Behind the “Race of the Century”: Kenilworth Park & A.M. Orpen

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A.M. Orpen

Abram Michael (A.M. or Abe) Orpen started his working life as an apprentice to a carpenter, a career path his mother set him on, but a near-death experience prompted the young Orpen to set his sights on a different path. He walked away from carpentry and into entrepreneurship, starting his own brickworks and lumber business, and then buying the Alhambra Hotel, a popular gambling saloon, in Toronto. There, he learned how bookmakers worked and, through hard work and innovation, he survived the transition from bookmakers to pari-mutuel betting, understanding that the money to be made now came from owning the tracks. He used the knowledge gained in running the Alhambra into his ownership of first Dufferin Park in Toronto and then Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario.

Continue reading “Behind the “Race of the Century”: Kenilworth Park & A.M. Orpen”

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Making the Match

manowarBy September 1920, Man o’ War had no competition left. He had faced all of the best three-year-olds in races like the Preakness, the Dwyer, and the Travers Stakes, and beaten them all. In the process, he had demonstrated overwhelming superiority, winning by many lengths and setting records nearly every time he went to the barrier. Of course, he had not run against older horses — yet.

What if? Fans asked. What could he do against his elders? Speculation abounded about which of the older horses racing could possibly be Man o’ War’s better.

Continue reading “Making the Match”

Books of Note: Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning

manowarcoverOver 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.

You can buy Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning at Amazon or Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. Find Dorothy Ours here on Facebook and Twitter.

Countdown to a Celebration

The_Courier_Journal_Thu__Jun_12__1919_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.

sir_barton_silksHere 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.

Sir Barton on Film!

In honor of Sir Barton’s 102nd birthday, I wanted to share the two clips of Sir Barton on film that I have seen. I have been working on this project for five years and these are the only two clips I’ve seen of him EVER!

The first is NEW to me, a wee gem found by Dorothy Ours, writer of the best book on Man o’ War. British Pathé recently announced its representation of the Reuters historical collection. A reel featuring the highlights of several races from 1919 includes a few seconds of footage of Sir Barton in the winner’s circle after the 45th Kentucky Derby. You will see Sir Barton with Johnny Loftus about fifteen seconds in.

The second is some footage of the 1920 Kenilworth Gold Cup, better known as the match race between Sir Barton and Man o’ War. This clip is more about Man o’ War than Sir Barton, but the footage of the match race remains the only video of that race that I know and have seen.

Previously I had talked about “The Race of the Age,” the film Educational Film Exchanges had produced after having unfettered exclusive access to the preparations for and running of the Kenilworth Gold Cup. My searches for the film have come up with no known extant copies of that film.

Happy, Happy Birthday!

26755One 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.

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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!

Happy Birthday, Man o’ War!

manowar938One hundred and one years ago today, Man o’ War was born at Nursery Stud near Lexington, Kentucky. His dam Mahubah was a daughter of Rock Sand, who won the English Triple Crown in 1903. His sire Fair Play was a great racehorse in his own right, never finishing out of the money in his career. His breeder August Belmont, Jr. had planned to race the colt himself, but World War I prevented him from being as involved as he would have liked. In 1918, he sold his yearlings, which included the Fair Play-Mahubah colt that his wife had named Man o’ War. At Saratoga in August 1918, Samuel Riddle bought the colt for $5,000. The colt would make nearly fifty times that in his career.

mano27warAs I finish up my book on Sir Barton, I wanted to take a moment to recognize this birthday since both Sir Barton and Man o’ War touched each other’s lives in more than one way. As we remember the 20th century’s greatest horse on this 101st anniversary of his birth, I would like to recommend Dorothy Ours’s book Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning for those who want to learn more about the career of this larger-than-life icon of racing. I flew through Dorothy’s book like Man o’ War flew down the stretch in his duel with John P. Grier in the 1920 Dwyer Stakes.

Happy Birthday, Big Red!

A Writer’s Ode

drffrontpageoldI first stepped onto a racetrack at age 12, thanks to my aunt Betty indulging my burgeoning interest in the sport with a trip to the Birmingham Race Course. I don’t remember much about that trip — outside of the grizzled old gamblers who thought I was some sort of betting prodigy — but I do remember the Daily Racing Forms scattered throughout the track, as ubiquitous as the discarded losing tickets. Every visit to the racetrack means a trip to the newsstand to grab the Form and consult its pages before I hand over my money for any bet, whether it’s the Preakness or the third race on a weekday at Keeneland. So, today, on the 123rd birthday of the Form, I wanted to explore the impact of this historic publication and the institution that has endeavored to preserve it.

Four years ago, the Sir Barton Project started as an idea that led to a search that then turned into the hubris necessary to think that one is the right person to take that idea to fruition. From high school to college to graduate school, I learned how to research topics of all kinds, from high literary questions to the mundane inquiries about daily tasks. When I undertook the challenging task of bringing Sir Barton’s complete story to print, I knew that the place I needed to go to find his story and to bring its scattered pieces together lay in one place: Kentucky. More specifically, the Keeneland Library and the Daily Racing Form archive.

splash_projects_equestrian_keeneland_libraryI have spent many hours in the stacks at Keeneland, wanting to break into song at the richness of their collections. How many times have I heard “Have you been to the Keeneland Library?” as I inquire with other places about resources I’m trying to find? The Library is the first place and the best place to go whenever I need an article, a photograph, or a hard-to-find book.

Keeneland Library interiorIn addition, the Library gave writers and researchers the most thorough collection of the essential publication for racing across history, the Daily Racing Form archive. My time on the DRF archive, searching through form charts, workout reports, and articles for horses from Sir Barton to Man o’ War to War Cloud, would probably total in years at this point. This book about Sir Barton came to be because I was able to trace the milestones of his career from the first mentions of him as a yearling up to his death in 1937 and beyond. The efforts of Becky Ryder and every person who worked on this archive have been essential to projects like mine. I cannot thank them for this resource enough.

DRFlogoHappy Birthday to you, Daily Racing Form, first published on this day in 1894! Thank you for bringing racing to your readers day after day for 123 years. You hold the history of racing within your pages each day, preserving it for generations of racing fans. Many thanks to the Keeneland Library as well for making the DRF‘s past available to the present and future of thoroughbred racing.

Goodbye, Sammy

hyltonranchEighty 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).

sir_bartonNowhere 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.

SBConfirmationHalf 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.

 

Anticlimactic

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American Pharoah

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.
 

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California Chrome

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.

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Voss painting of Sir Barton with Johnny Loftus aboard.

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.

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Sir Barton

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.