When I started researching Sir Barton’s career, I knew I had to start with the individual races themselves before I worked to connect the dots between them. The best place to find all of the details of his starts was the Daily Racing Form, the source of form charts and articles about the previous day’s races and other news going back to 1894. The only problem? The Keeneland Library is five hours away! Yikes! How was I going to do this research? Cue the Daily Racing Form archive.
One of the perils of writing is the inevitable cuts that one has to make in order to meet a word count. Commander Ross’s purchase of the filly Constancy is one of those interesting moments that occurred during Sir Barton’s career, but, since Sir Barton himself is not part of this story, this tidbit had to go. However, I wanted to share this with you here on the blog as Constancy became one of the first mares Sir Barton covered when he retired to stud duty at Audley Farm in Virginia.
One of the features of Saratoga’s August meet was the showcasing of juvenile talent; Man o’ War was the flashiest and most dominant of the juveniles, but other stables had their own hopefuls on display as well. Ross’s juveniles included colts King Thrush, Trench Mortar, Irish Dancer, and Royal Jester as well as fillies His Choice and Bryngar. King Thrush was the first of the Ross juveniles to run at Saratoga, finishing third in the Flash Stakes on August 1st and then faced Man o’ War in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes, finishing fourth behind the big red colt. With the exception of Bryngar and His Choice, none of Ross’s other two-year-olds ran at Saratoga, leaving the stable light on horses to challenge the big red colt – until Ross made a deal with Arthur B. Hancock that brought the filly Constancy into the fold.
The 20th century had two Big Reds: Man o’ War and Secretariat, both horses so dominant that they topped the list of the century’s greatest horses at numbers one and two. Both red chestnuts captured the hearts and imaginations of the people who watched them. Both inspired writers and verse to encapsulate their equine greatness, with multiple books devoted to their stories. These Big Reds stood at the top, their brilliant performances their legacy to the sport of horse racing. Behind those thrilling moments, though, lie their catalysts, the horses who might have finished second but drove those Big Reds to bigger and better. Among those were horses like Sir Barton and Sham.
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.
By 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.
Over 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Happy Birthday, Sir Barton!
One 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.
As 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!