Between the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 and World War I, millions of lives were lost.   The Great War was settled by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the flu would run its course in 1920.   The Eighteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution of 1919 outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol, beginning in 1920, and helped set the stage for the “roaring ‘20s.”

On the sports front, 1919 would long be remembered for historical “firsts” in Thoroughbred horse racing and Major League Baseball.

Ninety years ago, on Wednesday, June 11, 1919, Sir Barton won the initial American Triple Crown, although the term “Triple Crown” was not commonly applied to the winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes until 1930 during Gallant Fox’s victories in these races.   Charles Hatton, a Daily Racing Form columnist, helped to popularize the term “Triple Crown,” but he did not coin the phrase as is sometimes stated.   The English Triple Crown began in 1853 and was referred to as such.   Hatton’s role was to get the descriptor Triple Crown into common usage in the United States.   Canada, Japan, and several other nations also have their versions of the Triple Crown. 

In 1919, the Kentucky Derby was run at its present-day distance of 1 ¼ miles.   By contrast, the Preakness Stakes was 1 1/8 miles and the Belmont Stakes was 1 3/8 miles, compared to 1 3/16 miles and 1 ½ miles, respectively, today.   In addition, the races at Belmont Park were run clockwise, whereas at Churchill Downs and Pimlico they were run counterclockwise.

On May 10, the chestnut colt Sir Barton under jockey John Loftus led wire to wire to win the Kentucky Derby to defeat his stablemate Billy Kelly and seven other entries.   Sir Barton was coupled in the betting with the highly regarded gelding Billy Kelly, ridden by Earle Sande, who had selected his mount over Sir Barton.   Billy Kelly had won nine out of ten races as a 2-year-old, including his only meeting with Sir Barton.   The plan in the Derby was for Sir Barton to be a rabbit.   The book Boots and Saddles (written in 1956 by the son of J. K. L. Ross, who owned Sir Barton and Billy Kelly) stated: “Strategy for the Derby had been carefully worked out…Sir Barton, the speed horse, was to take the lead at once and set as swift a pace as possible, thereby killing off any front runners such as Eternal or Uncle Fire–the only two in the field …whom we considered had any chance of defeating Billy Kelly.   When Sir Barton had run himself and other challengers into the ground, Billy Kelly was to come on and win.   However, in the unlikely event that Sir Barton did not tire, Loftus was instructed to do his best to win.”

Sir Barton, in fact, did not tire and he easily beat Billy Kelly by five lengths on a heavy track.   He carried 112 pounds, which was the second lightest impost and 10 pounds less than the two highest weighted colts, Under Fire and Eternal.   Billy Kelly carried 119 pounds.  The Derby triumph was Sir Barton’s first win.

Eight days later in Baltimore, the Preakness Stakes was the next stop for Sir Barton but Billy Kelly was not entered.   Eleven colts and one filly contested the race.   Sir Barton and two other colts were assigned 126 pounds and conceded as much as 17 pounds.   Sir Barton was coupled in the betting with his stablemate Milkmaid, the sole filly in the race with an impost of 109 pounds.

Sir Barton’s trainer, H. Guy Bedwell, instructed Loftus to “Get to the front as soon as possible and stay there.”   Sir Barton led at every pole and was ahead of Eternal by four lengths at the wire.   Over the course of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, Sir Barton had never been behind.

On Saturday, May 24, Sir Barton tuned up for the Belmont Stakes with a win in the 1-mile Withers Stakes at Belmont Park over five others.  This time, Sir Barton trailed Eternal until the stretch where he passed him and won by 2 ½ lengths.

June 11 at Belmont Park presented Sir Barton with the opportunity to sweep what would later be called the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes.  Only two colts were entered to take him on and all carried 126 pounds.   The race was considered for all intents and purposes a match race between Sir Barton and Sweep On.   Sir Barton laid in second place until the stretch and then he seized the lead and drew off over Sweep On by five lengths.  

Sir Barton won 13 races in 31 starts and bested such greats as Exterminator.   On October 18, 1920, at Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Canada, Sir Barton and Man o’ War hooked up in a match race with Sir Barton carrying 126 pounds and 3-year-old Man o’ War 120 pounds.   Man o’ War bolted to the lead from the start and won the 1 ¼ mile race by seven easy lengths.   The chart of the race simply stated that Man o’ War was “never extended” in the final race of his career.

Sir Barton was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and is number 49 on Blood-Horse magazine’s list of the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century.    He had a mediocre record at stud and lived to be 21 years old.  H. Guy Bedwell is also in the Hall of Fame.

A sidenote:   On a winter day in 1919, J. K. L. Ross was approached at New York City’s Racquet and Tennis Club by a man he had never met.   The stranger offered to bet Ross that Eternal would finish ahead of Ross’ Billy Kelly in the Kentucky Derby.   Ross thought the man might want to put up a friendly wager of perhaps $100.   To the contrary, he wanted to wager $50,000 (equivalent to about $623,000 today).   Ross agreed and the wagers were held in escrow by a third party.   The high roller who ultimately lost his bet with Ross was Arnold Rothstein, who became notorious for being the alleged, but never convicted, mastermind behind fixing the 1919 World Series in what lives on in infamy as the “Black Sox” scandal. 

Turning to the Belmont Stakes, 2009:  If Calvin Borel wins on Mine That Bird, he would be the first jockey to sweep the Triple Crown races, in the same year, with two different mounts.   However, in 1995, D. Wayne Lukas trained the winner of all three Triple Crown races–Thunder Gulch took the Kentucky Derby and Belmont and Timber Country won the Preakness.  Remarkably, Lukas won six Triple Crown races in a row from 1994-1996.  Beginning with the 1994 Preakness, Lukas-trained colts won seven of the next eight Triple Crown races.

How does Lukas’ amazing win streak compare with Woody Stephens training the winners of five straight Belmont Stakes in the 1980s?  This is the kind of debate that can never be resolved but one that makes horse racing so intriguing.

If Mine That Bird wins the Belmont, the familiar racetrack phrase “what if” will be heard here, there, and everywhere.  What if Rachel Alexandra’s owners had kept her running against the fillies?   Mine That Bird would likely be the first Triple Crown champion since 1978, but one can’t tell for sure how a race would turn out if the winning entry were not in the equation to set the race up a certain way.

My wagers in the Belmont will be an exacta box and a trifecta box comprised of Chocolate Candy, Dunkirk, and Mine That Bird.  A Superfecta box will contain Charitable Man, Chocolate Candy, Dunkirk, and Mine That Bird. 

Aidan O’Brien is training six of the thirteen entries in today’s Epsom Derby.  The odds dropped on Rip Van Winkle when O’Brien’s main jockey, Johnny Murtaugh, got the mount.   The 2000 Guineas winner Sea of Stars has a lot of support.  One of these two colts should be the favorite and they are likely to be the two top choices of bettors.   

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business


1. David Logan, the chief executive officer for USA Track and Field since July 2008, recently was the featured speaker at the convention of the dietary and healthy foods industry. His speech, titled “Braiding the Noose,” was a blistering attack on performance-enhancing drugs and the people who provide them. Much of what Logan said could and should be said about horse racing.

Following are a few salient and verbatim excerpts:

  • …in many ways, the supplement industry has been assisting in braiding the noose.
  • Performance-enhancing drugs are threatening to choke the life out of the sport that I serve and love.
  • …it seems that nearly all the top stars of the last 10 years have been caught using drugs, were strongly suspected of using drugs, or were in prison. Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery: These once-great sprinters continued the poisonous legacy of Ben Johnson. In track and field, if your 100-meter superstar isn’t clean, the sport isn’t clean. Ninety-nine percent of athletes could be clean, but it wouldn’t matter. Their transgressions overshadow and overpower the accomplishments of even Edwin Moses and Michael Johnson, in the memories of most.
  • While this battle for “clean” supplements rages on, I focus on waging the battle for the hearts and minds of our athletes, coaches, agents, and support staff to win the culture war against drugs. I am a person who likes simple concepts. This is pretty simple. I have two words for any person who uses, promotes or tacitly endorses the use of drugs by any athlete. GET OUT! Get out of our sport and out of our competitions.
  • I am personally committed to doing our part to reverse this cultural perversion. Our partners in this war, USADA and WADA, are waging the battle with ground-breaking science and techniques. The supplement industry can do its part in assisting us in the fray. The next time, do not be so quick to oppose reasonable and responsible federal regulation of your industry. Those who conduct ethical and legal businesses will ultimately benefit from the tightening of laws and increased scrutiny. If you say you can self-regulate, then, by gosh do it…We are cleaning our house; get your brooms out and clean yours!
  • It is an era when the best man or woman–not the best chemist–will win.

(Logan’s passionate admonition “GET OUT! Get out of our sport and out of our competitions” is similar in content and tone to what the outspoken Barry Irwin, CEO of the highly successful Team Valor partnerships, said in the February 14, 2009, issue of the Blood-Horse about trainers who repeatedly violate medication regulations:  “Don’t just give them a fine or suspend them, get rid of their asses, kick them out.”)

USA Track and Field has a “Zero Tolerance Plan,” complete with a 24-hour “Whistle-Blower Hotline,” where athletes, coaches, and the public are invited to call in confidence with tips on illicit drug use.

2.  In a related matter, on February 5, 2009, USA Swimming suspended Michael Phelps, who earned eight Gold Medals in the 2008 Olympics, for three months from competition and cut off financial support, even though his infraction of allegedly smoking from a marijuana pipe at a party was not a violation of the organization’s anti-doping rule.

3.  Major League Baseball is another sport plagued by drug-use issues.  Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz weighed in this week about the League’s pervasive and embarrassing steroid problem:  “I would suggest everyone get tested, not random, everybody.  You go team by team.  You test everybody three, four, times a year…”  MLB currently suspends a player 50 games for testing positive once, 100 games for testing positive twice, and  imposes a lifetime ban for testing positive three times, albeit he can appeal after two years.  Ortiz says to “ban ’em for the whole year” for the first violation.

4.  My article of February 14, 2009, titled Racing’s Misguided Muhammad Ali Philosophy of Publicity, evoked reactions ranging from hostility about what I wrote to full agreement with what I said.  Contrary to what some readers posted, I never said or intended to imply that controversial issues in racing should be covered up.  In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with Barry Irwin’s unequivocal comment in item 1 above.  Make no mistake:  habitual medication cheaters in racing should be sent packing permanently (a metric is needed for an unambiguous definition of  “habitual”). 

The theme in my article is that racing’s many favorable aspects should be conveyed to the public (accentuate the positive or put your best foot forward), while racing’s shortcomings should also be addressed by industry participants but in an unemotional and factual way and presented to the public without sensationalized titles and copy.   Coverage of racing’s negatives that does otherwise tends to lapse into abusive ad hominem arguments that solve nothing and leave the public with unflattering impressions.   An example of how a negative might be addressed:  On February 16, 2009, the Portland Oregonian carried an article about breakdowns.  The reporter wrote:  “Nationally, some experts point out that 30 years ago, a fatal breakdown at a track was almost unheard of.”  Is this factual?  If not, the way for racing insiders to clarify the record  is to obtain hard data from 30 years ago and then dispassionately present the findings, rather than to counter with emotional assertions with no evidence to back them up. 

5. The recent announcement that Bessemer Trust (the wealth-management subsidiary of Bessemer Group) would no longer be a title sponsor of the Breeders’ Cup was a body blow to racing. Bessemer Trust began as an investment- management vehicle exclusively for the family of Henry Phipps, who was a partner of Andrew Carnegie. Bessemer Trust is now available to anyone who has at least $10 million to invest with the company.

The storied Phipps family legacy in racing goes back to Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, Henry Phipps’ daughter-in-law. Bessemer Group’s present chairman is prominent racehorse owner Stuart Janney III, whose mother was a Phipps. His cousin is Jockey Club Chairman Ogden Mills Phipps. The fact Bessemer Group is abandoning the Breeders’ Cup sponsorship that it has funded since 2001 says a lot about the cost-cutting taking place in investment firms and about the Herculean task of selling sponsorships that the Breeders’ Cup management faces in the current recession.

6. Another key indication of the toll that the economic turmoil has had on horse racing is contained in the news release by W. Cothran Campbell’s Dogwood Stable on February 5, 2009. It read, in part:

Because of the current economic climate, Dogwood Stable, the pioneer in the field of Thoroughbred racing partnerships, has announced a 2009 marketing policy that will offer smaller ownership units, less markup, insistence on lower maintenance charges, and anticipated purchase prices of 60 to 70 cents on the dollar from previous years.

Dogwood president W. Cothran Campbell said that “We think we can buy at 60 or 70 cents on the dollar from previous years…And Dogwood Stable’s markup on these reduced prices will be lessened by 20 to 40 percent on the horses purchased.” Campbell went on to say that veterinarians, trainers, and suppliers will also be forced to reduce their fees.

If one of the handful of premier racehorse partnership organizations is drastically rationalizing its operations, look for a shakeout in the number of partnership companies, especially among marginal players.

And now two items on the lighter side…

7. The Fifth Racing Congress was held in Las Vegas from February 2-6, 2009. It was a joint effort of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, Harness Tracks of America, United States Trotting Association, and affiliated groups. Besides the racing topics covered in the speeches and panels, one of the highlights was a luncheon address by Oscar Goodman, Mayor of Las Vegas, who is a character right out of central casting.  I have never heard a politician be so amusing and candid about his background–as a mob lawyer–and how he ran for office –against the wishes of his own family–and won despite plenty of media opposition in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and elsewhere. Goodman told the audience about how he bought into a racehorse named after him (Oscar the Mayor) and that his investment was a loser.  Goodman annually attends the Del Mar meet.  When asked a probing question about Las Vegas, Goodman said: “I take the fifth.”  Maybe what happens in Vegas really does stay in Vegas.

8. Thoroughbred breeding and racing has a roundabout connection these days to Harvard University. Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust is Harvard’s president, inaugurated in 2007. She has a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and is an expert in the U. S. Civil War and the American South. Her grandfather is the late Kenneth Gilpin, who was a prominent Virginia Thoroughbred breeder and the first president of the Virginia Horse Breeders Association, which was the forerunner to the present-day Virginia Thoroughbred Association. He bought Fasig-Tipton auction company in the 1940s and revived the Saratoga Yearling Sales in 1946. His son, Tyson, succeeded his father at Fasig-Tipton when the elder Gilpin died in 1947. The late Tyson’s daughter Drew was raised among some of the renowned owners and breeders of Thoroughbred racehorses. However, she rebelled against life as a Virginia society belle and set out on an academic career track that took her to the presidency of Harvard. Ironically, Dr. Faust’s ancestors include two past presidents of Harvard’s Ivy League rival Princeton, including Aaron Burr Sr. (father of the third vice president of the United States).

Copyright © 2009 by Horse Racing Business