Eighty years ago yesterday, on a lonely Saturday night high in the Laramie Mountains of Wyoming, the ‘king of them all,’ as his yearling breaker had called Sir Barton, breathed his last. Far away from the crowds that had heralded his triumphs, the recurring colic that had meant long nights for the Hylton ranch took its toll on America’s first Triple Crown winner. It took nearly two weeks for the news to make it to the newspapers, and, once it did, the obituaries took interesting turns.
At times, the Kentucky-bred Sir Barton was called the ‘greatest Canadian racer of all time,’ though he only raced in Canada once and his Canadian owner kept his American horses in Maryland most of the year. Of course, ever present in each inch devoted to memorializing Sir Barton was his connection to Man o’ War. Obituaries pointed out that the first Triple Crown winner was not fit to meet his rival that day in 1920, that his career was not as stellar as Man o’ War’s, that his stud career paled next to the big red horse’s. Inaccuracies about his career popped up in some places: that Sir Barton was sold at auction when Ross broke up his stable (he wasn’t); that the match race was his last race (it wasn’t); that he had been in retirement in Wyoming since his career ended (he hadn’t).
Nowhere in these inches did the Triple Crown, which had its fourth winner in 1937, come up. Such misstatements and omissions continued the thousand small cuts to the reputation of the horse that pioneered the greatest pursuit in thoroughbred racing, a sad way to send Sir Barton off into history.
Half a year later, Margaret Phipps Leonard published a laudatory look at Sir Barton in The Horse, published by the American Remount Association. As the most famous horse to ever grace the rolls of the Remount, it was only fitting that the ARA would honor Sir Barton’s passing with this look at his life, sharing new details about the horse that had stood in the shadow of his Big Red rival for so long. My favorite? While standing stud at Audley, Sir Barton had accidentally kicked one of his grooms during his daily dressing down. As soon as he had kicked, Sammy (Sir Barton’s nickname from his racing days) jumped over and looked at the groom with an apology in his eyes. Sir Barton might have been more horse than pet, but he was as brilliant off the track as he was on it.
Eighty years ago, we said goodbye to Sammy. In spring 2019, we will say hello to him again in the pages of ‘Sir Barton and the Birth of the American Triple Crown’ (tentative title) from the University Press of Kentucky.
America’s latest Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, ended his racing career with a bang two years ago, winning the Breeder’s Cup Classic in 2:00.07, easily a track record time. California Chrome, another fan favorite and winner of two-thirds of the Triple Crown, went to Gulfstream Park and faced Arrogate again; Chrome finished far back of the big grey colt that bested him in the Breeder’s Cup Classic mere weeks prior. Unlike Pharoah, Chrome’s last race was not a fitting end to the stellar career that included wins in the Dubai World Cup, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and more.
When top horses end their careers with clunkers, hindsight says that the connections should have stopped when they were ahead. How can they allow this horse to go out and tarnish their careers with lackluster starts? The irony is, that any owner or trainer or jockey cannot know that this last start should have been the last start. We’d all like our favorites to go out on top, but rarely do they get to do that.
Man o’ War did, exiting the match race in October 1920 with his stellar reputation intact. The film of his long, twenty-eight-foot stride played across movie houses across the country. Sam Riddle showed him off both on film and in person before sending his prized immortal horse off to stud, satisfied that they had accomplished all that they could with their incomparable colt. The horse that finished second to him in that very same race, Sir Barton, did not fare as well.
Many times as I have researched Sir Barton and his career, I have seen writers say that the match race was the last race for the first Triple Crown winner as it was for his rival. It was not, however; Sir Barton would start three more times before year’s end. The first was ninety-seven years ago, in the Laurel Handicap.
Carrying 125 pounds for this race, Sir Barton strode out onto the Laurel track for this one-mile race. He faced a field of five others, all horses he had seen in one capacity or another, usually when he beat them to the wire. The Laurel Handicap should have been a cakewalk for him, especially given the caliber of performance he had turned in when he won the Merchants and Citizens Handicap in late August. Instead, under a new-to-him jockey, Jack O’Brien, Sir Barton showed little of what had made him so great mere weeks earlier. After a lackluster warm-up, Sir Barton broke well enough, settling into third behind the front-runners. When it came time to make his move and challenge for the lead, O’Brien could not get his mount to respond. They barely held off a surging Sennings Park to finish third in a race with a brisk, but not sizzling pace.
Sir Barton would start two more times, both at Pimlico; he did not win either start, but he was in the money for all of them. The only horse seen fit to challenge Man o’ War was game enough to stay in it, but he didn’t seem to have enough left in his tank — or heart — to be the stellar racehorse that he had been so many times before. Following him throughout this was the towering shadow of his rival, always coloring the prose whenever his name came up in the papers of the day.
Like Chrome and so many others, those last starts did fit the career of the horse that paved the way for Secretariat and American Pharoah, a fitting testament to the uncertainty that is the sport of racing.
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.
“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.
If you’re going to be in Baltimore at Pimlico on May 20th, guess what? We will be there as well! That’s right: The Sir Barton Project (i.e., myself and my amazing husband) will be there to experience the joy and pageantry of Preakness weekend at Pimlico. I’ll be around for both Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness Days, another tick off my personal bucket list.
I went to the Kentucky Derby in 2007, the year that Street Sense won, the first time I had seen live racing in YEARS. Alabama isn’t exactly a hotbed of thoroughbred racing, sadly.
Now, if I could only pick a horse to root for in this year’s Triple Crown…
He 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, 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.
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.
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.
The 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).
With 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.
Ninety-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.