The Horse that First Won the Triple Crown

From Frederick McCormick, U Ky

Lexington, KY—On June 11, 1919, Sir Barton, the first Thoroughbred to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, dominated the field in the Belmont Stakes, becoming American horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner. No one in attendance that day, however, knew it. The term was not used until 1930 when Gallant Fox swept all three races, becoming the second horse to accomplish the feat. Sir Barton’s career is one of milestones and records, but because he raced at a time before the Triple Crown was a recognized accomplishment and because his career overlapped with that of Man o’ War, the “Horse of the Century,” he was overshadowed during his own lifetime. While he will always be the answer to a trivia question, he does not have the recognition of other champions such as Citation, Secretariat, and American Pharoah.

In Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, Jennifer S. Kelly tells the whole story behind the winning stallion. Kelly uses extensive research and historical sources to examine this champion’s life and achievements. From tracing his pedigree, documenting the decisions of his owners and trainers, analyzing his performance, and charting his post-racing legacy, she seeks to restore Sir Barton to his rightful place alongside such other champions as War Admiral, Seattle Slew, and Justify. In the process, Kelly also documents the rise of the Triple Crown and the growth of the Sport of Kings in America.

With an impeccable pedigree, Sir Barton seemed destined for greatness. After a winless two-year-old season, however, uncertainty arose as to whether he would live up to his expectations. It was not until Sir Barton crossed the finish line at Belmont Park in 1919 that his reputation was fully restored. Sealing America’s first Triple Crown, however, did not hold the same honor that has been attached to it in the years since. Popular opinion quickly proclaimed Sir Barton as the best challenger for the wonder horse Man o’ War and demanded a match to settle the question of who was the greatest. After some reluctance on the part of Sir Barton’s owner, the duel was set for October 12, 1920 at Kenilworth Park and was the first horse race to be filmed in its entirety. With fourteen cameras positioned around the track, Man o’ War’s seven-length victory was recorded for posterity. That was all America would ever see of Sir Barton as he faded in the distance.

The commonly accepted origin of the term “Triple Crown” in reference to Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes attributes it to Charles Hatton, longtime writer, first for the Morning Telegraph and then for its successor, the Daily Racing Form. At the time, racing fans knew the Triple Crown as an English triumvirate—the Epsom Derby, the Two-Thousand Guineas, and the St. Leger Stakes—and most references to a Triple Crown in print in the years before and immediately after Sir Barton’s triumph pointed to this English version. Hatton needed for a shorthand reference to keep from repeating Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. It was used sparsely until Omaha’s win in 1935, when the term started gaining momentum. It finally shed its informal status when it was officially recognized by the Thoroughbred Racing Association in 1950, and Triple Crown winners began to receive the status they enjoy to this day.

Drawn to Sir Barton’s achievements, Kelly charts how Sir Barton broke track records, scored victories over other champions, and sparked the yearly pursuit of Triple Crown glory. Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown helps carve out a place in racing fans’ collective memory for a horse whose legacy has languished in the shadow of Man o’ War for nearly a century. Kelly documents the legacy of Sir Barton and his seminal contributions to Thoroughbred racing while also examining the ascendency of the sport in America.

If we consider Sir Barton’s 1919 wins as the beginning of the Triple Crown, that makes 2019 the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown winner.

About the author: Jennifer S. Kellyis a lifelong horse racing fan who uses her experience as a writing instructor and technical writer to chronicle and preserve the history of her favorite sport, especially the Triple Crown. Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown is her first book. Learn more about author Jennifer Kelly and The Sir Barton Project at The book is published by the University Press of Kentucky.

Kelly was a guest at the Keeneland Library Lecture Series on May 14, 2019, discussing her book, Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. Kelly, who is from Madison, Alabama, conducted extensive research of resources from the Keeneland Library to tell the story of Sir Barton, who 100 years ago won the three races that became known as the Triple Crown.

On May 17-18, Kelly was a guest at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, MD for a book signing and for “Riders Up!’ for the Sir Barton Stakes.
Additional reading:
See these sources for additional information about Sir Barton:
“Sir Barton: The First Triple Crown Winner – Q&A with Author Jennifer Kelly.” 2017. Bourbon and Barns.
Voss, Natalie. 2017. “Sir Barton: The Forgotten Triple Crown Winner.” The Paulick Report.
“BackTrack: The Story of Sir Barton.” 2018. BloodHorse.
Sir Barton, Belmont Stakes website.
Sir Barton. National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

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