- First President of the United States? George Washington, of course!
- First successful airplane flight? That’d be the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk.
- First man to walk on the moon? Yep. Neil Armstrong.
- First winner of the Triple Crown? What? You don’t know that one? Let’s do something about that!
In 1919, Sir Barton became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes—even though that feat wouldn’t become known as the Triple Crown until 1930. The chestnut horse was an unlikely champion whose life took more challenging turns than the tracks on which he ran. He was born in the rolling hills of Kentucky, but died on a working cattle ranch in Wyoming. . .and what happened between those two events is quite a saga.
First and Foremost
To quote Shakespeare, “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” If Sir Barton was born great, it was a trait that was well hidden! As a colt, he was pretty much a dud. Oh, sure, he had a fine pedigree. His sire was Star Shoot, a Thoroughbred that had raced in the United Kingdom. His grandsire was Isinglass, who had won the English Triple Crown in 1893. Bred by John E. Madden, he shared a birthplace with Kentucky Derby winners Old Rosebud, Paul Jones, Zev and Flying Ebony.
Judging by early indicators, it was doubtful that Sir Barton would ever achieve greatness, either. His early racing career was what you might call . . . um, well. . . pathetic. He began racing as a two-year-old, in 1918. Out of six races, he won zero. It wasn’t that he didn’t give it his all. He was known for bolting out of the gate and petering out quickly. At least he was consistent.
Sir Barton also had a surly disposition. That wasn’t really his fault, though. He had soft feet that gave him grief. Hey, I defy anyone to run a race on painful feet and be pleasant about it! He was known to throw a shoe in the middle of a race. Once, he even threw all four shoes in the same race. In an attempt to reduce his pain, piano felt was placed between his shoes and hooves. I don’t know if it reduced his pain, but it didn’t improve his attitude. An equal opportunity grouch, the horse disliked man and beast, alike!
Madden unloaded Sir Barton following his fourth disappointing race. J.K.L. Ross, a Canadian businessman, purchased the horse for about $10,000. Hall of Fame trainer H. Guy Bedwell took over Sir Barton’s training. While he still lost his final two races as a two-year-old, he finished just out of the money in his sixth race.
Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hat
In 1919, Sir Barton was entered in the Kentucky Derby as a rabbit for J.K.L. Ross’s prize horse, Billy Kelly. Ross had a $50,000 wager that Billy Kelly would finish over the favored, Eternal. The great Johnny Loftus rode Sir Barton, in order the set an early pace and tire out Eternal. The plan was for Billy Kelly to come from behind to win. But, no one told Sir Barton about that plan! He set a pace no other horse could match and the horse that had never won a race, won the Kentucky Derby! Billy Kelly still finished ahead of tenth place Eternal, and Ross won his $50,000.
Four days later, Sir Barton won the Preakness Stakes, finishing four lengths ahead of Eternal. Yes, I said four days later! There was no squawking about the spacing of Triple Crown races back then. Ten days after the Preakness, Sir Barton won the Withers Stakes. And, finally, Sir Barton set a new track record to win the Belmont Stakes. The horse with the bad feet and a surly attitude had done what only ten other horses have ever done. He won the Triple Crown! And remarkably, all four races were won within 32 days. Take that, California Chrome!
The Man to Beat
By the following year, Man o’ War became the obvious man to beat. In a highly publicized race at the 1920 Kenilworth Gold Cup, Man o’ War left Sir Barton in the dust. In his defense, Sir Barton had lost all four of his shoes! Thanks to the wonders of documentary film and YouTube, you can watch a brief clip of that historic race in this short video.
Sir Barton never won another race. He was retired and sold to B.B. and Montford Jones, and Sir Barton began his new career as a stud at their farm in Virginia. . .but he did not last long there either.
Sir Barton Reporting for Duty, Sir!
In 1933, the stud joined the U.S. Army’s Remount Service, where he was put to use as a stud to breed military horses. Hey, the military has always been looking for a few good men!
He started out in the Front Royal, Virginia facility and ended up at the Remount Station in Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The standing stud fee for the first Triple Crown winner hit an all-time low of under $10.00. Now, that’s just insulting! It’s like Sir Laurence Olivier guest starring on “The Love Boat” or Sir Paul McCartney singing for tips in a New Jersey piano bar. (Not that those things ever happened, mind you. But it would have been insulting if they had.)
At the end of 1933, a man named Dr. J.R. Hylton, of Douglas, Wyoming, saved Sir Barton from any further humiliation by purchasing him for breeding at his cattle ranch. Hylton bred the former champion to a few mares, but, by and large, Sir Barton officially entered retirement shortly thereafter.
The Tender Toed Typhoon
Sir Barton died of colic on October 30, 1937. He was buried on the Wyoming ranch of his final owner, Dr. Hylton. At his grave was a simple sandstone marker, and no one ever paid much attention to it. When Hylton died, the ranch was sold and Sir Barton was all but forgotten, Triple Crown winner, or not.
But in 1968, thanks to the efforts of some some caring folks, Sir Barton’s remains were moved to Douglas, Wyoming. His grave site is marked with a life-size fiberglass statue of a horse. The park couldn’t afford a bronze statue of Sir Barton, but that’s OK . . . his grave seems oddly appropriate for the unlikely champion that he was.
So, why isn’t Sir Barton recognized with the same enthusiasm given to other “firsts” or even other great racehorses? It’s hard to say definitively, but it might be because he was just not very well liked . . . he was never awarded the Mr. Congeniality title! He was never embraced by fans the way Man o’ War and Secretariat were. Even the people who loved him couldn’t stand him from time to time! The son of his second owner, J.K.L. Ross, described Sir Barton as “an irascible, exasperating creature.” In his book, The Most Glorious Crown: The Story of America’s Triple Crown Thoroughbreds from Sir Barton to Affirmed, Marvin Drager dubbed Sir Barton, “The Tender Toed Typhoon!” I like that. It may not be flattering, but at least it’s memorable.
So as we look forward to another Triple Crown opportunity this year with American Pharoah, it is good to reflect on those that came before him. They cast a long shadow, the ghosts of Triple Crowns past . . .