Sir Barton’s Story: The Kentucky Derby, the Triple Crown, and You’re in the Army Now

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By Ken Zurski

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Sir Barton

Sir Barton is officially the first horse to capture the elusive Triple Crown, a feat that requires winning  three prestigious races as a three-year-old: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Sir Barton did it in 1919, but the distinction was not given until 1948. That’s because at the time there was no award for winning all three races, only accolades for being a good horse.

But all that changed in 1930.

That year, Gallant Fox won each of the three races in a row and the New York Times proclaimed:  “[The jockey] gave all the credit to his mount which by winning the Preakness, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont had equaled the feat of Sir Barton. These two horses are the only ones to win the ‘triple crown.’ ”

That’s the first time, claims the Times, that the words “triple crown” were used in relation to horseracing.

It’s interesting to note that the term has often been ascribed to Charles Hatton, a writer for the Daily Racing Form, who started using “triple crown”’ five years later when Omaha accomplished the same three race sweep as Gallant Fox. “‘Triple Crown’ was a journalistic device,” Hatton later recalled. “It kind of fell out of my typewriter.”

Regardless of who penned the phrase, after Omaha’s victories, the words “Triple Crown” were widely used to describe the three race achievement  – and has been ever since. Later, when the racing board officials went back to assign the very first winner of the Triple Crown, Sir Barton was retroactively given that stature nearly 28 years after accomplishing the feat.

Sir Barton had good bloodlines, but entered the starting gate in Churchill Downs on May 10, 1919 as a maiden, meaning he had never won a race. He was expected to be a rabbit, or a horse that sets the pace for a stablemate horse who presumably has a better chance of winning. Sir Barton’s job was simple: Take the lead, keep a quick pace, and let his stablemate Billy Kelly benefit from a fast time up front and come running hard down the stretch at the end. There was nothing illegal about such a ploy. Both horses had the same owner and were coupled in the betting. But unpredictably reigned supreme that day.  Sir Barton took the lead as ordered, but never relinquished it, beating all eleven horses in the field and capturing the 45th Kentucky Derby by five lengths. “Sir Barton raced into the lead at once and well, ridden, led under restraint until reaching the stretch, where he was shaken up and easily held Billy Kelly safe in the eighth (pole),” the race notes read.

Four days later Sir Barton was entered in the Preakness Stakes and again led all the way. He won another race, the Withers Stakes, before easily taking the Belmont Stakes in New York and setting an American record for a mile-and-three-eighths, the distance for the Belmont at the time (it’s now the longest of the three Triple Crown races at a mile-and-a half). Sir Barton accomplished all this – four victories in all – in just 32 days. Today the time distance between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont is 35 days.

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Man O’ War beats Sir Barton in a match race

The following year Sir Barton continued his winning ways, but a match race against another accomplished racehorse Man O’ War effectively ended his career. The contest between the two horses was run on the notoriously hard surface of Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario. Barton, who suffered from hoof problems, never challenged Man O’ War and lost by seven lengths. He was retired to stud after the defeat and although sired several foals who won stake races,  there were no Triple Crown winners in his stock. He was considered a failure in the barn.

So in 1933, at the age of 17, he was enlisted.

Technically, Sir Barton became a “working” horse.

Officially, he had joined the U.S. Army.

The U.S. Army Remount Service was originally a part of the Union Army and began during early days of the Civil War. Its purpose was clear: to train horses for battle. It’s objective obvious: provide all Calvary and artillery units with useful horses. By contrast, on the Confederate side, each participate was asked to bring his own horse.

But there was more confusion than organization at the Union Remount Service depots. No one knew exactly what to do or how to do it. Questions and debates, rather than solutions, kept piling up.  Like how many horses were needed?  What type of training was necessary? Where will the horses come from? And how much would the government pay? Plus, there were staffing issues, poor leadership and as usual with any new institution without historical legalities to back it up– corruption.  But it was useful. Horses were a vital tool in ground warfare and the Remount Service provided quality horses. Each depot could handle between 10-thousand and 16-thousand horses each. There were about a half dozen depots in the country.

The government purchased Sir Barton from a stud farm in Wyoming for just under $500 and assigned the colt to the depot in Nebraska, named Fort Robinson, a makeshift horse farm.

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Fort Robinson

What Sir Barton did in the Army is not exactly clear. After the Civil War ended, the Remount Service was used mostly for breeding and not much else. Many horses died in the war and needed to be replaced. So there was a purpose.

When America entered the first World War, the fighting took place overseas so men, not horses, traveled to Europe. The British used horses extensively during the Great War, but they had their own reserves. With nothing to serve and foals outnumbering demand, the U.S Remount Program was finally disbanded in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II.

Sir Barton likely had little do as military horse. He sired horses and was used for training mostly. Also, being a champion racehorse may not have had its advantages either. Sir Barton didn’t have to run fast or beat others, he simply had to work. Most of the horses were thoroughbreds, like Sir Barton, so he fit right in, despite being the only Kentucky Derby winner.

His time in the Army was short, however. He served less than a year before being sold to a Wyoming horseman named Doc Hylton who brought the champion colt back to his ranch for more stud duty.

In 1937, Sir Barton died of colic at the age of 21.

Eleven years later, after being posthumously honored as the first Triple Crown winner, his story became one for the record books.

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