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.
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.
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!
Before his Triple Crown, records, and match race with Man o’ War, Sir Barton was a part of his breeder John E. Madden’s stable, going winless in his first four starts. Madden was a prolific breeder and consummate salesman who sold almost every horse his Hamburg Place turned out by the time the colt or filly was two. In July 1918, Madden had sent the son of Star Shoot-Lady Sterling to Aqueduct for his first start. His jockey for this first start was Arthur Collins. His trainer? William S. Walker, one of the country’s greatest African American jockeys.
Walker was born a slave in 1860, on a farm outside of Versailles, KY. He started his riding career at age 11 and rode his first stakes winner at 13. Walker quickly gained a reputation for bravery, especially after a particularly perilous ride in a race the day after the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. Another African American jockey, Billy Lakeland, crowded his horse against Walker’s mount Excel, pinning them against the rail and nearly sending both horse and rider into the infield. Excel recovered, Walker sent his mount after the leaders, closing the gap to finish second by only half a length. His bravery earned him an award at a special ceremony the next day, President Meriwether Lewis Clark giving him a silk purse with $25 in recognition of his fortitude.
After riding in the first two Derbies, Billy Walker won the 1877 Kentucky Derby on Baden Baden at age 17. He retired from the saddle in 1896, parlaying the money he earned riding into real estate and then horses of his own. Walker became an owner, trainer, and a pedigree expert. He worked with John E. Madden as a breeding consultant and, in 1915, became Madden’s trainer. Walker trained Sir Barton for his first four starts in 1918, before Madden sold the son of Star Shoot to Commander Ross.
Eventually, William S. Walker left training, but continued to consult with Madden and others as they attended sales in search of good horses. In his later years, he spent time at Churchill Downs, taking up clocking workouts as a hobby. William S. Walker passed away on September 20, 1933, at age 73. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Louisville Cemetary; in 1996, Churchill Downs dedicated a large granite gravestone in Walker’s memory, memorializing the career of this pioneering African American.
In 2015, Churchill Downs named a six-furlong sprint for three-year-olds for William S. Walker. This year may also bring Walker’s induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, a fitting tribute to a man who did so much for this sport, including training, albeit briefly, America’s first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton.
Sources for this blog post:
Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton McDaniel, John A. Hardin. The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 512-513.
Edward Hotaling. The Great Black Jockeys. Rocklin, CA: Forum (Prima Publishing), 1999. 230-237; 333-334.