to Man o’ War.
The story of Sir Barton and what we now know as the Triple Crown began in the wee hours of April 26, 1916, as he found his feet and stood on trembling legs, ready to make his mark as “king of them all.”
Happy Birthday, Sir Barton!
This 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.
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.