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


Bob Costas of NBC Sports is a 19-time Emmy Award winner who covers the Kentucky Derby for the network. His real passion is baseball.  Costas was one of the earliest critics of steroids in Major League Baseball. Recently, he has been speaking out about whether players who have been steroid users should be elected to The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.  The same question can be asked about racehorse athletes that raced mostly or entirely with the assistance of medication and who are plausible candidates for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame can come about in two ways–by vote of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America or by vote of the Veterans Committee. The latter group deals with players who have been out of the game for at least 21 years.

The criteria for selection are specified in a sentence: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose unquestionably meet the performance criteria but are not even allowed on the ballot because of integrity and character issues, albeit some players enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame were pretty unsavory characters. The standards seem to be flexible and open to interpretation.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be absolute locks for election were it not for the steroid accusations surrounding them and Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez would be strong candidates for admission. Will they get in and should they get in?

Costas says that steroid-aided performances have “distorted the game’s history” and “stained” the sport and “poisoned” the record book. His solution is to let voters decide whether Bonds, Clemens, and others should be elected, rather than to ban them from the ballot, as with Rose for betting on games. However, he suggests that the Hall of Fame acknowledge on the plaques of players from the steroid era that their achievements came under unusual conditions.

This plaque recommendation is virtually certain not to be implemented but, regardless, Costas says that “Knowledgeable people will put a figurative asterisk over the entire (steroid) era (even though) that will be unfair to a lot of players.”

Do the preeminent racehorses of today and the recent past deserve election to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame if they ran most or all of their races with permissible medication of some kind? Phenylbutazone and furosemide are legal in prescribed doses on race days in most jurisdictions in the United States but so were steroids in baseball when some all-time records were set.

Consider the criteria for selection to the Racing Hall of Fame: “The mission of the Official National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame is to honor the achievements of those horses, jockeys, and trainers whose records and reputations have withstood the difficult test of time.” Like baseball, this is a general statement that leaves lots of wiggle room. Would it preclude Dancer’s Image, who won the 1968 Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified after he tested positive for phenylbutazone, which is legal today in Kentucky but was illegal in 1968?

The sad reality is that if medication-aided racing were to be a disqualifier for Hall of Fame selection, there would be a dearth of inductees from the last quarter century. Suppose horses that raced on permitted medication get a pass. What about a Hall of Fame worthy racehorse that was disqualified once for a forbidden drug-should it be eligible?  (To digress, should a trainer with flagrant medication violations be put before the voters?)

As the rules are presently constituted, election to the Hall of Fame is a two-step process. Initially, a candidate must receive the majority of the votes of a 16-person nominating committee to become a finalist. Subsequently, approximately 180 members of a voting panel cast their ballots for all of the nominees. The racehorse with the most votes is elected.

Costas, in my view, has the right approach. Leave it up to the nominating committee and to the voting panel to decide whether a racehorse’s total record of accomplishments is such that the animal is Hall of Fame quality. Under this policy, the equine equivalent of a Pete Rose situation, whereby a would-be candidate is banned from consideration, could not occur. This is essentially the procedure followed by the Hall of Fame now.

It would be highly controversial if the Hall of Fame were to put up a sign stating that performance records from the modern era were achieved with the assistance of medication? This is not likely to happen. Yet, to reiterate what Costas said about the steroid era in baseball, “Knowledgeable people will put a figurative asterisk over the entire era.”

The average person who visits the racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, will not know the difference between a record achieved in 1909, 1959, or 2009. But the informed racing fan will know.

Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Mays, Aaron…the names leap into one’s consciousness when the phrase Hall of Fame is mentioned. Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens also come to mind as probably great players, but players whose records were tainted by chemical use. Costas is dead on correct:  rightly or wrongly, these modern players will forever have a figurative asterisk associated with their names and a plaque in Cooperstown won’t eradicate it.  They dominated the game, but the doubts are indelible.

Regret, Man O’ War, Seabiscuit, Citation, Secretariat…these names echo down through history and epitomize Hall of Famer. On the other hand,  _____, _____, _____, (fill in the blanks)  may be great horses from the contemporary era, but their records are chemically suspect. Fairly or unfairly, these modern racehorses will have a figurative asterisk associated with each of their names and a plaque in the Hall of Fame won’t erase it.

Copyright © 2009 Horse Racing Business