By Maryjean Wall

In 1919, Sir Barton set the standard for the Triple Crown

In the southwest corner of the foaling barn, colt No. 187-16 took the first shaky strides of a most remarkable life. He was chestnut; a large, irregular white blaze set off his face. Two hours past midnight at his birth, he looked like a fine one to John Madden, owner of Hamburg Farm in the Bluegrass.

Every racing fan knows the story: how No. 187-16, later named Sir Barton, grew up to become the first winner of the Triple Crown: the series that actually did not acquire its catchy name until sometime after Sir Barton’s winning races in the 1919 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.
Had Sir Barton not raced in Man o’ War’s shadow he might be recalled today as one of the truly great ones. Nonetheless he bears a distinction no other horse can claim, as the first winner of the Triple Crown. No more than 10 others have won this elusive series.
Ironically, Sir Barton did not start out with the aura of a history-making individual. A long list of ironies comprised this horse’s life story.
At Hamburg, Madden decided on a name for this colt branded 187-16 (the number 187 was the brand affixed under the mane of his mother, Lady Sterling and “16” the year of the colt’s birth). But the name Madden originally chose was not Sir Barton.
Madden was on his way to sending the name Harry Hale in to The Jockey Club, in honor of his son’s commanding officer in the Armed Forces. The first Triple Crown winner would have been named Harry Hale – had not Madden’s son intervened, saying their intention of honoring the Major General might be misinterpreted. Thus No. 187-16 became Sir Barton.
As with all his young colts and fillies, Madden hoped for a quick sale. Selling horses was Madden’s way of making money and no Kentucky horseman excelled at this more than Madden. He found a buyer in Commander John Kenneth Leveson Ross, heir to a tremendous railway fortune that his father, James Ross, had built as a captain of nineteenth-century industry and a founder of the Canadian Pacific Railways.
The son was no less intrepid than the father. During World War I the younger Ross served on a destroyer assigned to submarine patrol for the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, earning the title of Commander.
After the war he bought Sir Barton for $12,000. Soon, Sir Barton and his rival, Man o’ War, were helping to usher in the “Golden Age of Sports” that would span the aftermath of World War I up to the Great Depression. The Golden Age of Sports seemed perfectly suited to the freewheeling mood of the “Roaring Twenties.” With more money than they’d ever had in their pockets, Americans went to the ball park to see Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run. They went to the fights to watch Jack Dempsey knock his competitors to the ropes. Sir Barton racing against Man o’ War in 1920 at Windsor, Ontario, Canada helped set the tone for this marvelous decade.
But first came the series of races in 1919 that people later would call the Triple Crown. A year and a half before Sir Barton raced against Man o’ War, he set off down his own historic path with winning the Kentucky Derby. Sir Barton actually upset in the Derby when his stablemate, Billy Kelly, had been intended as the stable’s winner. Sir Barton was a maiden, winning his first career start (and first start of the year) in the Derby. As if this wasn’t enough he enabled Commander Ross to claim title as the first to own the 1-2 finishers in a Kentucky Derby, for Billy Kelly finished second.
Sir Barton’s Derby triumph was an unintended consequence of running solely to ensure an honest pace for Billy Kelly. It was somewhat remarkable that Sir Barton even got to the Derby, for he had been seriously ill during the winter preceding the race. Moreover, he went through life on feet so tender that he had to wear a felt pad on each foot between the sole and his shoe.
Four days later, Sir Barton had shipped by train to Pimlico and won the Preakness Stakes, a remarkable feat. But the best was yet to come. He won the Withers Stakes prior to racing in the Belmont Stakes. Then, when winning the Belmont Stakes he set the American record of 2:17-2/5 for 1-3/8 miles, then the distance of the race.
In those days, one could only say he was the first horse to win all three races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. The phrase “Triple Crown” did not come into sparse use until 1921 and did not become popularized until the 1930s when a Daily Racing Form writer, Charles Hatton, began using these words. Ironically, racing’s elites did not take the Triple Crown seriously in its infancy.
“It resembles the true (English) Triple Crown as chalk resembles cheese,” one pedigree authority wrote in 1949.
Sir Barton was a year older than Man o’ War. Their paths did not cross until the autumn of 1920 in their highly publicized match race at Kenilworth Park in Windsor. Man o’ War won easily. Sir Barton was believed not at his best. Man o’ War promptly retired but Sir Barton continued racing, although not with his earlier success.
The final irony of Sir Barton’s remarkable life lies in the way he is represented in death. Sir Barton lay forgotten for years in an unmarked grave on a ranch in the West, where he had been sent after a failed stud career in the East. Now he is memorialized with a generic plastic statue situated at a small park at Douglas, Wyo.
By comparison Man o’ War is memorialized in a bronze statue of larger-than-life proportions, sculpted in his own likeness and occupying a place of honor at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Man o’ War inarguably was the better horse – and a horse for the ages. But ironically, and unlike Sir Barton, he did not win a Triple Crown. In that achievement, Sir Barton stands alone as the first to accomplish what few horses after him would emulate.