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.
As a child, a local librarian gifted me with some books on horses, many of which were from the 1950s and 1960s: titles like Black Gold, Misty of Chincoteague, and nonfiction books on horses soon graced my room’s shelves. Included in this stack was a plain brown book with the drawing of a horse’s head: Old Bones, the Wonder Horse by Mildred Mastin Pace. Long before I would sit down to write about another wonder horse, I read about the tall, lanky gelding that wowed crowds for ninety-nine starts, the heart-shaped blaze on his forehead an enduring symbol of a beloved thoroughbred. And, nearly thirty years later, I got to read about him again in Here Comes Exterminator! by Eliza McGraw.
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.
Eighty 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).
Nowhere 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.
Half 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.
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.
Today marks the ninety-seventh anniversary of the 1920 Kenilworth Gold Cup, better known as ‘The Race of the Century’ between Man o’ War and Sir Barton. The mile-and-a-quarter confrontation was meant to be the ultimate test of both horses, a chance for two record-breakers to thrill the crowd with the speed that their reputations were built on. Ringing the hard-packed dirt oval that October day at Kenilworth Park were fourteen cameras, each stationed at a vantage point that would allow them to film the two combatants. Those cameras created the first known complete horse race on film, billed as “The Race of the Ages.”
The two-reel film from the Educational Film Exchanges showed some of the preparations both stables undertook in order to get their horses to the barrier for the match race as well as the race from both ground level and high above the track. The filmmakers took great care to capture Man o’ War’s stride in slow motion in order to show audiences across the country what made the colt so dominant in his scant two years on the race course. Lost in all of this seemed to be his competitor, Sir Barton, himself a champion and a record-breaker, but certainly not the star of the show. Newspapers recorded that Samuel Riddle, Man o’ War’s owner, held a dinner to show off the film that featured his dominant and legendary stallion; when, how, and if Commander Ross viewed the film himself, was not information that any reader was privy to in 1920.
Advertisements for showings of “The Race of the Age” ran in newspapers across the country well into 1921 as articles giving Man o’ War’s every move chronicled his transition into retirement while controversy followed Sir Barton into the new year. Soon, the first Triple Crown winner’s name seemed to only appear alongside that of his ever-dominant rival, Sir Barton’s defeat at the heels of Man o’ War running on movie screens everywhere over and over again. The diminishing of the reputation of the first horse to complete the biggest accomplishment in racing accelerated with each advertisement. How easy it is to change public perception with something small like an ad, like a death by a thousand small cuts rather than great swinging lashes.
The two reels of “The Race of the Age” seem to be lost to history, a victim of the time that has elapsed between our era and theirs. Searches through a number of archives across the United States, including the National Archives, has produced no known copies of the film. Clips appear on YouTube, but the entirety of the race, as well as those precious images of both horses getting ready to run at Kenilworth, elude this researcher at present. I did find this short clip for you to enjoy as you think back to “The Race of the Age,” on this day ninety-seven years ago.
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.