Today, Churchill Downs unveiled its logo for the 145th Kentucky Derby, to be run May 4, 2019. Even though Sir Barton won the 45th Kentucky Derby on May 10th, the 145th Run for the Roses marks the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown winner taking his first steps toward history.
If you look on the bottom left of the front page for this blog, you will see a countdown of our own. For now, I am counting down to the Kentucky Derby, BUT, as soon as I have an official publication date for Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, I will update to help us count the days, weeks, and months until Sir Barton’s full story is available at your local bookseller.
Until then, keep checking in for news and other fun activities as we get closer to the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown!
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.
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.”
Eighty 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).
Nowhere 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.
Half 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It all started with a book. This book, to be precise.
I suppose that’s how stories like mine often start, with a seminal event: a book, an image, something small. Something that might not mean anything to anyone else at that moment, but, to you, changes everything.
My teacher, Ms. Scott, read The Black Stallion out loud to my fifth-grade class that fall. The clouds of time obscure the specifics, but I remember it had to be the fall because another seminal moment happened about the same time. I had our television to myself on a Saturday, a rare treat indeed, and, as I flipped channels, I saw horses congregating on a dirt oval, entering the gate, and flying like lightning down the track. Entranced, I watched what had to have been an afternoon’s worth of racing, unable to catch names, but nevertheless addicted. (Later, I figured out it was the 1987 Breeder’s Cup.)
On August 11, 1920, Sir Barton went to the post at Fort Erie Race Track in Ontario for the Dominion Handicap. He faced a field of three other horses in this mile-and-a-quarter handicap with a purse of just over $11,000. Carrying 134 pounds, the Triple Crown winner gave each horse in the field anywhere from 10 to 38 pounds — and still beat them all.
He jumped out to the lead at the start and never let another horse out in front over that mile and a quarter. At the finish, he was a length and a half in front under a hand ride from Earl Sande, the great jockey who would go on to ride Gallant Fox to his Triple Crown in 1930. Commander J.K.L. Ross, Sir Barton’s owner, was especially happy about this victory, as his champion had won in his home country. The time was 2.06, though clockers claimed it should have been faster given that the track was running at least three seconds slow on that particular day.
Sir Barton immediately shipped back to Saratoga, where the rest of the Ross horses were, where speculation abounded that the Triple Crown winner would meet super horse Man O’War in the Saratoga Cup. That particular meeting wasn’t meant to be, but the drumbeat for a match grew louder as the month of August came to a close.
When I was ten years old, my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Scott, read The Black Stallion to my class and, thus, a love affair began. I remember my mom taking me to the bookstore and I bought the Black Stallion series one at a time. Then I discovered that a movie version had been made in 1978 and I rented the videocassette of that film weekly for months. Not too long after, I caught the Breeder’s Cup on television and fell head over heels for thoroughbred racing. But, as a racing fan living in Alabama, I am at a significant disadvantage. The closest racetrack currently running thoroughbreds is either in New Orleans, Hot Springs, or Lexington, five or six hours away. Needless to say, even though my love for thoroughbreds is unusual in this area, I pursue and cultivate it and now it’s brought me – and you – here.
In July 2013, I contemplated starting a project that I had thought about off and on over the years, but had not done any research on until that moment. I searched Amazon, Google, and more and discovered that the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton (pictured above), did not have his own book. The horse that started it all and put us on the path that we’re on now still had not had his whole story told in the nearly 100 years that have elapsed since he crossed the finish line on June 11, 1919, the first Triple Crown winner. Sure, each book that profiles the Triple Crown winners has a chapter on the champion and, of course, his story is exorably linked with that of Man O’War, the Triple Crown winner that surely would have been had Samuel Riddle sent him to Louisville.
Since Sir Barton crossed that finish line, the Triple Crown has become the ultimate goal, the impossible made possible only twelve times in the history of American thoroughbred racing. However, in order to understand how we got here, we need to see where we’ve been. To fully comprehend the impact of American Pharoah in 2015, we need to understand what happened in 1919. We need to see how the right horse was in the right place at the right time to create history.
And that’s what this biography of Sir Barton, tentatively titled First, will do. It will show how America’s Triple Crown evolved from a series of disparate races to the ultimate pursuit in thoroughbred racing. We’ll meet War Cloud and Billy Kelly. We’ll see how a Canadian businessman rose to the zenith of thoroughbred racing thanks to a legendary trainer and a string of champion horses, including the chestnut son of Star Shoot and Lady Sterling. We’ll see how the first Triple Crown winner rose so high only to be eclipsed by Big Red and then knocked down into near obscurity.
This blog will accompany the journey of this book from research to realization. The goal is that, at journey’s end, you’ll be holding a copy of First starting May 10, 2019 (or June 11, 2019), the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown.