Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
The Road to the Roses begins…at Saratoga in the summer? At Churchill in the fall? At the Breeders’ Cup? At the year’s first stakes race for three-year-olds? The Road is long and varied, its stops dispersed and far-flung.
But inarguably, the Road to the Triple Crown begins on one day, in one place: the first Saturday in May, in Louisville, Kentucky. This Road is short, intense, and direct: Louisville to Baltimore to New York. It lasts at least two weeks, and sometimes five. There are no stops along the way.
At least, that’s the way it works for contemporary horses; it’s how it worked for the last three Triple Crown winners. It’s not, however, at all how it worked for Sir Barton, the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont.
Sir Barton’s Road to the Kentucky Derby didn’t begin at two; he made his first start that year in a stakes race, the Tremont at Aqueduct, and finished fifth. Despite that unpromising beginning, he continued racing in stakes through the rest of year. He made six starts in 1918, and ended the year as he began it, a maiden. His best finish was a second in the Futurity at Belmont.
Originally owned by John E. Madden and trained by W.S. Walker; Sir Barton was purchased following his fourth loss by J.K.L. Ross; H.G. Bedwell became his trainer. Undeterred by the horse’s winless season, Ross and Bedwell entered him right back in a stakes race for Sir Barton’s three-year-old debut.
And in that stakes race on May 10, 1919, Sir Barton, whose chart noted that he wasn’t a factor in three of his first six starts, broke his maiden in the Kentucky Derby: “rated, easily.” He beat 11 other horses; the margin was five lengths. He led every step of the race.
Four days later, after shipping from Kentucky to Maryland, the horse eligible for a first level allowance repeated his wire to wire performance in the Preakness, again beating 11 horses, winning this time by four lengths. The Daily Racing Form
chart says that he was “eased up at the finish.”
Sir Barton then came home to New York, and, apparently having earned a rest after his two victories, didn’t race again for a full ten days. Then, on May 24, he beat five horses in the Withers at Belmont, running in second and stalking the pace, drawing off to win by two and a half.
Sir Barton took a couple of weeks off and then came back for the Belmont. The Triple Crown as we know it didn’t exist in 1919; while considered major races, the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont were simply stakes-race stops in a horse’s career—there was no great value or emphasis placed on winning these three races, as evidenced by the placement of the Withers, ten days after the Preakness and two and a half weeks before the Belmont.
That year’s Belmont—the 51st running—was run on a Wednesday (as had been the Preakness), closing day of the spring’s meet. Having gone from turf punching bag to racing rock star in less than a month, Sir Barton scared off all but two horses, but 25,000 people came out to see him repeat his Preakness performance, sitting second before pulling away to win by five lengths.
The Daily Racing Form
referred to the Belmont as a “historic race” and noted that Sir Barton had “added another jewel to his crown” in its few paragraphs of coverage of the race, but that “crown” reference had nothing to do with the Triple Crown; as Bennett Liebman notes
, that term wasn’t used to refer to the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont until four years later. Sir Barton’s mastery is acknowledged, but neither the Form
nor the New York Times noted that the chestnut colt by Star Shoot had accomplished something that no horse ever had.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby ends tomorrow; the Road to the Triple Crown begins. Sir Barton was the first; who will be the 12th?
“Another for Sir Barton
.” Daily Racing Form: Partnering to Preserve Racing’s History.
Kentuckiana Digital Library. 12 June 1919. Web.
Liebman, Bennett. “Origins of Triple Crown
.” The Rail. Nytimes.com. New York Times.
24 April 2008. Web.
“Sir Barton.” Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century.
Lexington: The Blood-Horse Inc., 2003.
“Sir Barton Easily Wins the Belmont
.” Nytimes.com. New York Times.
12 June 1919. Web.
Sir Barton past performances. Champions. The Daily Racing Form, 2000.