The title “Triple Crown winner” rings sweetly in the ears of racing fans. But Sir Barton, the first to earn the title after winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes in 1919, wasn’t actually called that until 1930.
Sir Barton was the son of Star Shoot (who also sired the indomitable Grey Lag) and a mare named Lady Sterling. He was foaled at John Madden’s Hamburg Place. Madden, unimpressed with the colt’s tepid 2-year-old season, sold Sir Barton to Canadian sportsman and impressive owner J. K. L. Ross. His first start for Ross was in the Kentucky Derby. The original plan was for him to set the pace for his stablemate, speedster Billy Kelly. But once he got the lead, Sir Barton hung on to it wire to wire (except that there were not yet wires). He won by five lengths.
At Preakness time, he did it again. He led the whole race and won by four lengths this time.
Writers and fans grew excited as the Belmont approached. “The shorter distance of one mile may give some of these young horses a better chance against the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, but the majority of those who witnessed the Ross colt’s sterling performances in the two big Kentucky and Maryland races are convinced that Sir Barton can beat them all at any distance,” wrote the Daily Racing Form on May 17, 1919.
He did. The Belmont proved to be Sir Barton’s most decisive and historic victory, with a record setting time of 2:17 2/3 for 11 furlongs (chart courtesy of BelmontStakes.com).
Interestingly, the Daily Racing Form used a very particular turn of phrase to describe Sir Barton’s accomplishment when he won the Belmont: “Sir Barton added another jewel to his crown when he captured it in the same easy fashion that signalized his triumphs in the Derby, Preakness, and Withers.” The Withers being thrown in the list takes the “triple” away, but the image of a crown for a champion racehorse was clearly circulating before the phrase came into common usage in America. (There’s some debate over that, actually. Charles Hatton, of the Daily Racing Form, usually gets the credit for coining the term to mean the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1930, with common usage coming into play closer to 1937. But the New York Times, argues Bennett Leibman, used the phrase in 1923.)
Sir Barton didn’t maintain his crown of glory for too much longer. His 1916 birthday meant that he had the misfortune to be almost the same age as Man o’ War, arguably the country’s greatest racehorse ever. He and the great Exterminator were the challengers to Man o’ War’s star, but Sir Barton was the only horse to go up against Big Red in a match race.
“By his sterling victory in the Saratoga Handicap on the opening day, Sir Barton not only proved that he is the best 4-year-old in training–Purchase has been lame more or less all season–but that he is back again to his best form. Man o’ War has beaten all the horses of his age, but until he takes the measure of Sir Barton many will believe he cannot do it,” wrote W. C. Vreeland in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Such a race would be a hall mark of time in turf events, for turfmen would refer to 1920 as ‘the year that Man o’ War and Sir Barton raced for the turf supremacy in the Saratoga Cup.’”
Which is pretty much what happened, although not in the Saratoga Cup. Instead, the two met at Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario. Man o’ War won decisively and even set a new track record along the way. Ross retired Sir Barton to stud at the end of the year.
In 1933, Sir Barton was sent to a Nebraska U.S. Army Remount station, which bred cavalry horses for the military. He served as a stud there and then was bought by a rancher in Douglas, Wyoming. He died in 1937 and was buried in Douglas’ Washington Park. There’s a statue in his honor there today, a monument to the first horse to wear the Triple Crown.
No matter what you call it.