As Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming embarks on his attempt to win the Triple Crown, this is an appropriate time to remember the first winner of the Triple Crown - Sir Barton. Over the course of 32 days in 1919, Sir Barton solidified his place in history as one of the greatest racehorses of all time. We recently caught up with Jennifer Kelly, an author who is researching and writing a biography of Sir Barton, to learn a little more about the horse who captured the first Triple Crown. To learn more about her work, visit her website at www.thesirbartonproject.com.
Bourbon & Barns: Thanks for taking the time to discuss Sir Barton and the book you are researching. How did you get interested in Sir Barton?
Jennifer Kelly: Thank you for giving me the chance to discuss Sir Barton and this project. I’ve been working on this for nearly four years now and I look forward to bringing this to everyone in 2019.
My fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Scott, read The Black Stallion to us, which inspired me to read Walter Farley’s series of books. Not too long after that, I happened upon the Breeder’s Cup on television and I was hooked on horse racing for life. I spent years – pre-Google, mind you – learning and researching everything I could about racing, especially the Triple Crown winners.
Every time I read about Sir Barton, though, his story seemed so short and that intrigued me. Surely, there was more to him than the bits that you read in any of the books on the Triple Crown? When the opportunity to change careers and become a writer came about, I decided to make this my first project as a full-time writer. I wanted to tell Sir Barton’s story in full.
BB: With regard to Sir Barton, let's start at the beginning. Where was Sir Barton born and raised? What was his breeding?
JK: Sir Barton is a native of the same Kentucky bluegrass as so many of our champions, bred by the Wizard of the Turf himself, John E. Madden. He was foaled at Hamburg Place near Lexington and raised there. His sire was Star Shoot*, a British stallion who had had a short racing career because of respiratory issues, but found a great second career as a sire here in the United States. He was the leading sire in the country in 1911, 1912, 1916, 1917, and 1919.
His dam was Lady Sterling, who also produced champion Sir Martin, one of Madden’s best horses in his long career. Lady Sterling herself did not perform as well on the racetrack, only winning a handful of her starts, but Madden saw her potential as a broodmare and bought her after an injury ended her racing career.
Both she and Star Shoot* were descended from champions in Britain. Star Shoot* boasted English Triple Crown winner Isinglass in his pedigree and Lady Sterling had Sterling, a leading British sire who produced Isonomy, sire of Isinglass. Sir Barton’s pedigree showed the potential for stellar performances through both his sire and dam lines.
BB: I understand Sir Barton inherited the sore feet of his sire, Star Shoot. How would those sore feet affect him later in his racing career?
JK: Poor Sir Barton and his feet. Star Shoot* was notorious for his thin-walled hooves and then passing those on to his progeny. Basically, the hoof is like a fingernail; a horse needs a decent amount of thickness in the walls of their hooves to hold the nails for their shoes and to absorb the impact every time their feet hit the ground. If the walls are thin enough, not only does it make shoeing problematic, but it also makes running a challenge. H.G. Bedwell would have their blacksmith put piano felt under Sir Barton’s shoes not only to help hold the nails in the hoof, but also to help absorb some of the impact whenever he ran.
With such thin hooves, Sir Barton was prone to losing shoes in races. In the Dwyer Stakes in July 1919, he lost a shoe in the muddy going, which compromised his ability to challenge a surging Purchase; Sir Barton lost to Purchase by three lengths. Those hooves also would necessitate long layoffs between races. It seemed that Bedwell would alternate between running him in several starts close together and then suddenly remember that Sir Barton needed more time between races and give him a long layoff.
Sir Barton seemed to run with some degree of soreness, always teetering on the brink of unsoundness. Though the media didn’t report it as fact at the time, a number of insiders within racing knew that Sir Barton was sore after three blazing starts in August 1920. When he got to the match race with Man O’War in October 1920, he had not completely recovered from those races because Bedwell had had to keep him in training rather than give him a longer layoff before facing Man O’War.
BB: Sir Barton raced as a two-year-old, but he failed to crack the top three in any of his four races. Given that Sir Barton would end his career as a Hall of Famer, why do you think he was so unproductive as a two-year-old?
JK: John E. Madden was not one to race his horses beyond their two-year-old year with some exceptions. Generally, he would sell the horses he bred, often as yearlings, but also at two. I think he saw that Sir Barton had potential as a good racehorse, but didn’t anticipate the career the horse ended up having so he approached racing him at two years old differently than he had Sir Martin, who had a much better and prestigious juvenile season.
I think he brought Sir Barton along slowly in his early starts at two, which were all at Saratoga, as a way to show the colt off for potential buyers. Madden often served as an advisor to other owners and was never one to shirk a deal if he thought one could be made. From all of my research, I think he sold JKL Ross on Sir Barton by playing on his potential rather than his actual performances to that point. Madden knew both Ross and Bedwelland would likely have anticipated that H.G. Bedwell would be more than capable of getting Sir Barton to perform.
Once Bedwell got a hold of Sir Barton, he saw that the colt had inherited one of Isinglass’s less desirable traits: a tendency to loaf through training. He had to stage workouts as races, using other horses in the Ross Stable to run against Sir Barton in order to ready him for his starts. He started six times at two, but only once did he finish in the money. Sir Barton came in second in the Futurity at Belmont and probably would have had more starts in 1918 had he not come down with blood poisoning after being kicked by another horse. I doubt he would have gone to the Kentucky Derby as a maiden if he had had more chances to run as a two-year-old.
BB: After Sir Barton's lackluster two-year-old season, his owner (John E. Madden) sold him to J.K.L. Ross. Did Madden ever express regret over selling a horse that would become an all-time great?
JK: Madden’s philosophy was “better sell than repent,” or, more succinctly, “better sell.” He tended to sell a horse and reinvest the money in other horses; occasionally, he would buy horses back, as he did with Hamburg and then Sir Martin. He did try to buy Sir Barton back in the middle of his Triple Crown run, even offering to allow Ross to keep the horse until he was done racing and then Madden would add Sir Barton to his Hamburg Place stallion roster.
Madden is not on record as expressing regret in selling Sir Barton so much as expressing surprise at the horse’s performances and joy at what he ultimately accomplished. At the time that Sir Barton was racing, the Triple Crown wasn’t what it is now. Madden knew that he had produced a great horse, but he wouldn’t live long enough to know the impact of Sir Barton’s career.
BB: In 1919, Sir Barton had an incredible winning streak in which he won four races at four different tracks in the span of about 30 days, including what would become known as the Triple Crown. How would you describe his success during this period?
JK: In thirty-two days, Sir Barton went from Louisville to Baltimore to New York and ran at Churchill Downs in the slop and then Pimlico and Belmont on fast tracks. Only the year before had any horse even attempted this sort of schedule of racing and then shipping and then racing again. It was all new and extraordinary to observers at the time and Sir Barton’s performances earned him accolades like “Horse of the Decade” or even “Horse of the Century” at the time. The irony of all of this is that it was completely unexpected to everyone except his assistant trainer, Cal Shilling.
Shilling had been a controversial jockey during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century. He was employed as Bedwell’s assistant trainer because the Jockey Club refused to give him a jockey’s license after a number of incidents of rough riding and other questionable behavior. Shilling knew horses and he rode many of the stable’s horses in their morning workouts. He knew what Sir Barton was capable of, even when others weren’t so sure. Bedwell suspected that the colt possessed more than his two-year-old year had shown, especially after Sir Barton kept beating his stablemates like Billy Kelly and Cudgel, Ross’s champions, in the mornings.
Looking back, I think his success demonstrates something innate about Sir Barton that he doesn’t get much credit for: his tenacity and talent. The colt overcame a serious case of blood poisoning to go on and perform like the Hall-of-Famer that he is. He had barely turned three when he won the Derby. He hadn’t raced in eight months when he started that run in the spring of 1919. To me, what he accomplished in that time is simply extraordinary.
BB: The racing community didn't refer to the Derby, Preakness and Belmont as the Triple Crown at the time. What was the public reaction to Sir Barton's accomplishments in 1919?
JK: When American Pharoah won the Belmont in 2015, NYRA had capped attendance for the day at 90,000 people, no doubt afraid of what an overflow crowd could bring if/when the colt won the Triple Crown. When Sir Barton won the Belmont in 1919, far fewer fans saw it – 25,000 – but the race was run on a Wednesday and his presence in the race was enough to attract such a large crowd to the track on that particular day.
The newspapers, of course, didn’t call it the Triple Crown because that didn’t exist until he did it, but they did call him great because of his accomplishments over that month. The fanfare that we would greet a Triple Crown with today didn’t exist in his time. If fans weren’t there at the track themselves, they would have had to read about it in the newspapers. Neither Sir Barton nor Man O’War had the benefit of radio or even film coverage; the first race filmed in its entirety is the match race later in October 1920.
Really, the Derby-Preakness double attracted more attention in the years immediately after he won them. As the 1920s wore on into the 1930s and Gallant Fox won the second Triple Crown, then the three races as a sequence became more of a fixture in the racing calendar. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, though, that the Triple Crown calendar we’re all familiar with now became reality.
BB: Sir Barton raced the great Man o'War in a match race in 1920. How highly anticipated was this matchup? I read that Sir Barton lost all four of his shoes in this race. Did his troublesome feet become a problem again?
JK: The match race is a bit of a conundrum; the rivalry itself wasn’t a natural one. Samuel Riddle refused to run Man O’War against older horses, likely because he was terrified of the weights that the colt would have imposed on him if he did. By the middle of 1920, Man O’War had literally shown his heels to every horse that could have challenged him in his own crop of horses, so, naturally, people wanted to see him run against older horses. Fans and turf writers started this campaign of sorts to find someone who could challenge Man O’War, but, since he had beaten everyone his age, they had to turn to older horses, like Sir Barton and Exterminator. Riddle eschewed any question of a match race until promoters started coming to him with offers.
Riddle would agree to a match race because he wanted Man O’War to be the leading money winner ever and the rich purses promoters were offering were an avenue toward that. He was also savvy enough not to agree to any contest unless Man O’War caught some sort of break in weights. When Abe Orpen, a noted promoter in Canada and owner of Kenilworth Park, came to both Riddle and Ross with his offer, Riddle was able to negotiate weight-for-age conditions, meaning that Sir Barton and Man O’War would carry the weight typically assigned to a horse their respective ages. For Sir Barton, that was 126 pounds; for Man O’War, it was 120 pounds, a distinct advantage. Add to that the purse was winner-take-all so, if Man O’War won, he would take home $75,000, which pleased Riddle very much. The gold cup that the colt received was an added bonus; it went on to a life of its own. Elizabeth Riddle donated the cup to Saratoga after her husband’s death and now a replica of it is given out each year as the trophy for the Travers Stakes in August.
Initially, Orpen had included Willis Kilmer, owner of Exterminator, in the negotiations, but Kilmer dropped out when the three owners couldn’t agree on distance. The match race was to be a mile and a quarter; Kilmer wanted longer because he knew Exterminator was the best distance horse of his era. I think at this point fans were so excited about Man O’War racing any older horse that it almost didn’t matter to them who it was; Sir Barton was convenient because of his reputation and those stellar performances he had turned in that August. When the two met at Kenilworth on October 12, 1920, Sir Barton was not in fighting shape and everyone in his stable knew it. Ross only went through with the match race because it was to be held in Canada, which he knew would be a boon for the racing industry there, and because he was a sportsman who was not one to shirk a challenge.
As for losing four shoes in a race, JKM Ross purports in his memoir Boots and Saddles that Sir Barton did do that, but it was not in the match race. Likely, he’s referring to the Dwyer, when Sir Barton did lose a shoe in the muck, but, in all of my research, I haven’t seen anything about him losing all four shoes. JKM’s memoir was published in 1956, nearly forty years after Sir Barton’s career. Over the years, to my knowledge, this error has become part of the lore associated with the match race, but I have not found any substantiation for it.
BB: Sir Barton was retired to stud in Virginia. How successful was he as a sire?
JK: He was a fair sire. Like most Triple Crown winners, he didn’t duplicate himself, but he did produce nearly one hundred stakes winners in his stud career. His best was Easter Stockings; she won the 1928 Kentucky Oaks and then a number of handicaps after that. He had some minor influence as a broodmare sire, but his long-term impact as a sire was, of course, eclipsed by Man O’War.
Rarely do sires go on to have lasting influence on the breed. Man O’War, despite the limited number of mares he covered in his day, has managed to stay within the pedigree of many of our current stars, but now we have a number of generations between him and today’s thoroughbred. Sir Barton did well enough through his immediate progeny, but time was not kind to him in the long run.
BB: Sir Barton went on to have a career in the Army as part of the Remount. How exactly did the Army use him?
JK: After the Civil War, the military discovered they needed a more organized way to administer their cavalry program, which supplied horses to their mounted units. This new bureau fell under the Quartermaster Corps, but, after the War, that organization fell apart. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Army undertook another effort for a more regulated and efficient system of supplying horses to their mounted units. This was the Remount Service.
The Remount Service turned to the thoroughbred industry to help with the breeding part of supplying needed horses. Breeders often would turn over some stallions to the Remount Service; those stallions were then distributed to agents who would breed them to their own horses or offer them to local breeders for reduced fees to encourage breeding. Sir Barton was one of those sires; his stud fee would be $5 or $10 in order to make him more attractive to breeders. He spent the preponderance of his time in the Remount Service, 1933 – 1937, in Wyoming, under the care of Remount agent Dr. Joseph Roy Hylton.
Dr. Hylton was delighted to have Sir Barton in his care and bred him to his own mares; locals likely bred their mares to him as well and it’s entirely possible that there are horses in that part of the United States that have his blood in them. I know of at least one family that had had two Morgans that were descended from Sir Barton. One of their owners has been invaluable in helping me find information about Sir Barton’s time in the Remount Service that I had not been able to find previously and I’m tremendously grateful to her for her help with that.
Learn more about author Jennifer Kelly and The Sir Barton Project at www.thesirbartonproject.com.