With so many chestnut horses having captured the Triple Crown it is no surprise that the very first Triple Crown winner also had a red color. Sir Barton won what is known today as the Triple Crown in 1919. At the time of his victory that title had not yet been introduced. Although he is often overlooked today in discussions of horse racing, Sir Barton should be given credit as the first major champion of thoroughbred racing.
Sir Barton’s Modest Beginnings
The strapping red colt arrived on April 26, 1916 in Kentucky. Breeder John E. Madden must have had high hopes for the horse from the start. There were champions in his bloodline including a juvenile standout and the English Triple Crown winner, Isinglass. Madden decided to buy out his breeding partner’s share in the colt and own him outright. Madden wanted to race Sir Barton under his own colors.
At the age of two, Sir Barton took to the race track in four events. Madden was dismayed to see the colt fall short of his expectations on the track. With each race things just seemed to get worse. Madden decided to cut his losses and sell the colt while there was still some value to be had. He found a buyer in J.K.L. Ross, a prominent horseman from Canada. The first order of business for Ross was to send Sir Barton off to trainer H. Guy Bedwell.
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Bedwell raced Sir Barton twice more at the age of two. In his last race of the year, the 1918 Belmont Futurity, the colt improved dramatically. He finished second in a field of competitive horses. But bad luck would almost end the horse’s life. When he was kicked by another horse the resultant gash on his hind leg led to blood poisoning. Trainer Bedwell had to stay with the horse day and night to get him well, and there would be no more racing for 1918.
Sir Barton Achieves Greatness
Few horses have ever entered the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby as a maiden, but that is exactly what Sir Barton did. He had no wins to his credit when competing in the race. Few gave him a chance to win. Even his trainer had doubts. He had entered Sir Barton in the race to serve as a pacesetter, or rabbit, for a stablemate. Bedwell believed that Sir Barton could tire out the other horses in the race so that Billy Kelly would win. Billy Kelly was a gelding and one of the top rated horses that year.
Sir Barton had other plans. He jumped out to the lead and never gave it up, leading the other horses the entire way. More impressive was his margin of victory. The closest any other horse could get to him was five lengths.
Just four days later the Preakness Stakes was contested in Baltimore. Sir Barton once again flashed his early speed and held on to win by four lengths. In late May he made the trip to New York and won the Withers Stakes before striking gold once again in the Belmont Stakes. It wouldn’t be called the Triple Crown for many years to come, but Sir Barton had become the first horse to win racing’s three most important events.
The feat is even more amazing when you consider that Sir Barton accomplished all of this in a mere 32 days. Horsemen today would not even think of putting their horse through such a grueling schedule. The achievement was so great that Sir Barton was given an Eclipse Award as the 1919 Horse of the Year posthumously. The awards also did not exist in his day.
Sir Barton After the Triple Crown
In 1920 things began to look a lot like they did when Sir Barton was two years old. He entered 12 races but could only manage winning five of them. The great champion never once regained his old form and suffered an embarrassing defeat by Man O’ War in an October match race. There were some attempts made to race the horse at the age of five but he simply could not be worked into racing shape.
Sir Barton retired to stud at the age of five and stood for many years at Audley Farm in Virginia. Unfortunately, there was little to celebrate in the breeding shed. Sir Barton was largely considered a failure at stud but did manage to sire one Kentucky Oaks winner.
The mystery of Sir Barton’s three-year-old season will always be confusing to fans of horse racing. It is almost as if the horse was destined to shine just long enough to create a legacy. That legacy has now turned into one of the toughest contests in all of sports. Just 11 horses since 1919 have duplicated Sir Barton’s feat. That is roughly an average of one Triple Crown winner every ten years, although it was more that 30 years between the victories of Affirmed and American Pharoah.
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