Years before famed horse racing columnist Charles Hatton created the name “Triple Crown”, meaning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, the first 3-year old horse to win all three in the same year was Sir Barton in 1919. The trifecta was not a big deal at the time. What Sir Barton did was win four major races in a little more than a month and that was a big deal.
Sir Barton was bred in Kentucky, sired by Star Shoot, from the mare Lady Sterling. His Paternal Grandsire was the English Triple Crown Champion Isinglass. The breeding was good, but the young horse’s performances were disappointing early on. Sir Barton was great in workouts, but a washout in races. He was such a disappointment that he was sold to a Canadian Naval Commander for $10,000 as a two-year-old. The horse had such an unpleasant disposition that he didn’t get along with people or other horses.
He was brought to the Kentucky Derby only to be a “rabbit” for stablemate Billy Kelly. Trainer Guy Bedwell encouraged jockey Johnny Loftus to go out fast, to try to wear out the favorite, Eternal so that Billy Kelly could win. Loftus did as he was told, Sir Barton immediately went to the lead, and did wear down Eternal, but to everyone’s shock, he never relinquished the lead. When Billy Kelly made his move late he caught and passed eleven of the twelve horses, but never got close to Sir Barton and loss by a decisive five lengths.
Bedwell and Loftus still weren’t sure what they had. The Kentucky Derby was Sir Barton’s only win in any race. So four days later they had him in the Preakness Stakes to see what they had. He faced Eternal again, while the rest of the eleven-horse field were rested 3-year olds. Loftus again drove him to the front early and dared the other horses to catch him. Eternal made a late move, but Sir Barton held on for a four-length victory. At 1:53. He had just accomplished two races in four days and two wire to wire victories.
Then in late May Bedwell brought Sir Barton to Queens, New York for the “Withers Mile”, one of the most famous horse races of the time. Sir Barton again raced to an easy victory against a strong field. This set up the 1 3/8 showdown at Belmont (Belmont wouldn’t go to 1 ½ miles until 1926).
Only two other horses challenged him in the Belmont Stakes, Natural Bridge, and Sweep On. Sir Barton again took the early lead, but for the first time, he was passed at the ¼ pole by Natural Bridge. Natural Bridge held the lead until the ¾ pole when Sir Barton eased back in front. At the head of the homestretch Sweep On made his move, coming up alongside Sir Barton, but couldn’t pass. Sweep On faded down the stretch. Loftus was able to ease up at the end, but Sir Burton still won by five lengths in a record time of 2:17.40.
Sir Barton would only win three more races in his career. He would participate in a much-anticipated match race with the great Man o’ War in October of 1920 and be beaten badly. He was retired to stud in August 1921, never producing any significant offspring. In 1932 he entered the U.S. Army Remount Service in Virginia, then was shipped to Nebraska. Finally, rancher and breeder J.R. Hylton acquired him and put him on his ranch near Douglas, Wyoming where Sir Barton would spend the rest of his life. His remains are buried at Washington Park in Douglas, where a memorial was erected to honor the first “Triple Crown” winner.
Sir Barton’s jockey, Johnny Loftus would go on to a Hall of Fame career, winning 580 out of his 2449 mounts. His 23.7% winning percentage is among the best of all time.
Four major races in 32 days. The only other horse to win those four races in the same year was Count Fleet in 1943. Sir Barton was not among the great horses of all time. His winning time at Church Hill Downs was 2:09.80, not even close to Secretariat’s record of 1:59.40, or even Justify’s 2:04.20. But what he did in May and June of 1919 is still very impressive. Winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes wire to wire four days apart will never be done again. Not bad for a horse retroactively listed as the first “Triple Crown” winner.