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The Most Glorious Crown
The Story of America's Triple Crown Thoroughbreds from Sir Barton to American Pharoah
By Marvin Drager, Ed McNamara
Triumph Books LLCCopyright © 2016 Sharon Drager, Laura Drager, and Iris Drager Gordon
All rights reserved.
Sir Barton – 1919
In the spring of 1971, the general opinion among turfmen was that Hoist the Flag would win the Kentucky Derby easily and could even take the Triple Crown. A few weeks before the Derby, however, he shattered a leg during a workout at Belmont Park, which ended his racing career. As a result, there was a mad scramble to enter horses in the Derby at the last moment, Thoroughbreds that otherwise never would have made the trip to Louisville. Suddenly, everyone began to have delusions of winning the "Run for the Roses," now that the favorite was gone.
A little more than a half century earlier in the spring of 1919, a rather diminutive, deep-chested colt, with an irregular blaze and richly burnished chestnut coat, was also entered in the Kentucky Derby at the last moment. He had an undistinguished track record and really had no business running the classic race. However, he had a specific purpose. He was to lose. But after the race, he rose from obscurity to the peak of success and, sadly, then returned to obscurity. This is the dramatic story of Sir Barton, America's first Triple Crown champion.
He was foaled on the vast Hamburg Place farm, just outside of Lexington, Kentucky, which was owned by John E. Madden, one of the foremost breeders of Thoroughbred horses at the time. The colt was by Star Shoot, out of Lady Sterling, a 17-year-old mare. His sire was the son of Isinglass, an English Triple Crown winner, and he was the half-brother of Sir Martin, who had been acclaimed the two-year-old champion of America in 1908. For all of his excellent lineage, he was plagued with soft, shelly hooves, which he inherited from his sire. His feet were so tender that shoeing was always an intricate process. Piano felt was often inserted between the shoe and the foot, but he still walked in pain. Because of this condition, it was not unusual for him to lose his shoes in competition, and in one race later in his career, he lost all four of them.
Despite this physical problem, Madden liked the horse and kept him for his own colors. Sir Barton made his debut in the Tremont Stakes at Aqueduct in New York City as a two-year-old, finishing fifth. He next raced at Saratoga in August, in the Flash, U. S. Hotel, and Sanford Memorial classics for freshmen horses and lost in each race. Although his showing was rather dismal, he still displayed an ability for good speed.
Attending the Saratoga meeting that August was John Kenneth Levison Ross, a former commander of a World War I destroyer in the Royal Canadian Navy and the scion of a distinguished Dominion family that helped to found the Canadian Pacific Railway. He had started a stable in 1915. With him was his trainer, H. G. Bedwell, a former Oregon cowboy who had a reputation for restoring broken-down horses to winning form. Both men were looking over the year's crop. Madden knew of Ross' desire to add to his string and encouraged him to consider Sir Barton. Madden had become disenchanted by the horse's performances, but still felt that with the proper handling the colt had the ability to become a winner. By the end of August, Ross and Bedwell had arrived at the same conclusion. They paid $10,000 and went home with Sir Barton.
Their immediate objective was to prepare him to run in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park on September 14. In the meantime, he was used to help train the top horse of the Ross stable, Billy Kelly, another two-year-old who soon found it tough to keep pace with his new stablemate. The immortal Earl Sande, then just a youngster, rode Sir Barton in the Futurity. Although there was little hope that he would finish in the money as he went off at 15-1, the colt flashed across the finish line second to Dunboyne with a surging burst of speed, even though he had been boxed in until the last furlong. Nevertheless, the 1918 season ended with victory still eluding the chestnut colt.
All through the winter, Ross thought only of the Kentucky Derby and of how Billy Kelly could beat his archrival, Eternal, who had been the winner in a match race by the two at the Laurel Race Course in Maryland. When the time came to travel to Kentucky, it was decided at the last moment to send Sir Barton along as a running mate. Shortly thereafter, Ross and Bedwell evolved a strategy for the race, and Sir Barton was also entered in it. The plan was for Sir Barton to take the lead at the start and set a fast pace to kill off the top competition, Eternal and Under Fire. When they had been run into the ground, Billy Kelly would then breeze by for the win. Earl Sande was given his choice of horses and naturally picked Billy Kelly. Johnny Loftus, who had won the Derby in 1916 on George Smith and was considered a master of pacing, was assigned to Sir Barton with the instructions to give him his head and let him run for as long as he could. But for the fact that he was paired with his stablemate, Sir Barton would have left the post at 50-1 instead of as a favorite. He was still a maiden in search of his first taste of victory.
Among other sportsman qualities, Ross was noted for his eagerness to accept a challenge, dare, or side bet. A few months before the Derby, he was seated with friends in a restaurant when he was approached by a "yeasty-faced little man" who started up a conversation on the forthcoming race. The man believed that Eternal would win it and desired to bet on the results. Ross' son recalled the incident in his book Boots and Saddles:
My father, in his usual courteous manner and, I might say, with typically fast response to a dare, asked what amount the stranger wanted to bet. He told me later he expected an answer around or below $100.
"Would fifty thousand suit you, Commander?"
At first my father thought it was a joke, but he didn't hesitate to reply.
"That would suit me well, sir. Provided you produce some guarantee of payment should you lose."
The stranger seemed insulted, which was understandable to Ross' friends, for they knew the stranger. He was Arnold Rothstein, the noted gambler, who had yet to make his reputation as one of the supposed principals behind baseball's infamous "Black Sox" World Series scandal in 1919. However, he did enjoy a good reputation in the underworld for paying off his debts. As a result, the wager was made, but with the understanding that it would be off if neither horse finished in the money.
Derby day found the track heavy from a night of rain. The race went according to plan for 1 1/8" miles. Sir Barton ran well out in front as the field thundered past the stands to the first turn. He was moving effortlessly and increased his lead to three lengths by the top of the stretch. At the 1/8" pole he was supposed to fade. Instead, he went to a five-length lead. "There was no Billy Kelly. But neither was there anybody else," wrote the younger Ross. "Sir Barton crossed the finish line with his ears pricked and with Loftus standing in the stirrups glancing over his shoulder wondering what happened to the rest."
Billy Kelly came in second, Under Fire third. It was the first time in the history of the Kentucky Derby that the one-two horses wore the same colors. It was also the first time that a maiden had won the Derby, and the racing world rubbed its eyes in disbelief. The mud and other excuses were cited for the poor showings of the favorites. Regardless of these, the knowledgeable railbirds conceded that the spectacular victory was of major consequence. The Derby, according to them, was "just another horse race" until Sir Barton put it on the map. The race also proved that Mr. Rothstein was a man of his word. A few days later, Commander Ross received payment.
The common judgment of Sir Barton's victory was that it was a freak happening, but wait until the Preakness. In 1919, winning both was no mean trick because Pimlico staged its event just four days later, on May 14, leaving little time for training. There was also the risk of a horse developing shipping fever or being injured while moving from Louisville to Maryland at a time when transportation was a lot slower and full of risks for such a fragile commodity as a Thoroughbred horse.
Nevertheless, in the Preakness Sir Barton went off as a $1.40 to $1.00 favorite. His nearest and strongest competitors were Eternal, 9-to-1; Sweep On, 15-to-1; and Dunboyne, 4-to-1, in a field of 12.
This time, Ross and Bedwell had Earl Sande ride another stablemate, Milkmaid. The plan called for Sande to wheel in and break up the general alignment in as legitimate a fashion as would pass the inspection of the starter in order to allow Sir Barton to find a favorable position. Loftus, on the other hand, was merely told to "get out to the front as soon as possible and stay there." Unlike the Derby, the track was fast.
Once more, Sir Barton needed little urging. He swept out front at the start and was never headed or passed, winning over Eternal by four lengths. As for Milkmaid, a filly, she found too many colts around of more than passing interest for her to take the race seriously. The Preakness made many believers out of doubters: Sir Barton had arrived.
With the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness under their belts, Ross and Bedwell refused to ease up the pressure to keep their colt razor sharp. They entered him in the Withers at Belmont on May 24. Here it was decided to let Eternal take the lead into the stretch. The race at that time was run clockwise, and Bedwell, in training, had observed Eternal's tendency to bear out and away from the rail at the final turn. Loftus, therefore, trailed the horse until the homestretch and then moved Sir Barton inside Eternal to win by three lengths as he made up his lost distance with the maneuver.
This victory sent the fans stark raving mad for Sir Barton, and they looked forward to the Belmont Stakes on June 11 with excruciating impatience. The Belmont would be the true test for the colt, with nobody doubting that he would win, even though the distance would be longer than he had ever run. In 1919, the race was at 1 3/8 miles instead of 1 1/2 miles as it is today. So confident was the public that they established him a whopping 7-to-20 favorite.
By then, Sir Barton began to display a personality distinctly his own. Perhaps it was the assurance born of winning. The fact is, he made everyone aware of him in the stable. He had a nasty disposition, no doubt partly because of his sore feet. He ignored horses, despised humans, and hated pets. He preferred to remain aloof and was a thorough snob. On top of this, he gave his trainer fits. In track parlance, he was not a "generous horse," and would extend himself only when he was made to believe that he was in a real race. As a result, Bedwell had to resort to the subterfuge of using fresh horses in relays to pace him, and was often heard to say ruefully: "To get him fit you have to half-kill him with work – and a lot of other horses as well." Ross' son tried to explain it another way: "Horsemen speak of Thoroughbreds with this faraway gaze as 'having the look of the eagle' and they believe that it is invariably the sign of greatness. Sir Barton was an irascible, exasperating creature. But he had the look of the eagle."
He proved his mettle in the Belmont Stakes, when he "pulverized" the opposition, winning in a canter by five lengths while setting an American record of 2:17 2/5. In the process of becoming the first Triple Crown winner, he also was the first colt to include the Withers in this victory skein, a feat that was not to be duplicated until 24 years later in 1943 by Count Fleet. Therefore, when 1919 came to a close, there was no question that he was the top horse of the year, having humbled most of the finest Thoroughbreds in the country. He had raced thirteen times and had won eight times. He had campaigned so much that Commander Ross seriously considered retiring him, rather than entering him in the grueling handicap schedule of 1920. His sore feet were the big question marks for the coming year.
The owner's reservations about his colt's performance in 1920 proved to be about 50 percent justified. Sir Barton had an on-and-off spring and, overall for the year, won only five of the thirteen races he started. He was alternately brilliant and mediocre. More significantly, his championship crown was challenged by a newcomer to the ranks of the American Thoroughbred, a colt whom many have called a superhorse, "the horse of the century," one whose influence is still felt to this day. He was Man o' War, and Sir Barton would have to reckon with him before the year was up.
It was March 29, 1917, at the Nursery Stud of Major August Belmont near Lexington, Kentucky, the year America entered World War I. A broodmare groom opened the foal book, made a routine entry, "chestnut colt, by Fair Play, out of Mahubah," and thereby commenced the dramatic story of "the greatest Thoroughbred of all time." The colt was a red chestnut, marked with a star and an indistinct, short, gray stripe on his forehead. It was Louis Feustel, his eventual trainer, who nicknamed him "Big Red." In setting down his early appraisal of the horse, he wrote: "Very tall and gangling ... thin and so on the leg as to give the impression of ungainliness one gets in seeing a week-old foal." But he was high on the horse because he so admired his sire, Fair Play, the best stallion on the farm, even though Mahubah was an untried mare of English extraction.
In the spring of 1918, Major Belmont announced that because of his involvement in the war effort, he would sell his crop of 1918 yearlings. He offered the lot to Samuel Doyle Riddle for $42,000. Riddle was a 57-year- old textile magnate from Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania, who had been a horse enthusiast since childhood. By the time he was 21, his reputation as a fearless rider on the Pennsylvania-Maryland hunt circuit had been firmly established. He also began his racing stable at that time, subsequently building Glen Riddle Farm into one of the major breeding centers of American Thoroughbred racing.
When the offer was made, Feustel was training Riddle's small stable. He had been a youngster with the Belmont stable in the days of Fair Play and had never lost his admiration for the horse. Therefore, he urged his employer to purchase a colt by Fair Play. As a result, Riddle sent the trainer and an assistant, Mike Daly, to Kentucky to look over the Belmont yearlings. On their return, they reported that the horses were rather undersized and the offer was turned down. Belmont finally shipped the yearlings to the Saratoga Sales in August, at which time Riddle and Feustel noticed the big-framed, long-legged colt, now tagged with the impressive name Man o' War courtesy of Mrs. Belmont.
"You said the yearlings were undersized," a puzzled Riddle said to his trainer. "Surely this colt is big enough."
"But we don't remember seeing the colt when the yearlings were shown to us in Kentucky," replied the equally puzzled trainer.
Riddle had been thoroughly schooled in the whys and wherefores of horse trading and, armed with the knowledge of Feustel's enthusiasm for the colt's sire, suspected that the major was apparently so taken with him that he wanted to hold him out of the sale. All of this made Riddle more determined to buy him at any price. Belmont, on the other hand, did in fact want to keep the horse, but feared that the sale of the other yearlings would suffer if he held onto him.
The auction took place on August 17, and the bidding for the horse reached $4,900, with some 15 persons reportedly willing to pay this sum. Riddle raised it $100, and the sale was completed. Interestingly enough, he at first never considered the colt for racing, rather figuring he would make a good hunter because of his size. It was Riddle's wife who persuaded him to leave this decision to Feustel.
At the very beginning, they ran into trouble with the colt. It was almost impossible to break him. "He fought like a tiger. He screamed with rage, and fought us so hard that it took several days before he could be handled with safety," recalled Riddle. After he was broken, though, he displayed a tremendous speed, the likes of which none of his handlers had ever seen. As a two-year-old in 1919, he scorched every racetrack he ran on, winning nine of the ten races he started. His only defeat was by Upset in the Sanford Memorial at Saratoga, a loss that has been charged by some to a bad ride by jockey Johnny Loftus, and by others to the starter, C. H. Pettingill, who allowed the race to get off while Man o' War was standing broadside to the barrier when the flag was dropped. The end of the year found him unquestionably the number one horse of his class with earnings of $83,325.
Between his two- and three-year-old forms, he emerged as a giant. He had the size and power of a sprinter, with the conformation of a stayer, and he struck fear into the hearts of all who opposed him. He was "muscled enormously, and full of the flowing spirit of the Fair Plays. His action was high and his courage matched it and when he had a horse to go with him, he did not run as much as hurtle," is the way turf historian Joe Palmer described him. He did everything with a flair, even when he ate, consuming 12 to 13 quarts of oats and all the hay they could give him in a day. He was so ravenous that they had to put a bit in his mouth while he was feeding to keep him from eating too fast.
Excerpted from The Most Glorious Crown by Marvin Drager, Ed McNamara. Copyright © 2016 Sharon Drager, Laura Drager, and Iris Drager Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
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Table of Contents
1. Sir Barton – 1919,
2. Gallant Fox – 1930,
3. Omaha – 1935,
4. War Admiral – 1937,
5. Whirlaway – 1941,
6. Count Fleet – 1943,
7. Assault – 1946,
8. Citation – 1948,
9. Secretariat – 1973,
10. Seattle Slew – 1977,
11. Affirmed – 1978,
12. American Pharoah – 2015,
13. Near Misses,