Sir Barton: The Forgotten Triple Crown Winner - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Sir Barton: The Forgotten Triple Crown Winner

Sir Barton

Sir Barton is most commonly remembered as an answer to an old horse racing trivia question: Who was the first Triple Crown winner? After checking him off as the 1919 winner of the series, he's largely forgotten in favor of more accomplished champions like Citation and Secretariat, or his contemporaries, Exterminator, Billy Kelly, and Man o' War. But Sir Barton's story is certainly one of the strangest in Triple Crown history, taking him from obscurity to fame, and back again.

It's tempting to feel sorry for Sir Barton, who seemed to have poor historical timing. Although he's now known as the first Triple Crown winner, the series wasn't recognized as such until the 1930s, so he received none of the credit for this accomplishment during his career. His time in the limelight was brief: he was a maiden until the Kentucky Derby, and by the end of his 4-year-old season had been completely eclipsed by Man o' War.

Bred by John Madden, the colt was campaigned for most of his career by J.K.L. Ross, son of the founder of the Canadian National Railway. Ross gave him to the barn of H. Guy “Hard Guy” Bedwell, a cowboy-turned-trainer from out West who was known for giving horses a remarkable career turnaround. Turf writer Red Smith once speculated Sir Barton may have done his best work thanks to cocaine in the days before pre-race testing.

“Sir Barton … is celebrated as one of the greatest hop-heads of history, supposed to have been coked to the eyes whenever he ran,” Smith wrote. “In those days, 'touching up' was not uncommon: Ethics only forbade double-crossing form players by running an animal 'hot' one day and 'cold' the next.”

Further compounding this theory was the rumor Sir Barton's dam, Hanover mare Lady Sterling, had done her best work under the influence of cocaine. Even then, horsemen realized some horses responded to performance enhancers better than others, Dorothy Ours writes in 'Man O'War: A Legend Like Lightning.' They believed there was a genetic link, so it's possible Sir Barton got cocaine in part because it seemed to work on Lady Sterling.

Sir Barton was known as an angry, aggressive colt who would bite or kick nearly everyone and everything. He resented human and animal companionship equally, and was said to tolerate only his grooms. The only time he was happy was when he was saddled and sent to the track for a race. He hated training, so Bedwell often had to create activity on the track similar to a racing afternoon to convince the horse to put in the effort and had to work him hard whenever the horse would cooperate. His mood was no doubt worsened by the thin, shelly feet he inherited from sire Star Shoot (GB), which were supposed to be sore nearly all the time and frequently caused him to lose one or more shoes when he raced.

Sir Barton seems to have qualified himself for the Derby primarily on the strength of a second-place finish in the Futurity at Belmont in September. After that, he was struck by septicemia and nearly died. By the time the Kentucky Derby rolled around in May, he'd had no prep races as a 3-year-old. By then, Ross and Bedwell also had Billy Kelly, named co-champion 2-year-old the previous year, and most turf writers believed the roses would go to Billy Kelly or his chief rival, Eternal. Sir Barton was entered as a rabbit for Billy Kelly.

It's not clear what prompted Ross and Bedwell to think Sir Barton might be useful as a rabbit, except possibly his propensity for coming up empty in the stretch. At that point in his career, he was not a front runner, and in five of his six starts as a 2-year-old, he could do no better than fifth at any point of call. When he finished second in the Futurity in the fall of 1918, his best performance to date, he did so from off the pace. Jockey Johnny Loftus went to the lead as instructed, and to his own surprise as much as everyone else's, never saw Eternal or Billy Kelly close on his heels, so he rode to the finish.

Since the Triple Crown had not yet been recognized as a series, it was not laid out in its modern schedule with two or three weeks between races. Sir Barton went to the Preakness next on four days' rest and won, prompting declarations of historic greatness (which demonstrates, perhaps, that turf writers prematurely crowning a horse “the greatest since ___” is not a modern trend).

Sir Barton's Belmont win showed some versatility, since he gave up the early lead in the tidy field of three horses and waited to strike until the end of the race, which was then 1 3/8 miles. His final time of 2:17 2/5 was also an American record at the distance.

Herbert Haseltine's bronze statue of Man o' War marks the legendary Thoroughbred's gravesite at the KY Horse Park

In between the Preakness and Belmont, Sir Barton won the Withers, a feat only equaled among Triple Crown winners by Count Fleet in 1943. His success that spring significantly increased his handicap, however, and he gave up significant weight to his rivals for the remainder of his career. Additionally, Bedwell fell into the habit of racing Sir Barton frequently (even by 1919 standards), one writer theorized as an attempt to take the horse's mind off his perpetually-sore feet. Between Sept. 11, 1919 and Oct. 4, he made five starts, hitting the board or winning all of them. He took long breaks when Bedwell seemed to get the idea the horse was exhausted, but when he ran, he ran hard.

Despite this, Sir Barton picked up wins in the Potomac, Dominion, Rennert, Saratoga, and Maryland Handicaps at ages three and four. His win in the Merchant and Citizens Handicap at Saratoga as a 4-year-old set another American record of 1:55 3/5 for 1 3/16 miles, while his Saratoga Handicap win at 2:01 4/5 for 1 ¼ miles was a track record at the time. Both those records were part of a 26-day schedule that included a third race, which he also won.

Unfortunately for Sir Barton, he was so good that he attracted speculation about his comparisons to Man o' War, who stole the spotlight in mid-1919 when he debuted as a 2-year-old, also under Johnny Loftus. In October of 1920, the two squared off in a match race at Kenilworth Park. A crowd of between 25,000 and 30,000 (a record at the time for a racing audience in Canada) bet $14,000 on Sir Barton and $132,000 on Man o' War. Their confidence was well-placed—Man o' War left Sir Barton in his dust, seven lengths behind, and Sir Barton never won a race again.

Upon retirement, Sir Barton was sold to Audley Farm in Virginia for $75,000. He's often criticized as being a flop at stud, but he did sire Easter Stockings, winner of the 1928 Kentucky Oaks, along with seven other stakes winners. At some point, for reasons unknown, Sir Barton was sold to the Army Remount Service, which ran an expansive breeding program to supply the U.S. Cavalry. This necessitated his relocation to Nebraska, where he is said to have stood for between $5 and $10 per service. A large number of former racehorses ended up in the Remount Service at some point during their lives, where they were crossed with heavier stock and saddle horses. Fellow Hall of Famer Henry of Navarre also ended up in the program, as did Kentucky Derby winner Behave Yourself, Gallant Prince (first foal of Gallant Fox), and Hard Tack (sire of Seabiscuit).

After a few years in the Army, Sir Barton was bought by Dr. Joseph Hylton of Wyoming. According to Robert Shoop's 'Down To The Wire,' Hylton may have crossed Sir Barton with a few of his Quarter Horses in the horse's final years, leaving open the possibility modern dude ranchers and cattle farmers are sitting atop horses with a Triple Crown winner's blood in their veins.

So forgotten was Sir Barton's legacy by his death in 1937 that his New York Times obituary identified him in the first sentence not as a Triple Crown winner, but as a horse who was “outmatched at his peak only by Man o' War.” He was buried under a plain marker on Hylton's ranch. The ranch was sold after Hylton died in the 1940s, and in 1968 racing fan Gordon Turner started a campaign to move the horse's remains to a park in town. He put a letter in a racing journal requesting donations for the move and received two responses, from two men who had been the horse's grooms (and no doubt, gotten the edge of the chestnut's teeth many times). In the end, Sir Barton was moved to Washington Park in Douglas, WY., where he rests today under a bronze statue. During one recent spring, Turner told the Billings Gazette bouquets of roses, black-eyed Susans, and carnations appear at the statue's feet ahead of each Triple Crown race.

Ross sold his racing stable not long after Sir Barton's retirement and moved to Jamaica, where he served as a steward to the Jamaica Jockey Club. Bedwell went on to train for Maine Chance Farm and helped form the Maryland Horsemen's Association. Loftus was remembered by the racing public largely as the rider who had been aboard Man o' War during his loss in the Sanford; he retired from riding and became a trainer.

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