Billy Reed: Remembering the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton


You will hear over the next few days that this is the 100th anniversary of Sir Barton becoming thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner.

But that’s not quite correct.

Yes, he won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the spring of 1919. But the term “Triple Crown” hadn’t been invented then.

Billy Reed
Billy Reed reflects on the 1919 Triple Crown season, when Sir Barton swept his way to three straight wins.

Historians aren’t in agreement about who coined the term or when it was first used. Charlie Hatton, a writer for The Daily Racing Form, gets most of the credit for beginning to use it when Omaha became racing’s third Triple Crown winner in 1935.

But researchers have discovered the term was used sparingly in the 1920s, and may have actually sprung from the fertile mind of Bryan Field, a New York Times writer who became one of the sport’s first great race callers.

In 1930, Field used the term to describe Gallant Fox’s sweep of the three races. It’s possible that Hatton picked up the term from him due to his love for England’s Triple Crown (2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, St. Leger Stakes).

Whatever the truth about the origin of the name, Sir Barton didn’t get credit for being the first winner until Hatton began writing about it in 1935. Today, of course, it’s the grandest prize in the sport.

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Sir Barton was bred in 1916 by John E. Madden, known as “The Wizard of the Turf,” at his Hamburg Place farm outside Lexington. After the colt failed to finish better than fifth in his first four starts as a 2-year-old, Madden sold him to J.K.L. Ross, a naval commander for the Royal Navy in World War I and the recipient of $12 million upon the death of his father, a founder of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Ross turned the colt over to trainer H. Guy Bedwell, and he showed some improvement in his last two races at age 2, although both also were losses.

The challenge for Bidwell was Sir Barton’s hooves, which turf historian Jim Bolus described as “soft and shelley.” That meant he frequently had trouble keeping his horseshoes on.

There also was something else, as reported by the immortal sports columnist Red Smith of the New York Herald-Tribune and New York Times.

“Sir Barton … is celebrated as one of the great ‘hopheads’ of history, supposed to have been coked to the eyes every time he ran,” Smith wrote.

During the winter before the 1919 Derby, Sir Barton wasn’t considered much of a threat to win at Churchill Downs. The favorites were his stablemate, Billy Kelly, and Eternal, who had beaten Billy Kelly by a head in a match race.

The notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein, who was being fingered as the man who fixed the 1919 World Series and created the “Black Sox” scandal, was such a big Eternal fan that, when he met Ross at a New York restaurant, he bet him a large sum (anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000) that Eternal would finish ahead of Billy Kelly in the Derby. The only stipulation was that the winner had to at least finish in the top four.

Ross entered Sir Barton in the Derby to be a “rabbit” for Billy Kelly. In other words, he told jockey Johnny Loftus to go to the lead and set a fast pace, hoping he could sucker Eternal into chasing him while Billy Kelly bided his time and waited to come rushing down the stretch.

That’s how it worked out until the top of the stretch, when Eternal began dropping back, hopelessly beaten, while Billy Kelly sat in perfect position just back of the pace-setting Sir Barton.

Amazingly, though, Billy Kelly never got past his stablemate, meaning the Kentucky Derby was the first victory of Sir Barton’s career. Eternal struggled home 10th, and Ross promptly received a check from Rothstein in the mail.

In those days the Preakness came only four days after the Derby, so Sir Barton was immediately put on a railroad car to Baltimore. This time he finished four lengths ahead of the runner-up Eternal.

There was enough time between the Preakness and Belmont for Sir Barton to pick up an easy win in the Withers Stakes. Then he won the Belmont by five lengths. The race was then run over a mile and 3/8ths, and Sir Barton’s time of 2:17 2/5ths was an American record for that distance.

The rest of his career, Sir Barton had an indifferent record. He mixed impressive victories with inexplicable defeats. At the end of his 4-year-old season, he and Man o’ War, a year younger, ran a match race at Kenilworth Park, which had a hard track that wasn’t good for Sir Barton’s soft hooves.

Man o’ War beat Sir Barton by seven lengths in the final race of his mythic career.

Heading into the 145th Derby on May 4, the sport has produced 13 Triple Crown winners, beginning with Sir Barton. The last two both were trained by Bob Baffert — American Pharoah in 2016 and Justify last year.

Sir Barton is buried in Wyoming, where he spent his last four years at stud. A street name in his honor runs through Hamburg Pavilion, the Lexington shopping center built on the land where he was born.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and contributor to WAVE 3 News.

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