July 25, 2019
Rethinking History: A Great Horse and a Milestone Anniversary
By Jennifer Kelly
Sir Barton won America’s first Triple Crown one hundred years ago in 1919, many decades before I became a fan of the sport, especially of this elite achievement. His historic run through our classic races were not known as the Triple Crown until later, taking on that moniker within a decade of his wins. By the time I came along, ten horses had joined him in completing that feat, sealing their iconic status among the great names that have wowed fans of horse racing for more than a century. Multiple books on the Triple Crown grace my bookshelves, but any book on these races devotes only a chapter to each winner, encapsulating their stories in only a few pages. Since space is at a premium, I as a reader always suspected there was more to each story.
This was especially the case with Sir Barton. Over and over, I read the same few details: shipped to Louisville to serve as the rabbit for his stablemate, broke his maiden in the Kentucky Derby, went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont to complete the first Triple Crown, lost a match race to Man o’ War, and then died in obscurity. As a researcher, trained to uncover all of the details, this pat narrative begged for deeper consideration. As a racing fan who fell in love with the sport via the Triple Crown, I found the call to work on this segment of the history of horse racing, and to contribute to its body of knowledge, irresistible.
As I researched Sir Barton’s life, I found out that the story of this champion, that I thought I knew, is a powerful lesson of how easily inaccuracies and impressions can be introduced into the historical record and obscure the impact of a significant contributor to a sport.
Reading Between the Lines
I became a horse racing fan in fifth grade, after a teacher read us the first book in the Black Stallion series. I sought resources for learning more, combing through libraries for books and, in this pre-Internet era, writing letters to racing institutions. I learned how to ask questions and how to find information, skills that later helped me as a writer. I always aspired to work in the industry in some way, but the limitations of geography meant that role eluded me until 2013.
With the 100th anniversary of the Triple Crown approaching, I wanted find a book about Sir Barton, a book that would tell the story behind the first Triple Crown, but found that only a memoir called Boots and Saddles covered that time, and even that held only a few pages about this milestone. With an eye toward the deadline of 2019 and the 100th anniversary, I decided that my background in writing and research gave me the skills necessary to undertake a book about Sir Barton’s career. I embarked on a five-year journey through libraries, both digital and hard copy, and a multitude of drafts and edits to create the first book to tell Sir Barton’s story in full. The goal was to reexamine what history says about Sir Barton and to share the true story behind the birth of the Triple Crown, a series of races that dominates horse racing from breeding to selling to scheduling – the dream of many a breeder, owner, trainer, and jockey.
Reconsidering Sir Barton
The best books about racing’s champions not only highlight the races, but also bring the figures involved back to life. Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown builds on the story we know and adds more depth, balancing the facts with those details that draw readers in. I began with Sir Barton’s milestones and then explored all of the races in between. I also wove in the people behind it all: John E. Madden, his breeder and legendary figure in the early 20th century; Commander J.K.L. Ross, his owner during his racing career, a sportsman and philanthropist on a mission to dominate racing; H.G. Bedwell, his trainer whose reputation as a complete horseman battled with rumors about his methods; and jockeys Johnny Loftus, Earl Sande, and Carroll Shilling – all figures who touched Sir Barton during their Hall of Fame careers. These people impact the horse’s story throughout, and all contribute to his ultimate status in racing in one way or another. I shared as much of their story as possible, given the limitations of space inherent in any book.
I also worked to undo those inaccuracies and impressions that had creeped into Sir Barton’s story and to correct them. No, he was not the rabbit for the 1919 Kentucky Derby; he had earned his spot in that race on his own merits. Yes, he lost that match race to Man o’ War, but the dynamic wins that made him the best challenger to the century’s greatest horse deserve just as much attention as that single race. This book is the first to tell the whole story of our first Triple Crown winner, a chance to learn more about why the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes have become so integral to the sports calendar each year. I hope that you will pick it up and enjoy reading it as much as I relished writing about this important and pioneering figure.
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