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.
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!
This Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing, and Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit will square off in the mile-and-a-quarter Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Thirty-five years earlier, in 1982, the three classic winners — Gato Del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler, and Conquistador Cielo — all met in the Travers as well, but Runaway Groom, winner of the Prince of Wales Stakes in Canada, surprised them all in the stretch to win. In 1918, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont winners all faced off in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, also with a surprising result.
Early on in 1918, Sun Briar had been one of the leading two-year-olds from the previous year looking to dominate again in his three-year-old season. Along with War Cloud, he was one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby, but an injury that spring meant that trainer Henry McDaniel would not have the colt ready for the Run for the Roses. Owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer was in danger of going without a Derby horse until he picked up the gangly gelding Exterminator in the weeks leading up to the race. Exterminator surprised everyone by winning the Kentucky Derby. Now Kilmer had two great horses in his barn: Exterminator and Sun Briar, but the owner still preferred his bay champion over the chestnut newcomer.
From maiden to monarch in a month, Sir Barton arrived at the barrier for the Belmont Stakes in a roundabout way. Speculation held that he would ship to Latonia for the Latonia Derby, but factors outside the control of both owner J.K.L. Ross and trainer H.G. Bedwell kept the Derby and Preakness winner in Gotham. So, on the last day of Belmont’s meet, the chestnut son of Star Shoot and Lady Sterling strode out onto the track with only two other challengers as the morning-line favorite to make history, unbeknownst to any of the 25,000 people present.
For his connections, the Belmont’s $11,950 was another rich purse to contend for, convenient because the stable was already in New York. For Sir Barton, it was his fourth start since May 10th and, given the number of horses that weren’t on the track with him, the race looked like his fourth win too. The large purse was a sign of progress for racing; the anti-gambling legislation that had shuttered the sport in New York for two years was fading into memory as big purses attracted big horses once more. The Belmont Stakes’ distance, a mile and three-eighths, made it one of a fast-fading number of long-distance races and a test of the colt’s ability to carry his speed over that much ground. He had done that in Louisville, but could he do it here, over this S-shaped route? Like most of the horses competing in the Belmont this weekend, this would be the longest race Sir Barton would ever run, earning the moniker “The Test of the Champion” that it has now.
The crowd thronged Sir Barton and his connections in the paddock, craning to get a glimpse at the horse that had dominated in Louisville and Baltimore, winning an unprecedented double that had already made an impression. The colt was calm throughout, with only the call to the post sending him dancing with anticipation. At the barrier, he stood on the rail, Natural Bridge and Sweep On to his right, both earning their footnote in history as his only competition. When the barrier flew up, Sir Barton jumped into the lead, ready to run only to have his energy reined in by jockey Johnny Loftus. They sat a couple of lengths back of Natural Bridge for the better part of the race, Sweep On bringing up the rear. Entering the stretch, Loftus relented on the reins and Sir Barton took off, swallowing ground like a thirsty man in a desert as he caught up to and then passed Natural Bridge within a furlong. Once they were a couple of lengths in the clear, Loftus reined his mount in once more, Sir Barton still full of run but listening to the capable hands of the man who had been with him throughout this miracle run.
He finished the mile and three-eighths in 2.17 2/5, a new American record. His performance made his supposedly high-class competition look like the commonest of platers as he beat them both with such ease that encomiums like ‘horse of the decade’ showered down on him from the throng of people present. In the winner’s circle, Ross shook hands with Loftus and playfully patted Sir Barton, accepting the silver plate that served as the Belmont trophy with overflowing joy. With that victory, Sir Barton had completed the first American Triple Crown, though it would be nearly another two decades before that accomplishment had its name and place in the pantheon of racing in America.
As we look at the ever-evolving picture of the 149th Belmont Stakes, a look back at the 51st running, the first that resulted in the very thing that so many racing fans look forward to each year, shows how little has changed about the phenomenon of racing. On Saturday, these good three-year-olds will take The Test of the Champion and one will emerge victorious. While Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing might be absent, a win in the Belmont is still an achievement to brag about: Triple Crown Classic winner at a mile and a half. Whoever finishes first, in the end, can etch their name in history alongside Sir Barton as winner of the Belmont Stakes.
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.
“At the lonely hour of two on Thursday morning, April 26th, 1916, a beautiful chestnut colt was born to Lady Sterling…”
So begins writer Margaret Phipps Leonard’s obituary for America’s first Triple Crown winner in a 1938 issue of The Horse, a lovely tribute to the horse that brings us all here today.
He was foal #187-16, 187 his dam Lady Sterling’s number at John E. Madden’s Hamburg Place and 16 for the year of his birth. His coat was a shiny chestnut, like his sire and dam, and his face had a wide blaze of white that went to the right over his nose as it cascaded down his beautiful head. He almost had another name, but, like his half-brother Sir Martin, ended up with a moniker a bit more apropos for a horse with the great English sire Sterling and the English Triple Crown winner Isinglass in his pedigree.
He stood out from day one, labeled “the king of them all” by colt breaker Frank Brosche, who saw all of the young horses that came through Hamburg Place. At 15.2 1/2 hands, he might not have overwhelmed his competition with his size, but, when he got going, he could run the best of them into the ground — with one notable exception.
His record of 13-6-5 in 31 starts includes a number of stellar performances, like his wire-to-wire win in the 1919 Kentucky Derby and his stakes and track record time in winning the 1920 Saratoga Handicap. In winning the Triple Crown before it was the Triple Crown, he set the stage for what has evolved into the pinnacle of achievement in American thoroughbred racing. In the nearly one hundred years since he crossed the finish line at Belmont, only eleven others have done it, demonstrating how big of a challenge navigating those three races can be. So great and so influential was Sir Barton that he was one of the first horses inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1957.
Aside from his stats and accomplishments, Sir Barton was also a horse, flesh and blood with a personality, same as the horses that we see on our television and computer screens. John Veitch said of Alydar that his charge was “all horse,” one that didn’t tolerate hugs and possessed that something special, the drive that it took to stand up in the face of a challenge. Sir Barton possessed the same, a smart horse who was less pet and more competitor. As Phipps’s article relates, he “was not vicious, but played roughly.” Trainer H.G. Bedwell’s habit of playfully slapping him on the muzzle whenever Sir Barton had his head out of his stall led to a habit of grabbing someone whenever he or she came near; no wonder JKM Ross described the colt as he did in Boots and Saddles. I imagine that a teenager might see that sort of behavior from a horse as irascible and ‘downright evil.’ Being cooped up in a stall for the better part of the day seemed to inspire an abundance of attitude from Sir Barton.
He was also a smart horse. B.B. Jones of Audley Farm told the story of Sir Barton kicking one of his grooms and then immediately jumping over and looking at the man in apparent apology. He didn’t give his groom any more trouble after that. He also caught Jones’s little finger in his teeth more than once, but turned it loose when Jones told him to do so. Sir Barton was ‘all horse’: smart and fast with the look of eagles and a desire to run — on his terms.
Happy 101st Birthday, Sir Barton!