The term ‘Triple Crown’ was coined in the decade after Sir Barton’s springtime domination of the classics, which, at the time, had yet to solidify their reputation as such. Though War Cloud completed the triple first, showing that making the trip from Louisville to Baltimore to New York was worth the trouble, the money that Sir Barton amassed in purses in his pursuit of the first Triple Crown is really what set the stage for the classics and the Triple Crown to become the gold standard for thoroughbreds. The chestnut son of Star Shoot* completed the triple in only 32 days — throwing in the Withers in between — a schedule that no trainer today would dream of following. By the time he got to the one-mile Dwyer in early July, Sir Barton was sore and tired and his performance in that race showed it. He earned a much-deserved long layoff, until September 11th, 1919, when he ran in the Hip Hip Hooray Purse.
When American Pharoah came back from his Triple Crown triumph in 2015, his owners chose the Haskell Invitational, another mile-and-a-quarter race, for his return after eight weeks off. In all honesty, American Pharoah could have retired the moment he crossed the finish line at Belmont and no one would have batted an eye, such is the rarity of the accomplishment. AP had two more starts after the Haskell in 2015, the Travers Stakes and then Breeders Cup Classic, where he completed the first-ever Grand Slam. After he walked out of the winner’s circle at Keeneland, American Pharoah took his place at Coolmore Ashford Stud and hasn’t been under saddle since. For Sir Barton, though, it was a different time, where the Triple Crown wasn’t a thing yet and horses ran well into their fourth and fifth years and even beyond. He would run eight more times after the Dwyer in 1919, the first of those being the Hip Hip Hooray purse.
His performance showed that he needed a race to round him back into shape. Sir Barton took the lead at the race’s start, but faded by the end of the six-furlong dash, holding on to finish second behind his stablemate Billy Kelly. Both of them gave weight to their competition, 15 to 18 pounds, and both outlasted the others, but the eight-week layoff showed in Sir Barton’s performance. Two days later, though, he would be back on the track for the Potomac Handicap, also at Havre de Grace.
It’s not hard to think of the run for the classics as this statement about the noble pursuit of one’s best potential, a celebration of the right horse with the right jockey and trainer and owner and breeder. The intrinsic value of the attempt and the catharsis of losing or the exuberance of winning seem to be the very thing that brings us back to the Triple Crown races year after year. As the lovers of the thoroughbred, we seek the high regardless of the lows.
The Triple Crown as we know had its origins not necessarily in the noble, but in something far more practical and cynical: money. That’s right: War Cloud opened the door and Sir Barton kicked it open not for the mere doing of the thing, but because of the paychecks that came with it.
From the first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in 1919 to the second Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in 1930, the number of horses going for the triple increased as did the purses that they came with:
1918 Kentucky Derby – $18775
1919 Kentucky Derby – $24600
1920 Kentucky Derby – $36650
1921 Kentucky Derby – $55450
1922 Kentucky Derby – $63775
1923 Kentucky Derby – $63600 + $5000 Gold Cup
1924 Kentucky Derby – $62775 + gold cup
1925 Kentucky Derby – $62950 + gold cup
1926 Kentucky Derby – $60075 + gold cup
1927 Kentucky Derby – $61000 + gold cup
1928 Kentucky Derby – $65375 + gold cup
1929 Kentucky Derby – $63950 + gold cup
1930 Kentucky Derby – $60725 + gold cup
1918 Preakness – $17250* ($16250)
1919 Preakness – $30500
1920 Preakness – $29000
1921 Preakness – $53000
1922 Preakness – $61000
1923 Preakness – $62000
1924 Preakness – $64000
1925 Preakness – $62700
1926 Preakness – $63625
1927 Preakness – $63100
1928 Preakness – $70000
1929 Preakness – $62325
1930 Preakness – $61925
1918 Belmont – $10200
1919 Belmont – $14200
1920 Belmont – $9200
1921 Belmont – $10650
1922 Belmont – $46700
1923 Belmont – $46000
1924 Belmont – $50880
1925 Belmont – $46500
1926 Belmont – $56550
1927 Belmont – $72410
1928 Belmont – $74930
1929 Belmont – $71150
1930 Belmont – $77540
By the time Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown in 1930, each race’s purse was the equivalent of $1 million in 2016 dollars, tripling and even quadrupling the purses War Cloud (1918) ran for in some cases. So, while I do enjoy the romantic notion of the pursuit of the Triple Crown as this thing that is the ultimate accomplishment in the Sport of Kings, I know that at the heart of the whole thing, at least to start, was, quite simply, money.
(By the way, the 2016 Kentucky Derby purse will be a minimum of $2 million, the Preakness a minimum of $1.5 million, and the Belmont a minimum of $1.5 million.)
*The Preakness Stakes was run in two divisions in 1918; War Cloud won one division and Jack Hare, Jr. the other.