Sir Barton: The First Triple Crown Winner

Sir Barton
1919 Triple Crown Winner
Sir Barton was a blaze faced chestnut colt by the
leading sire *Star Shoot, a son of English Triple Crown
winner Isinglass. His dam was the stakes producing mare
Lady Sterling, a seventeen year old daughter of the great
Hanover. He was bred by John E. Madden and Vivian Goach,
and was foaled at Madden’s Hamburg Place in Lexington
during the spring of 1916. The farm was also the
birthplace of Kentucky Derby winners Old Rosebud, Paul
Jones, Zev, and Flying Ebony.
While racing for Madden as a juvenile, Sir Barton was
unplaced in the Tremont, Flash, United States Hotel, and
Sanford Memorial Stakes. Barton had yet to finish in the
money when he was sold privately to Canadian Naval
Commander John Kenneth Levison Ross for the sum of $10,000
during his two-year-old career. Ross had inherited a
reported twelve million dollars from his father, James
Ross, a founder of the Canadian Pacific Railways, and was
putting the money to use by building an already powerful
racing stable. His horses included that season’s top
two-year-old, Billy Kelly, as well as Cudgel, who shared
the handicap championship with W.S. Kilmer’s Sun Briar in
1919, and the champion filly Milkmaid.
Harvey Guy Bedwell, known as “Hard Guy,” trained Sir
Barton and Commander Ross’ other horses. Bedwell had
worked with horses since the age of thirteen, when he had
earned a living as a cowpuncher in his native state of
Oregon. His first experience with racehorses had come on
the western circuits, and when he moved east, Bedwell
became the leading trainer in the country, topping the
earnings list in his first year.
Sir Barton had such soft, shelly hooves that he often
lost shoes during races, even throwing all four shoes in
one event. Piano felt was inserted between his shoe and
hoof in an attempt to reduce the pain caused by hard, fast
racetracks. The constant discomfort may have been part of
the cause of Sir Barton’s unpleasant disposition. The
colt was a grouchy snob, disliking people, horses, and
other animals with the only possible exception being his
groom, Toots Thompson.
He also detested workouts, only extending himself when
pushed by other horses, and his trainer was forced to use
relays of horses to chase him around the track each
morning. As Guy Bedwell often explained in frustration,
“To get him fit you have to half kill him with work – and
a lot of other horses as well.” J.K.L. Ross’s son may
have summed it up best when he described Sir Barton as “an
irascible, exasperating creature.”
Wearing the colors of J.K.L. Ross, Sir Barton raced
twice more as a two-year-old. With Earl Sande in the
saddle for the first time, he was out of the money behind
Eternal in the Hopeful Stakes, but then turned in a strong
performance in his final race as a juvenile. Sir Barton
surprised many by closing strongly to finish second behind
Dunboyne in the Futurity Stakes.
Sir Barton was still a maiden when he was entered in
the 1919 Kentucky Derby as a rabbit for the favored Billy
Kelly. Commander Ross had bet $50,000 that his colt Billy
Kelly would beat Eternal in the 1919 Kentucky Derby. As
juveniles, the colts had shared championship
status, and
Ross was anxious to prove his horse was best. The plan
was for Sir Barton, ridden by Johnny Loftus, to set an
early pace, tiring out Eternal and Under Fire, so that
Billy Kelly could come from behind to win. It backfired
when Billy Kelly couldn’t catch Sir Barton in the stretch,
and finished second, five lengths behind his stablemate.
Eternal, however, had finished tenth, and Commander Ross
collected on his bet.
Only four days after his win at Churchill Downs, Sir
Barton ran in the Preakness Stakes, romping to a four
length victory over Eternal while Dunboyne, winner of the
previous year’s Futurity Stakes, finished eleventh. The
May 15 edition of the Baltimore Sun carried the following
poetic explanation for his victory:
“He was bred in old Kentucky,
Where the meadow’s grass is blue,
And he was trained in Maryland,
The whole winter through.
He won the Derby in the mud,
Which proved his speed was true,
And now he’s won the Preakness,
Sir Bart, hats off to you!”
On May 24, Sir Barton beat Eternal once again, this
time in the Withers Stakes. When he captured the Belmont
Stakes in the American record time of 2:17 2/5 for a mile
and three sixteenths, he became America’s first Triple
Crown winner, although the series of races wasn’t known as
the Triple Crown until the 1930’s. Beneath a headline
that declared “SIR BARTON EASILY WINS THE BELMONT:
Amazing 3-Year-Old Not Extended, Yet Sets New Track Record
for 1 3/8 Miles,” The New York Times described Sir
Barton’s triumph:
“During the last eighth, Loftus
sat still as a statue, holding his
mount back as well as he could,
but the beautiful chestnut could
not be restrained entirely. He was
endowed with the spirit of
competition and ran straight and
true to the end, pulling up
without showing the least trace of
weariness.”
Sir Barton’s first loss after the series came when he
attempted to give weight away in the Dwyer Stakes, and was
beaten by Purchase, later winner of the first Jockey Club
Gold Cup. In the meantime, Billy Kelly was on his way to
becoming a top sprinter, and became responsible for one of
Sir Barton’s five defeats that season when the pair met in
a six furlong sprint at Havre de Grace. Sir Barton was
quick to settle the score, however, when two days later,
despite a 132 pound burden he easily handed defeat to his
speedy stablemate in the Potomac Handicap.
AFter a game effort in which he finished second to The
Porter on a heavy track, Sir Barton ran third behind
Cudgel and Exterminator in the Havre de Grace Handicap.
In the Maryland Handicap, the Ross colt was required
to give twenty seven pounds to Mad Hatter, a champion
handicapper of later years, but proved his talent with a
two length victory despite being forced wide. Mad Hatter
sought vengeance for the defeat by scoring against Sir
Barton in the Pimlico Autumn Handicap when jockey Johnny
Loftus was forced to ease a sore Sir Barton in the
homestretch.
With Clarence Kummer in the irons Sir Barton won the
second and third races in the Pimlico Fall Serial, beating
The Porter and Billy Kelly, and with a three-year-old
record of eight wins in thirteen starts, Sir Barton
successfully claimed both divisional and Horse of the Year
honors.
As a four-year-old, Sir Barton debuted at Havre de
Grace, running fourth behind stablemate Billy Kelly in the
six furlong Belair Handicap. He then won an overnight
handicap while giving eleven pounds to the champion filly
Milkmaid, and, forced wide, ran third behind Wildair in
the Marathon Handicap. He was forth in the Philadelphia
Handicap while conceding thirty two pounds to the winner.
Sir Barton scored by a length under 132 pounds in the
Rennert Handicap at Pimlico, then met the mighty gelding
Exterminator in the Saratoga Handicap. Carrying 129
pounds, Sir Barton beat the older champion, despite giving
him weight, in one of the finest races of his career.
Next came a loafing victory in the Dominion Handicap
at Fort Erie under 134 pounds.
In the Merchants and Citizens Handicap, Sir Barton
defeated Gnome and set a new American record of 1:55 3/5
for the mile and three sixteenths, despite a 133 pound
impost. Sir Barton was the undisputed champion among the
older horses, but a younger champion prevented his
absolute dominance.
Man o’ War’s reputation had grown from that of a
living legend to near immortal status as he reinforced his
greatness with each brilliant victory during the 1920
season. He had yet, however, to challenge older horses.
Naturally, fans clamored for a meeting between the two
champions and racetracks vied for the opportunity to host
the event. The two owners finally agreed to a match race
at Kenilworth Park in Canada.
As the “Race of the Century” approached, both stables
dealt with the problems of the publicity associated with
the event, as well as rumors surrounding the soundness of
their horses. Sir Barton also had a change of riders.
After the hype and anticipation, the race itself was
almost anti-climatic. Suffering defeat, the first Triple
Crown winner began a tradition that was also honored by
the Triple Crown winners War Admiral, Whirlaway, and
Assault, all of whom also suffered defeat in great match
races.
After Man o’ War beat him in the 1920 Kenilworth Gold
Cup, Sir Barton was unable to win a single race. He lost
the Laurel Stakes to Blazes and The Porter, ran third
behind Mad Hatter and Billy Kelly in Pimlico’s Fall Serial
#2, and finished second to Billy Kelly in the third
Serial. Retired to stud, he was sold to B.B. and Montfort
Jones, and stood at their Audley Farm in Virginia, where
he sired several excellent fillies, including the 1928
Kentucky Oaks winner Easter Stockings.
In 1933, Sir Barton was sent to the U.S. Remount
Station in Front Royal, Virginia, for reasons now unknown.
Somehow he ended up at the Remount Station in Fort
Robinson, Nebraska, standing stud for less than ten
dollars. J.R. Hylton, who owned a few racehorses, bought
the old champion and brought him home to his ranch in
Douglas, Wyoming, where he passed away on October 30,
1937. He was originally buried near his paddock, with a
simple sandstone headstone and a post and rail fence
surrounding the plot, but in 1968 he was moved to the
Washington Park in Douglas, where America’s first Triple
Crown winner now lies beneath a generic fiberglass statue
of a horse, since the small park could not afford a real
sculpture.
Many racehorses who achieve a certain level of fame
receive affectionate nicknames from their fans. Man o’
War was Big Red, and Exterminator answered to Old Bones.
Yet perhaps as a result of his slightly less than lovable
personality, Sir Barton was denied this honor. Author
Marvin Drager later attempted to correct the slight,
dubbing him “The Tender Toed Typhoon.” Sir Barton was
elected into the Hall of Fame in 1957, and was honored on
the top half of the list on Blood-Horse magazine’s Top 100
Racehorses of the Twentieth Century.
Sir Barton’s Race Record