Sir Barton: The First Triple Crown Winner
By Jenny Kellner
When Sir Barton became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1919, he did so before the phrase “Triple Crown” was even invented. Indeed, the chestnut son of Star Shoot wasn’t even the most popular horse of his era. The darling of the media that year was a freshman sensation named Man o’ War , a winner of nine of his 10 starts at age 2.
A grandson of 1893 English Triple Crown winner Isinglass, Sir Barton was bred by John Madden and Vivian Goach and was foaled in the spring of 1917 at Hamburg Place, birthplace of Kentucky Derby winners Old Rosebud, Zev, Paul Jones, and Flying Ebony. In 1918, as a two-year-old, Sir Barton raced four times for his breeders, finishing out of the money each time. He was then sold for $10,000 to Canadian businessman John Kenneth Levinson Ross, who had commanded a destroyer for the Royal Canadian Navy during World War I, for which he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for distinguished naval service.
Ross, whose father, James, founded the Canadian Pacific Railway, purchased his first racehorses in 1915, won the Preakness in 1916 with Damrosch, and with H.G. Bedwell as his trainer, developed a powerful stable that led all owners in North America in 1918 and 1919. While Ross dominated the sport with stars such as Billy Kelly, Boniface, Constancy, Milkmaid, Cudgel and Hallucination, it was Sir Barton who brought him the greatest fame.
Plagued with soft feet that often caused him to lose his shoes during a race, Sir Barton was a cranky colt who disliked all humans, with the possible exception of his groom. In two starts for Ross as a two-year-old, he finished out of the money in the Hopeful behind Eternal, but then turned in a strong performance to finish second in the Futurity.
Still a maiden on Derby Day in his first start as a three-year-old, Sir Barton was supposed to function as a rabbit in the Run for the Roses for his more famous stablemate, Billy Kelly. The plan was for Sir Barton to wear out the favored Eternal, and set the race up for Billy Kelly. However, no one told Sir Barton, and under jockey Johnny Loftus he won by five widening lengths. Just four days later, on May 14, he won the Preakness at Pimlico, and, ten days later, just to keep sharp, took the one-mile Withers at Belmont Park.
Well-rested by the time the Belmont Stakes came around on June 11, Sir Barton had but two opponents in the race, which was then contested at a mile and three-eighths. According to the chart, “Sir Barton, after beating the game, indulged Natural Bridge with the lead over the Belmont course, then easily took the lead after entering the main course and, drawing away, was easing up at the end.”
His time of 2:17 2/5 was an American record.
The next day’s edition of the New York Times proclaimed: "SIR BARTON EASILY WINS THE BELMONT: Amazing 3-Year-Old Not Extended, Yet Sets New Track Record for 1 3/8 Miles," and described his victory thusly:
“During the last eighth, Loftus sat still as a statue, holding his mount back as well as he could, but the beautiful chestnut could not be restrained entirely. He was endowed with the spirit of competition and ran straight and true to the end, pulling up without showing the least trace of weariness."
Finishing up his sophomore campaign with a record of eight wins from 13 starts, Sir Barton won both divisional and Horse of the Year honors, and began the following year as the top older horse. But at the same time, Man o’ War was achieving near-immortal status, and the public was clamoring for a match race, which finally took place in Canada in the Kenilworth Golf Cup. Sir Barton was no match for Big Red, losing by five lengths. He never won again, and was retired to stud, first in Virginia, and then in Nebraska.
Eventually purchased by J.R. Hylton, who owned a few racehorses, the old champion lived out his final years on Hylton’s farm in Douglas, Wyoming, where he died on Oct. 30, 1937. Originally buried near his paddock, in 1968 Sir Barton was moved to Washington Park in Douglas, where he lies beneath a statue of a horse.
Click here to view the 1919 Belmont Stakes results chart