By early November, 1919 had become a year of mixed blessings for jockey Johnny Loftus. He had been aboard Man o’ War for all of his victories — and his lone defeat. Loftus had ridden winners for a number of racing’s top stables and trainers, everyone from Sam Hildreth to H.G. Bedwell. He had won a Kentucky Derby on Sir Barton but also lost the Dwyer Stakes to Purchase, who Loftus also had ridden to victory that year. Loftus had been set down for rough riding, yet he also had served as trainer Louis Feustel’s go-to rider for a fractious and challenging Man o’ War. With the year winding down, Loftus was looking forward to 1920, possibly his final year in the saddle. Years of fighting his weight left the jockey ready to consider what’s next. In the meantime, he was ready to finish out 1919 on a high note.
The Autumn Handicap on November 5th would prove to be anything but.
Gnome was a horse on a hot streak. Coming off a win in the Champlain Handicap, the chestnut colt counted the great Exterminator amongst those he had beaten at Saratoga that August. Now, still the beneficiary of a break in weights, Gnome faced the barrier alongside Sir Barton.
Sir Barton had started August with a track record in the Saratoga Handicap at a mile and a quarter. He had then run that distance again at Fort Erie, winning easily, but now he was back at Saratoga for this race, the Merchants and Citizens Handicap. Again laden with 133 pounds, Commander Ross’s champion horse stood at the barrier, Gnome to his left and Jack Stuart to his right. Ahead lay a mile and three-sixteenths. One more race, another step closer to a potential meeting with the juggernaut that was Man o’ War.
Ninety-nine years ago, Sir Barton and Gnome met on the Saratoga oval for a record-setting performance, a finish so close that only the judges could determine the winner. Luckily photographer Charles Cook snapped the combatants as they battled to the wire.
A world record, a close finish, and a die cast for a match race. Read more about Sir Barton’s turn in the Merchants and Citizens Handicap in Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown (Chapter 13).
This past weekend, the Miami Dolphins defeated the New England Patriots on a last-second series of laterals that ended with a touchdown, the final score 34-33. It became the fifth time that the Patriots had lost in Miami, giving Tom Brandy a record of 7-10 lifetime against a team that tends to underperform the rest of the regular season. For whatever reason — be it the weather or something else altogether — playing in Miami has become an Achilles heel for the Patriots, a portent that something odd this way comes for one of the NFL’s most consistent teams. Strangely, for Sir Barton, a horse named Crystal Ford seemed to be a similar token of ill luck.
This weekend, November 2 & 3, Churchill Downs will host the 2018 Breeder’s Cup. Since its inception in 1984, the Breeder’s Cup has evolved into the climax of the racing calendar; outside of the Triple Crown classics in the spring, a number of elite horses and their connections point toward these two days of racing. Capping off the weekend is the Breeder’s Cup Classic, the mile-and-a-quarter test of the best of what racing has to offer, male or female, three years old and up. The list of Classic winners includes thirty-four years of the best horses we’ve seen on the turf — Derby winners, Dubai World Cup winners, and more, many names that went on to stamp their excellence at stud after dominating the Classic’s ten furlongs. In 2015, the Breeder’s Cup Classic featured a horse that the Breeder’s Cup had yet to see: a Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Continue reading “Ten Furlongs of Greatness”→
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.
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.
“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.