Great Expectations

Last year, I stood in the hot August sun holding my phone, looking puzzled at the conversation I was having with my husband.

“Who won the Travers?” I asked him over chat.

“Arrogate.” He replied.

“Who?” I asked.

After watching the 2016 Triple Crown season, from preps to the Travers, I thought I knew every three-year-old out there. Having been a Nyquist fan to that point, I reluctantly had picked Exaggerator to win after his win in the Haskell. After watching Arrogate’s speedy triumph later, I was more than happy to be wrong about my pick.

I rooted for Arrogate against California Chrome in the Breeder’s Cup Classic even though I had been a Chromie since his Kentucky Derby win in 2014. I rooted for Arrogate again in the Pegasus World Cup. I cried when Arrogate valiantly moved like a comet around the crowded field of horses to win the Dubai World Cup.

I’m an Arrogater through and through.

Before the San Diego Handicap, though, I had felt a twinge of doubt in my gut. What if? What if? ran through my mind as I read bedtime stories to my sons, anticipating watching the race after both were safely ensconced in their beds. As my phone blew up with tweets and comments, I knew that twinge had grown into a storm that was raining on my Facebook feed.

sd-sp-del-mar-arrogate-20170723
Arrogate struggles in fourth behind Accelerate, the winner of the San Diego Handicap.

“What did I just see?” “Did that just happen?” “What’s wrong with Arrogate?”

The way he had struggled home behind the aptly named Accelerate, the only horse to that point that had finished in front of Arrogate in all of his starts since his late start on the track in 2016, felt like a punch to the gut. After all, despite my years of watching horses run and studying the ups and downs on countless horses over the last 100 years, I’m still a fan and this horse had captured my heart in a way that few had.

As Baffert and the rest of us tried to understand Arrogate’s performance, I felt like I had seen a moment like this before. Horses lose: Man o’War, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Songbird, etc. They aren’t machines, but animals and, like their human handlers, they have bad days too. Yet, when a horse is the class of one like Arrogate or Man o’War or Secretariat or California Chrome, losing a race is a different animal altogether. When had I seen a moment like this one, where a super-sized favorite barely seems to show up? Sir Barton had his own moment like this and its repercussions reverberated beyond the race itself.

November 5, 1919, the Autumn Handicap at Pimlico.

Continue reading “Great Expectations”

Advertisements

A Seed of Doubt

americanpharoah

Two years ago, American Pharaoh came into the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on an eight-race win streak, including the first Triple Crown in thirty-seven years. He had made his first post-Triple Crown start in the Haskell Invitational, where he had sailed to a two-and-a-quarter length win, showing that same easy running style familiar to race fans. He was the 1-5 favorite for the Travers and, despite shipping in from California at nearly the last minute, the victory seemed well in hand.

american-pharoah-loses-travers-stakes
Keen Ice passes American Pharoah in the stretch of the 2015 Travers Stakes. (SI.com)

That is, until that last quarter of a mile, when American Pharoah’s dominance gave way to the stalking trip of Keen Ice, who managed to pass the Triple Crown winner as the field flew toward the wire. For American Pharoah, it was his first loss since his two-year-old season. For race fans, it was a clear disappointment that made even owner Ahmed Zayat ponder retirement rather than let his horse risk another loss in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, their next intended target. The Graveyard of Champions had claimed another victim.

American Pharaoh, of course, went on to win the Classic, completing the Grand Slam. He was voted the best three-year-old of 2015 and the Horse of the Year. That one loss in the Travers, which came as a result of the Triple Crown winner trying to overcome the pressure of a speedy Frosted, never cast doubt on whether or not the son of Pioneerof the Nile was the best horse in America that year. It would be unimaginable to think that AP wasn’t the best of his age and the best of all ages that year, right? Surely, winning the Triple Crown at least would net a horse those sorts of honors?

The_Edwardsville_Intelligencer_Sat__Jul_5__1919_Nearly a hundred years ago, on July 10th, 1919, as Sir Barton returned to the track after his four-win streak that included our first Triple Crown, the three-year-old champion honors seemed to be his, no question. The win streak in itself was amazing; the way he did it, dominating each field in different ways, should have sealed it for him. Nearly a month after his romp in the Belmont Stakes, Commander Ross and H.G. Bedwell decided the Triple Crown winner would start in the Dwyer Stakes, a mile-and-an-eighth race named for the Dwyer Brothers, the New York brothers who owned a dominant racing stable in the late 19th century. Only two other horses met the Triple Crown winner at the barrier: Crystal Ford, a fair racer that was getting an eighteen-pound break from Sir Barton; and Purchase, who had missed the spring classics with an injury but had reeled off a series of wins in June. Purchase, despite his recent record, also got a weight break from Sir Barton, carrying fewer nine pounds at 118 pounds. Sir Barton’s 127 pounds was not a new impost for him and he had previously given weight to other horses and still dominated. The same level of expectation that followed American Pharoah into the Travers followed Sir Barton out onto the Aqueduct oval for the Dwyer.

Purchase07102017.jpg
Purchase, with Earl Sande up. (The Jockey Club)

Sir Barton and his two competitors trotted out toward the barrier, lithe feet dancing through the sloppy dirt beneath them. Johnny Loftus had his usual seat on Sir Barton, the Dwyer his first race of the day. Willie Knapp, the jockey destined to beat Loftus on another legendary horse in August, had the mount on Purchase. Purchase stood on the rail in the first post, Sir Barton on the outside and Crystal Ford in between them. Knapp’s position on the rail would have clued him into the condition of the track there. He would have seen the way that the intermittent rain drained off the Aqueduct track, making the going at the rail deeper. It was that soft going that assured Commander Ross that starting Sir Barton on this particular day was a good idea.

He was wrong.

SirBartonHead
Sir Barton

The Triple Crown winner had bruised himself in a workout the week before the Dwyer, forcing Bedwell to lay off training for a few days while he gave the colt time to heal. The morning of the Dwyer, Sir Barton appeared recovered from his mishap and Ross opted to send his ascendant colt to the post with a fresher and injury-free Purchase. At the start, the Triple Crown winner took his usual position as front-runner, with Crystal Ford and Purchase a couple of lengths behind him. As the field rounded that last turn, Knapp took Purchase behind Crystal Ford and then went around that colt, setting his sights on Sir Barton, still running on the front. Loftus, sensing that Knapp was making a run at them, urged his mount on, but Purchase and Knapp gained ground and then passed them in that final furlong. As he flashed under the wire, Purchase had beaten the Triple Crown winner by three lengths, stunning the Aqueduct crowd. Commander Ross lamented the loss, seeing now that the colt still wasn’t back to his previous form.

sirbarton
Sir Barton winning at Saratoga.

Ross’s go-fever cost Sir Barton the stranglehold he had had on the three-year-old championship. Rather than enjoying a rest from his record-breaking spring campaign, the Triple Crown winner and his connections endured a summer of doubt, watching Purchase continue to turn in impressive performances on the track while Sir Barton stood idle in recovery. By the time Sir Barton returned to the track in the fall, Purchase was on the shelf himself after an injury had sidelined the upstart challenger before the two could meet again. At 1919’s end, Sir Barton’s fall campaign seemed to cinch the three-year-old championship, but the doubts about who was the best of the year lingered in 1920.

The rematch so many had been spoiling for never happened. Purchase returned to racing in 1921; Sir Barton retired that same year, standing stud at Audley Farm in Virginia after Commander Ross sold him to the Jones brothers. Sir Barton was recognized as the first Triple Crown winner, the three-year-old champion, and Horse of the Year many years later. The Dwyer was not his only loss for the year, but, in 1919, it was enough to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of fans and writers and inspire the same endless debates that we all engage in with our own contemporary favorites.

The Last Leg

The_Courier_Journal_Thu__Jun_12__1919_.jpgFrom 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.

SBDerbyWinnerThe 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.

SirBartonHeadHe 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.

2017BelmontStakesAs 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.

Sir Barton on Bourbons & Barns

 

sir-barton
Johnny Loftus on Sir Barton — Painting by Franklin Brooke Voss (National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame)

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.

Please visit Bourbon & Barns for the Q & A and more.

 

Winless Wonders in the Kentucky Derby

2017_Kentucky_Derby_logoWith this year’s edition of the Kentucky Derby coming up fast, let’s look at something that a horse rarely can be entering Derby week: a maiden. With the Derby now requiring a certain number of points in order to make it into the gate, a horse will need to finish in the money in more than one race or finish second in the right races to join the cavalry charge of horses in Louisville. Before the points system became reality, a horse could come into the Derby as a real maiden; nine have done it since 1937. Their chances of winning, though, might not be as good since they may not have the experience or the talent to be the one in front at the wire at Churchill Downs.

These three maidens defied the odds and did just that, making the Run for the Roses their own.

Buchanan (1884)

buchananIn the last part of the 19th century, African-American jockey Isaac Burns Murphy won three Derbies (1884, 1890, 1891), his first on a firebrand chestnut named Buchanan.

Buchanan had not won a race prior to his start in the 1884 Kentucky Derby and was, from contemporary accounts, a difficult horse to ride. Murphy was one of the best jockeys of the day, though, and managed Buchanan well enough for the colt to break his maiden in the Run for the Roses. Buchanan went on to a record of 35: 8-14-10, winning the Ripple Stakes and the Clark Handicap before retiring at the age of three.

Buchanan stood stud at Senorita Stock Farm in Lexington, KY, the site of the present -day Kentucky Horse Park. He didn’t make much of an impression at stud, siring only three stakes winners, and died in either 1894 or 1897 (contemporary accounts differ) of an inflammation of the bowels.

Sir Barton (1919)

SBDerbyWinnerSir Barton made his last start of 1918 in the Futurity at Belmont in September; he was due to make additional starts in his two-year-old season before an illness put him out of commission for the remainder of the year. Trainer H.G. Bedwell declined to start the colt in any races in the first part of 1919, though stablemate and fellow Kentucky Derby starter Billy Kelly did have three starts prior to Derby Day. Sir Barton prepared instead through a series of workouts with other horses in the Ross Stable, demonstrating just how good the three-year-old son of Star Shoot* was.

Saturday, May 10th dawned rainy and wet, with the Churchill Downs oval heavy from rain. Twelve went to the post and one left the barrier flying: Sir Barton. He led at every pole and never surrendered, not even to Billy Kelly, for whom he was supposedly there to clear the way. Sir Barton went on to follow up that spectacular win with another speedy performance four days later in the Preakness. From there, he won the Withers and then the Belmont Stakes, completing America’s first Triple Crown.

From maiden to legend in the space of thirty-two days, the most successful horse to break his maiden in the Kentucky Derby.

Broker’s Tip (1933)

Black Toney had sired a Kentucky Derby winner already, a colt named Black Gold who won in 1924. His son Broker’s Tip had shown little of the form that Black Gold had and thus no one expected to see Broker’s Tip in a stretch battle in the 1933 Kentucky Derby and the near-fistfight that broke out as a result.

brokerstipBroker’s Tip’s jockey Don Meade sent his mount to the inside of frontrunner Head Play, ridden by Herb Fisher. Incensed that Meade had snuck up on him, Fisher tried to push Broker’s Tip into the rail, to which Meade responded by pushing back and attempting to pull Head Play’s saddlecloth. Fisher took a couple of swings at Meade with his whip and suddenly the two jockeys were exchanging blows as their mounts dueled down the stretch. At the wire, Broker’s Tip managed to get his nose in front, or at least that’s how the judges saw it. Fisher lodged an infraction claim against Meade, which went nowhere, and then the two continued their fight in the jock’s room. (The two made up and even came together years later to talk about that Derby.)

brokerstip2Both jockeys received suspensions for their rough riding in the Derby. Broker’s Tip got a trophy, the purse, and his lone win of his career, but that photo of Meade and Fisher fighting down the stretch stands more iconic than the horses involved.

These three horses show that it is possible to break your maiden in America’s most famous race. Could that happen again? Only time will tell.

Happy Birthday, Sir Barton!

“At the lonely hour of two on Thursday morning, April 26th, 1916, a beautiful chestnut colt was born to Lady Sterling…”

SBConfirmationSo 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.

sbmarylandhandicapHis 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.

hyltonranchAside 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.

SirBartonHeadHe 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!

Happy Birthday, Man O’War!

mano27warLast year, I wrote a blog post (or two) in celebration of the 100th birthday of Sir Barton, the namesake of this particular website and the project I’ve spent most of the last four years writing. I live daily with Sir Barton and his connections; I’ve likely done more research on that horse, his owners, his trainer, his breeder, and others than anyone else ever has. Wherever Sir Barton went in his life, I follow in whatever way I can given the time elapsed between us. Inevitably, though, our journey intertwines with another chestnut colt, so ubiquitous in reputation that even people who may not know a thing about thoroughbred racing have heard of this horse.

Man O’War.

Rival

ticket
Ticket to Kenilworth Park for Man O’War v. Sir Barton, October 12, 1920.

As an Alabama native, I’ve had the concept of rivalries and their import burned into my brain since infancy. Alabama v. Auburn. Purple v. Gold. Federer v. Nadal. Yankees v. Red Sox. For me, as I sit here day in and day out, living and breathing the past, the rivalry between Sir Barton and Man O’War stands paramount.

We like to create rivalries if they don’t emerge naturally; they capture our imagination as we see the struggle and we identify with one or the other. We root for the one we see ourselves in and our highs and lows ebb and flow with their successes and losses. In 1920, Man O’War had bested every horse that crossed his path; even Upset, the one horse that had beaten him, had seen the back of him more than once. With no three-year-old in his class, turf writers and fans looked to the older horses to find a horse that might be able to play spoiler to Big Red.

exterminator
Exterminator.

Two names came to mind: Exterminator and Sir Barton. While Sir Barton, though, was the primary one. His performances in August, including his track record in the 1 1/4-mile Saratoga Handicap, made him the primary candidate for the job. Whether his connections liked it or not, the clamor for the two to meet became daily fodder for turf writers. Long before social media, the daily newspapers and the machinations of promoters like Colonel Matt Winn made a match race not only desirable, but a virtual inevitability.

 

matchrace
Sir Barton Trails Man O’War in the Kenilworth Gold Cup

The only problem? The competition wasn’t quite ready to be competitive. While Man O’War blazed through his three-year-old year with minor qualms about soundness, Sir Barton ran his entire career teetering on the verge of long-term lameness. When the match race was run, Sir Barton blew by Man O’War for a furlong or so, but the twenty-eight-foot stride soon eclipsed whatever lead the Triple Crown winner had. Sir Barton straggled along as best he could, but, as Hollie Hughes confirmed, the Triple Crown winner was not at 100% after his eight starts in 1920, including three in the month of August. With only a few strides, Man O’War collapsed the rivalry into his clear supremacy over Sir Barton and his career of firsts, including the first Triple Crown, an honor which Man O’War himself doesn’t have.

Icon

manowar938
Man O’War at three.

With the victory, Man O’War took his place as THE icon of American racing. Not until Secretariat came along did anyone ever come close to the fame that followed Big Red wherever he went. In 1920, he and Babe Ruth were chosen as outstanding athletes of the year. He was retired to stud when handicapper Walter Vosburgh told owner Samuel Riddle that he would assign Man O’War the highest weight he had ever given any horse, 150 pounds. Riddle promptly retired his champion, who had won 20 of 21 starts and, in the process, became the measuring stick by which every horse to come after him was compared — until another Big Red came along in the early 1970s.

The colt stood at Riddle’s Faraway Farm until his death in 1947. His remains were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in the 1970s along with a bronze statue emblazoned with only “Man O’War,” no other text needed. When Big Red died, over 2,000 people attended his funeral, which was also broadcast nationwide on NBC Radio. Buglers from the Man O’War Post of the American Legion, clad in the Riddle silks, played “Taps” and racetracks across the country observed a moment of silence as the world said goodbye to the greatest racehorse anyone had ever seen.

Eclipse

SBConfirmationFor all that Sir Barton accomplished in his career, his loss to Man O’War and their coinciding careers meant that Big Red came to eclipse his rival despite the first Triple Crown winner’s historic achievement. Sir Barton’s racing career was more mixed and not nearly as dominant as Man O’War’s. His success at stud was more muted; he did produce a number of stakes winners of his own, including Easter Stockings, who won the 1928 Kentucky Oaks. His time out west as part of the Remount Service means that his bloodlines may live on in horses of other breeds who would be descended from the cavalry horses that the Remount needed to produce.

For all that Sir Barton did on the track, Man O’War’s shadow looms larger than life and the evidence of that is everywhere, in print, in bloodlines, and in the long memory of thoroughbred racing history.

Legend

seabiscuit
Seabiscult vs. War Admiral

His racing record and running style might have nabbed him the moniker of Greatest Of All Time (GOAT), but his record at stud cemented it for all time. His descedents include a Triple Crown winner (War Admiral — 1937), Kentucky Derby winners, one Grand National winner (Battleship), and more. As the generations stretched on, his influence grew. Man O’War shows up in the pedigrees of horses like Seabiscuit, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alysheba, Zenyatta, American Pharoah, and more. Man O’War’s influence comes from both his sire and broodmare lines and most, if not all, of the current horses on the Triple Crown trail have Man O’War in their pedigree somewhere.

Today, visitors can visit Man O’War along with some of his progeny, like War Admiral, at the end of a walkway which compares his stride to other champions, like Secretariat. He was part of the first class inducted into the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in 1957; Sir Barton was also part of that inaugural class, despite the turn into obscurity his career had taken once he left racing.

logoIn addition to his place in the Hall of Fame, Man O’War was voted the best horse of the 20th century by both The Blood-Horse magazine, Sports Illustrated, and the Associated Press. His life has been the subject of several books, including Man O’War: A Legend Like Lightning by Dorothy Ours, an excellent and extensive biography of America’s greatest race horse. Both the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Horse Park will hold sizeable celebrations in honor of Big Red’s 100th birthday, fitting tributes to the horse that captured the country’s imagination nearly 100 years ago and hasn’t left our cultural consciousness since.

Favorites

statue
Man O’War statue at the Kentucky Horse Park. Photo credit: Frances J. Karon.

In these days leading up to Man O’War’s birthday, I’ve encountered a number of people who are excited about these celebrations. For them, Man O’War is their horse; he might have the one that piqued their interest initially and prompted the love for individual horses that we all have. I understand their ardor because I have the same for Sir Barton, but the rivalry still lives on in me. For every accolade accorded Man O’War on his 100th, I wish for the same for Sir Barton at 101. I can’t think of one without the other; Man O’War likely would have still been the greatest ever if he had never met Sir Barton, but their confrontation contributed something to his sparkle. Their one meeting certainly was enough to dull the shine on the first Triple Crown winner’s reputation over time, one of my greatest motivations for shining a light on Sir Barton again with this blog and First.

In order for a horse to remain in thoroughbred racing consciousness beyond his time on the track, he must capture the racing world in a way that leaves an indelible mark on all who saw him. Short of our Triple Crown winners, few horses remain on our collective radars once they hit the breeding shed. In a sport where the next star rises as soon as the last one exits, for Man O’War to remain such an icon speaks to his excellence on the track and off. Only a truly great horse can survive the test of time and Riddle’s Red shows no signs of ever losing his place as the GOAT of thoroughbred racing.

Happy Birthday, Man O’War, from a grudging admirer!

His Name Was Johnny

johnnyHe was born John Patrick Loftus in Chicago, Illinois, the son of parents who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. His father was an engineer; his mother birthed five sons: John, Martin, David, Frank, and Robert. Nothing in his background made horses a clear choice for young Johnny, but, nevertheless, he gravitated toward the racing life and made it his own.

Determination

When Johnny came of age, he was attracted to horses just as the racetracks around him closed, felled by the movement against gambling in the United States. Unscrupulous gamblers and the resultant scandals led to a wave of anti-gambling legislation in the United States. By the time young Johnny Loftus rode in his first race in 1909, the racing world within the vast expanse of American soil was shrinking down to just Kentucky and Maryland, with limited racing in far-flung corners like Jacksonville, Florida, where young Mr. Loftus rode his first race. He finished last.

georgesmith
Johnny Loftus on George Smith, 1916 Kentucky Derby winner, Loftus’ first.

Not an auspicious start to his career, but the young Loftus was determined to make a go of it. He loved horses, inhaled them even, content to sleep in their stalls and learn everything he could about them. Horses responded to him; he learned to become a master of pace, knowing how fast the horses around him were going and judging when to move his own mount in response. The skills he acquired in his years of traveling from place to place in search of mounts netted him wins in prestigious races like the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Travers Stakes, and more. He rode the big name horses of the day: Exterminator, Regret, War Cloud, and more.

His biggest problem wasn’t getting the mounts, though; it was his physique. Loftus teetered on the brink of unemployment with every pound. His powerful legs might have helped him balance on the brief width of leather beneath him, but those muscles were also weight that he couldn’t shed. Johnny tried to ride at 110 pounds or less; often, he couldn’t manage to get below 112. A brief stint in Europe and the heavier weights horses carried there gave him some respite from the struggle, but, when he returned to the United States, the fight was on again. He could never escape the ravages of weight, but it wouldn’t stop his ascendency either. Johnny Loftus was one of the elite riders of his day, and, as a master of pace; his services would be needed for one Commander JKL Ross to win the 1919 Kentucky Derby and his bet with Arnold Rothstein.

Elite

SBDerbyWinner
Johnny Loftus on Sir Barton after the 1919 Kentucky Derby.

The 1919 Kentucky Derby showed just how tough a fight it was for Loftus to maintain his weight. Sir Barton was assigned 110 pounds, the beneficiary of a twelve-pound break in weight because of his maiden status. His jockey Johnny had a body that rebelled against such light imposts; Sir Barton carried 112.5 pounds because Loftus’s physique, already haggard and sunken from the battles with weight, refused to shed the difference. The extra weight meant little to Commander Ross; Loftus was still one of the best jockeys in the country. He piloted Sir Barton exactly as planned, sending the speedy colt to the front with unexpected results: rather than burning off the speed horses and giving way to his stablemate Billy Kelly, Sir Barton won a wire-to-wire Kentucky Derby in the slop. The Derby winner’s circle photo shows Loftus looking lean and hungry, unable to crack a smile despite the fact that he had just won his second Kentucky Derby. That struggle with weight might mean that Loftus would ride a pound or so overweight, but his skills and record were such that it never seemed to matter to his employers. Johnny had more than his fair share of winners, with 580 winners from 2,449 mounts in his ten-year career.

In his career, Loftus won most of the major American stakes races, including the classics and, of course, the first Triple Crown. He rode Man O’War, Sir Barton, War Cloud, Regret, and many more top horses of that era. The first part of the twentieth century was a time when jockeys had no union and operated with contracts that could be bought and sold like the horses they rode, but Loftus was among the elite, riding for the top owners of the day, including A.K. Macomber, Commander JKL Ross, H.P. Whitney, and Samuel Riddle. For all of the laurels he collected, though, he has the misfortune of one black mark on his record: the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes.

Controversy

mano27war
Man O’War.

One of the first skills that jockeys in this era had to learn was how to balance the plethora of sensory inputs that were the starting barrier for any race. Long before the starting gate became a reality, horses stood in front of a stretched white fabric webbing before them which marked the starting line. On a stand on the other side of the rail was the starter, a man whose goal was to get all of the horses standing still and facing forward in line at the same time and then releasing them. Assistant starters, usually strapping men with horse whips, stood behind them, helping to get anyone unruly into line. Jockeys needed to have their own mounts in position while also watching for the starter to pull the lever and spring the barrier to start the race and do all of this with any number of other horses and jockeys trying to do the same thing. Kicks and shouts and false starts were all trials to be borne for the chance at the perfect start. Loftus mastered this skill as did many of the era’s greatest jockeys, all angling for the flying start that would catch their mounts already in stride as the barrier gave way to the action.

August 13, 1919 saw Saratoga without their usual starter, Mars Cassidy. Loftus was well aware of Cassidy’s tells, but was not at all familiar with his replacement Charles Pettingill. Pettingill, who had once been a starter before becoming a judge, was known for the seeming inability to do his job; a number of the races on the Saratoga card that day had terrible starts, with Pettingill unable to keep things tidy and orderly. Then came the Sanford Memorial Stakes.

manowarupset
Upset and Man O’War at the finish of the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes.

Laden with 130 pounds, Man O’War was one of the high weights in the race, Golden Broom the other, also with 130 pounds. Loftus’s instructions were to let Golden Broom set the pace and then to move when he tired, rather than running on the front. The race was only six furlongs with every other horse massive underdogs next to the strapping Big Red. All Johnny had to do was avoid trouble and surely this start would end as all of the others would, with Red coming home first. Pettingill’s inability to get the horses at the start under control meant that Loftus, trying to get Man O’War back into position for a fresh start, wasn’t ready for the lever’s fall. The field got a jump on him and the greatest horse of the 20th century was nearly left at the post.

Doing his best to follow instructions, Johnny kept his mount behind the front runners, but soon realized that he was boxed in. Upset kept Golden Broom close to the rail, preventing him from squeezing through when the latter might bear out on the turn. Next to him was Donnaconna, just back on his flank. If he took Man O’War to the outside, going around all of this horseflesh, he would expend quite a bit of energy, that 130 pounds telling on any mortal body. If they stayed where they were, they would have to wait for an opportunity or create it. Loftus tried to create it, shouting for room to come through. Neither Golden Broom nor Upset gave way. The box was closing quickly as the ground between them and the finish line grew smaller and smaller.

man-o-war-cc-cook1539Finally, Golden Broom gave way, the 130-pound impost too much. He fell back, leaving only one horse in front, and finally Loftus was able to swing Big Red to the outside. With only a furlong left, Loftus unleashed Man O’War, urging him to make up ground. Willie Knapp, Upset’s jockey, did the same on his mount and, though the gap between the two was starting to close, the bare furlong turned in mere yards and then only feet for Man O’War to close the gap and then eclipse Upset. But Upset carried only 115 pounds to Man O’War’s 130 pounds, enough to make a difference. The crazy start plus the rough trip meant that despite every inch of the twenty-eight-foot stride that Man O’War possessed was not enough to catch the elusive Upset. They crossed the finish line, with the aptly named Upset a bare half-length in front. In the next couple of strides, Man O’War had caught the upstart, but it was too little too late.

It would be Man O’War’s only loss. It would contribute to Loftus’s undoing.

Legacy

sir-barton
Sir Barton & Johnny Loftus (Voss portrait – National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame)

Despite going on to win three more starts on Man O’War that year, Johnny’s legacy became forever tied to the misfortunes that resulted in Big Red’s only loss. He mysteriously lost his jockey’s license the following year and was never able to regain it; he applied for a trainer’s license, though, and was granted that immediately. He stayed in the game as long as he could, training stakes winners for prominent owners, but, when he had a streak of bad luck, he gave up the racing game for something far calmer and less risky: carpentry. He died in 1976, far away from the bugle’s call and the tiny square of leather that had been his office for so long.

In the end, John Patrick Loftus was remembered less for the classics he won and the Triple Crown he helped to pioneer and more for the bad start and even worse racing luck that plagued Man O’War on that fateful day, the one black mark on Big Red’s career that haunted the jockey, not the horse, for years to come.

His name was Johnny, an Irish boy who rode horses and became one of the era’s best and brightest jockeys. He was one of the First, the right pilot for the right horse at the moment when history was made.

Many great & glorious thanks to Dorothy Ours & her book on Man O’War for giving me inspiration as well as serving as a wonderful source on Johnny Loftus & many other topics.

Head to Head

It’s not a match race, really. When a race has twelve horses slated to start, each paying $1,000,000 for the privilege of running, the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park is a true horse race. Twelve starters, many possible outcomes.

Right?

chromearrogatedavehillThe coverage of the Pegasus, part of a slate of seven stakes races on Saturday, January 28th, pays lip service to the other ten starters, but really it all seems to come down to two horses: Arrogate and California Chrome. Arrogate, the four-year-old youngster, recently voted the world’s best racehorse by Longines, conqueror of the last year’s Travers Stakes and Breeder’s Cup Classic. California Chrome, six years old, on the verge of retirement and stud life, twice Horse of the Year, conquered by the upstart Arrogate both in the Classic and in the voting for world’s best racehorse.

The gate might hold twelve, but the world only sees two. Only two names matter.

classicfinish

Arrogate vs. California Chrome. Speedy wonder with only one loss in his racing career versus the veteran who nearly won a Triple Crown and beat all comers in 2016 except this newly minted rival. With one voted the best in the world, barely edging out the other, the question of supremacy becomes paramount.

Where have we seen this before?

Continue reading “Head to Head”

Making and Breaking Reputations

On October 12, 1920, about 3.37 pm, two horses stood at the barrier on Kenilworth Park’s dirt oval. The largest crowd ever to grace the stands watched as the two took to the track, one clad in Ross orange and black and the other in the yellow and black of Samuel Riddle, each known as the best of his class. As they lined up by the starter, one towering over the other, their riders took their positions, gripping the leather reins and waiting for this particular job to begin.

ticketThe match race itself had come together rather quickly, a response to the drumbeat of desire that threatened to drown out everything else in thoroughbred racing that fall. Man O’War had conquered all comers to that point, save for a slight blip on the map named Upset, but his owner’s caution had left one question still to be answered: how would Big Red fare amongst older horses? When Willis Sharpe Kilmer dropped his Exterminator out of the mix, Sir Barton became the symbol of the best that the older class had to offer: record setter under heavy weights, Triple Crown winner, the star of the Ross Stable. For the champion, though, the one who had done what Man O’War hadn’t, 1920 had been a hard campaign, with eight starts, three in August alone, after thirteen in 1919. Sure, Man O’War had had ten starts in 1920, but he didn’t have the shelly hooves that plagued Sir Barton. The track at Kenilworth was hard and fast, thanks to Abe Orpen’s hope for a speed duel. For Sir Barton, the solid surface and the residual soreness of a long campaign brought on lingering questions about soundness, but no one in the Ross camp was going to give their hand away. Kenilworth, though, had taken on a dour air as a result. As J.K.M. Ross laments in Boots and Saddles, this was “a battleground for greatness and a breeding ground for disappointment and distortion” (207).

goldcup2With his obvious advantages in height and muscle, it was clear how tremendous Man O’War was next to Sir Barton. While the Triple Crown winner was not the largest horse, he clearly showed why he had been so good on the track versus so many of the era’s best horses. Standing there at the barrier, though, Sir Barton looked like a common plater next to Man O’War. The race was nearly a foregone conclusion, but Ross’s sense of sportsmanship wouldn’t allow him to withdraw from the contest. In the end, Man O’War’s conquering of his competition only intensified the ascendency of his star. For Sir Barton, though, it might have been the contributing factor to his slow fade into near obscurity.

manowardrinksfromcupNinety-six years ago today, the Kenilworth Gold Cup was the match race that turned out to be no match at all. For Man O’War, the race resulted drinking champagne from the race’s gold trophy and retiring to stud to make an indelible and lasting mark on the pedigree of all thoroughbreds racing today. For Sir Barton, it was the end. He ran two more times, but his soundness and heart weren’t up to the task. He went quietly to stud and then, because of death and circumstance, to the Wild West, resting for all time in rural Wyoming.

But he left his mark loudly even if he went off quietly into the night. It’s in the walls of noise at Churchill Downs and Pimlico and Belmont in the spring. It’s in the vaunted places of horses like Citation, Secretariat, Affirmed, and now American Pharoah in the pantheon of thoroughbred racing. He may not have been a behemoth on the track, but his achievement on those spring days in 1919 has become the yardstick by which we measure all horses to this day.

Not even Big Red wears his crown.