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.

Sir Barton on Bourbons & Barns

Griffin Coop was kind enough to do a Q&A with me about Sir Barton as we look forward to Always Dreaming’s attempt to win the Preakness Stakes after his win in the Kentucky Derby this past Saturday.

Please visit Bourbon & Barns for the Q & A and more.


How I Got Here

blackstallioncoverIt 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.)

Continue reading “How I Got Here”

Sir Barton Wins the Dominion Handicap


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.

Welcome to the Sir Barton Project!


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 inexorably 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.

Thanks for being here. I hope you enjoy the ride!