Countdown to a Celebration

The_Courier_Journal_Thu__Jun_12__1919_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.

sir_barton_silksHere 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.

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Thanks for the Memories!

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.

The Countdown Is On!

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!

From One to Thirteen in Ninety-Nine Years

sir_barton_silksNinety-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.

Continue reading “From One to Thirteen in Ninety-Nine Years”

Sir Barton on Film!

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.

Happy, Happy Birthday!

26755One 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.

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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!

William S. Walker, Jock of All Trades

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Young William Walker (Photo from Kentucky Historical Society)

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.

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Photo from Louisville Courier Journal (9/21/1933)

 

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.

A Writer’s Ode

drffrontpageoldI first stepped onto a racetrack at age 12, thanks to my aunt Betty indulging my burgeoning interest in the sport with a trip to the Birmingham Race Course. I don’t remember much about that trip — outside of the grizzled old gamblers who thought I was some sort of betting prodigy — but I do remember the Daily Racing Forms scattered throughout the track, as ubiquitous as the discarded losing tickets. Every visit to the racetrack means a trip to the newsstand to grab the Form and consult its pages before I hand over my money for any bet, whether it’s the Preakness or the third race on a weekday at Keeneland. So, today, on the 123rd birthday of the Form, I wanted to explore the impact of this historic publication and the institution that has endeavored to preserve it.

Four years ago, the Sir Barton Project started as an idea that led to a search that then turned into the hubris necessary to think that one is the right person to take that idea to fruition. From high school to college to graduate school, I learned how to research topics of all kinds, from high literary questions to the mundane inquiries about daily tasks. When I undertook the challenging task of bringing Sir Barton’s complete story to print, I knew that the place I needed to go to find his story and to bring its scattered pieces together lay in one place: Kentucky. More specifically, the Keeneland Library and the Daily Racing Form archive.

splash_projects_equestrian_keeneland_libraryI have spent many hours in the stacks at Keeneland, wanting to break into song at the richness of their collections. How many times have I heard “Have you been to the Keeneland Library?” as I inquire with other places about resources I’m trying to find? The Library is the first place and the best place to go whenever I need an article, a photograph, or a hard-to-find book.

Keeneland Library interiorIn addition, the Library gave writers and researchers the most thorough collection of the essential publication for racing across history, the Daily Racing Form archive. My time on the DRF archive, searching through form charts, workout reports, and articles for horses from Sir Barton to Man o’ War to War Cloud, would probably total in years at this point. This book about Sir Barton came to be because I was able to trace the milestones of his career from the first mentions of him as a yearling up to his death in 1937 and beyond. The efforts of Becky Ryder and every person who worked on this archive have been essential to projects like mine. I cannot thank them for this resource enough.

DRFlogoHappy Birthday to you, Daily Racing Form, first published on this day in 1894! Thank you for bringing racing to your readers day after day for 123 years. You hold the history of racing within your pages each day, preserving it for generations of racing fans. Many thanks to the Keeneland Library as well for making the DRF‘s past available to the present and future of thoroughbred racing.

Goodbye, Sammy

hyltonranchEighty 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).

sir_bartonNowhere 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.

SBConfirmationHalf 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.

 

Anticlimactic

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American Pharoah

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.
 

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California Chrome

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.

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Voss painting of Sir Barton with Johnny Loftus aboard.

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.

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Sir Barton

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.