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.
If you ask any horse racing fan, they can tell you the moment that solidified their love of the sport. Perhaps it’s Secretariat “moving like a tremendous machine” in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Maybe it’s catching a day of racing with a relative when they were kids. It could even be a book or a movie that captured their imagination. For me, that moment was the 1988 Kentucky Derby and the beautiful roan filly that brought home the roses that day.
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.
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.
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 third in a series of four, profiling the first horse to traverse what we now know as the Triple Crown trail. In 1918, War Cloud 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. You can read part one here and part two here.)
In 1917, the Woodlawn Vase, prized trophy with antebellum origins, came into the possession of Colonel E.R. Bradley after his colt Kalitan won the Preakness Stakes. Previous owners had passed the Vase to the next one via whatever race they chose. Thomas Clyde decided to give the Vase to the Maryland Jockey Club, who, in turn, designated the trophy for the Preakness. It was the birth of yet another tradition for Maryland’s most prestigious stakes race. In 1918, the Woodlawn Vase was supposed to go to the winner of the Preakness Stakes, but unique circumstances would see it stay in Maryland rather than traveling home with a winning owner.
(This blog post is the second 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. You can read part one here.)
In 1916, A.K. Macomber sent his imported colt, Star Hawk, to the Kentucky Derby as one of the historic race’s favorites. Not quite a year into his reentry in American racing, Macomber was poised to win his first Kentucky Derby, tantalizingly close to one of those dream moments all horse owners seek. Instead, jockey Johnny Loftus on a colt named George Smith held off the driving Star Hawk in the stretch to win the Derby for owner John Sanford. Coming that close to winning the Kentucky Derby prompted Macomber to search his growing stable for another chance at the roses. He tapped War Cloud to carry the red and white Macomber stripes in the 1918 Kentucky Derby.
(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.