Today, Churchill Downs unveiled its logo for the 145th Kentucky Derby, to be run May 4, 2019. Even though Sir Barton won the 45th Kentucky Derby on May 10th, the 145th Run for the Roses marks the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown winner taking his first steps toward history.
If you look on the bottom left of the front page for this blog, you will see a countdown of our own. For now, I am counting down to the Kentucky Derby, BUT, as soon as I have an official publication date for Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, I will update to help us count the days, weeks, and months until Sir Barton’s full story is available at your local bookseller.
Until then, keep checking in for news and other fun activities as we get closer to the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown!
Ninety-nine years ago, a chestnut colt with a wide white blaze whipped across the finish line at Belmont Park, followed by only two others. Johnny Loftus might have waved his whip in celebration as his mount galloped out, finally trotting over to the judge’s stand to raucous waves of applause from the crowd of 25,000 straining to see the new champion. As Sir Barton received pats of congrats, as Commander Ross stood in the winner’s circle to receive the Belmont’s silver platter, horse racing was forever changed.
First and foremost, I am a fan of horse racing and a few other sports, including tennis. I love the championship moment, that instant when it’s game, set, and match and the player collapses on the court in elation. I love Larry Collmus’s call of the 2015 Belmont Stakes, when, finally, American Pharoah was the ONE. I love those moments because, in an instant, life smiles on the player, the horse, the people who love them, and those watching it all play out. Those are moments that overshadow the dark ones in their lives and ours as well.
Those moments of triumph make getting up each morning and working toward a goal worth all of the hard work, the long hours, the absolute commitment. Today, we may see yet another of those moments. I have been around long enough to have seen my share of almosts: Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, I’ll Have Another, California Chrome. Finally, though, I saw greatness incarnate when AP wowed us at Big Sandy. I cried in elation for hours afterward. I hope today that I get to do the same, that we will see Justify echo what American Pharoah did three years ago and bring us all to another one of those moments, the kind that you remember where you were and what you were doing when it happened.
He has done the improbable so far: broken the curse of Apollo in a driving rain, won the Preakness on a swamp track, and now come to New York, to Belmont, on the precipice of immortality. All that stands between him and that elite fraternity is 12 furlongs and nine other horses. I hope that I will need to revise my manuscript to reflect the addition of another name to this pantheon of greatness.
Good luck, Justify! Good luck to you and Mike Smith and Bob Baffert and all of the smiling faces behind you! We can’t wait to see you fly!
(This blog post is the third in a series of four, profiling the first horse to traverse what we now know as the Triple Crown trail. In 1918, War Cloud started in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes for the first time, inspiring Sir Barton’s run in all three the following year. You can read part one here and part two here.)
In 1917, the Woodlawn Vase, prized trophy with antebellum origins, came into the possession of Colonel E.R. Bradley after his colt Kalitan won the Preakness Stakes. Previous owners had passed the Vase to the next one via whatever race they chose. Thomas Clyde decided to give the Vase to the Maryland Jockey Club, who, in turn, designated the trophy for the Preakness. It was the birth of yet another tradition for Maryland’s most prestigious stakes race. In 1918, the Woodlawn Vase was supposed to go to the winner of the Preakness Stakes, but unique circumstances would see it stay in Maryland rather than traveling home with a winning owner.
(This blog post is the second in a series of four, profiling the first horse to traverse what we now know as the Triple Crown trail. In 1918, one horse started in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes for the first time, inspiring Sir Barton’s run in all three the following year. You can read part one here.)
In 1916, A.K. Macomber sent his imported colt, Star Hawk, to the Kentucky Derby as one of the historic race’s favorites. Not quite a year into his reentry in American racing, Macomber was poised to win his first Kentucky Derby, tantalizingly close to one of those dream moments all horse owners seek. Instead, jockey Johnny Loftus on a colt named George Smith held off the driving Star Hawk in the stretch to win the Derby for owner John Sanford. Coming that close to winning the Kentucky Derby prompted Macomber to search his growing stable for another chance at the roses. He tapped War Cloud to carry the red and white Macomber stripes in the 1918 Kentucky Derby.
(This blog post is the first in a series of four, profiling the first horse to traverse what we now know as the Triple Crown trail. In 1918, one horse started in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes for the first time, inspiring Sir Barton’s run in all three the following year.)
After dominating victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Sir Barton won the Belmont Stakes on June 11, 1919, sealing America’s first Triple Crown. Sir Barton was the first to win all three, but he was not the first to run in all three classics. That distinction belongs to War Cloud, a British-bred colt owned by adventurer and financier turned breeder and owner Abraham Kingsley (A. K.) Macomber. In 1918, War Cloud’s trip through what we now know as the Triple Crown trail was a pursuit fueled by money and prestige, a chase that caught the eye of the racing industry, including Commander Ross and H.G. Bedwell.
A Little History
Prior to War Cloud, only three horses – Vagabond (1876), Hindus (1900), and Norse King (1915) – had started in the Kentucky Derby and then shipped to Baltimore (or New York, in Hindus’ case) to run in the Preakness Stakes. The Preakness and Belmont Stakes count 27 horses that were starters in both prior to 1918, aided in part by the Preakness was run in the New York area between 1890 and 1908, once at Morris Park and then at Gravesend. Apart from the races’ inconsistent scheduling, the distances between each city made owners and trainers reluctant to ship their horses – until 1918.
Instead, the Triple Crown, this now-essential test of horses, came about because of two important elements: money and prestige. A.K. Macomber, already wealthy in his own right, may not have chased the money, but he did desire the prestige that came with running his horses in the sport’s most prestigious races. And, like Sir Barton’s owner Commander Ross, he was not afraid to use his considerable fortune to make his mark on the sport forever.
One hundred and two years ago, Lady Sterling dropped to the straw of the foaling stall she had been laboring in and, about two in the morning, delivered a beautiful chestnut colt, one of about a hundred born at Hamburg Place that year. The colt had a wide blaze that started high on his forehead, just under his ears, and cascaded down his lovely face, veering off over his left nostril. Half-brother to Sir Martin, the best two-year-old of 1908, the colt that would become Sir Barton was the son of Star Shoot, a descendant of an English Triple Crown winner, and Lady Sterling, a daughter of Hanover, 1887 Belmont Stakes winner. He was royally bred and, as he grew, his potential glowed.
Hamburg Place’s yearling breaker, Frank Brosche, singled him out from the beginning. When showing a visitor the yearlings at the farm in 1917, Brosche saved Sir Barton for last, calling him “the king of them all.” His breeder, John E. Madden, kept the colt in his racing stable, and, in 1918, he ran Sir Barton in a number of prestigious two-year-old races until Commander J.K.L. Ross bought the colt in August 1918. As part of Ross’s stable, Sir Barton would go on to a historic career, winning what became known as the first Triple Crown in 1919, and, in 1920, becoming the older horse tapped as rival to Man o’ War.
The story of Sir Barton and what we now know as the Triple Crown began in the wee hours of April 26, 1916, as he found his feet and stood on trembling legs, ready to make his mark as “king of them all.”
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.