Triple Crown Turning Point: Sir Barton’s Cough That Changed History

Earl Sande on Sir Barton, who in 1919 became the first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. (Keeneland Library-Cook Collection)

In each champion’s life comes a turning point, a small moment that presages bigger ones, laying the groundwork for the greatness to come. It could be a decision to change a piece of equipment, a hiccup that alters a schedule, or a new face that shifts the perspective on a horse and what they are capable of. For America’s first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, this small something led to a simple decision that resulted in a historic achievement.

A Surprise Result

Sir Barton (Keeneland Library-Cook Collection)

Sir Barton started 1919 as a maiden, facing the starting barrier for the run for the roses winless in his six starts as a 2-year-old. Bred by the esteemed horseman John E. Madden, the son of Star Shoot had started his career in his breeder’s colors before trainer H.G. Bedwell purchased Sir Barton for Commander John Kenneth Leveson Ross in August 1918. Commander Ross was determined to build the best stable in the United States and Canada, one that would bring to the sportsman the prestige that only his enthusiasm — and the millions he had inherited — could buy. Before that day at Churchill Downs, though, Sir Barton had yet to fulfill the promise that both Madden and his pedigree had augured. The Kentucky Derby would change that.  

The field of 12 for the Derby included Sir Barton’s stablemate Billy Kelly and Eternal, both considered 1918’s best 2-year-olds. What many assumed would be a battle between the two juvenile champions turned out to be a coming-out party for Sir Barton. Barely six months after he survived a serious infection, he led from start to finish on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, surprising everyone except Bedwell’s assistant trainer Cal Shilling, the Hall of Fame jockey turned trainer, and the Louisville Courier-Journal’s sports editor Sam McMeekin. Derby day had scarcely ended when Sir Barton was loaded onto a train bound for Baltimore and the Preakness Stakes.

Winning Streak

At Pimlico, only four days after breaking his maiden in America’s most famous race, Sir Barton showed everyone that the Derby was no fluke: he rushed out to the lead in the Preakness, easily beating Eternal by four lengths. With that, he became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, an unprecedented double that came just a year after War Cloud became the first horse to run in all three of what we now know as the Triple Crown classics. Bedwell then shipped the Ross horses to Belmont Park for the spring meet there.

Earl Sande on Sir Barton. (Keeneland Library-Cook Collection)

On May 24, two weeks after his Kentucky Derby win, Sir Barton and Eternal faced off one more time, this time in the one-mile Withers Stakes. Eternal led early, but jockey Johnny Loftus waited for the far turn to make his move on Sir Barton. As Eternal went wide, Loftus ducked Sir Barton in toward the rail, pulling even with Eternal as they entered the stretch and then taking control of the race, winning by six lengths. With that win came news that Bedwell and Ross were considering two options for Sir Barton’s next race: the Latonia Derby or the Belmont Stakes.

The Latonia Derby was scheduled for June 7 while the Belmont Stakes was carded for June 11. With such a short turnaround time between the two, Sir Barton could not run in both; they would have to choose one. H.G. Bedwell wired Latonia officials that Sir Barton would be shipped to the northern Kentucky racetrack, near Cincinnati, on June 6. How then did Sir Barton come to make history on that June day at Belmont Park?

The answer is simple: a cough.

Accidental History

Sir Barton’s stablemate Cudgel had won the Kentucky Handicap in 1918 and was looking to repeat in 1919. Bedwell shipped Cudgel to Churchill Downs in the care of Cal Shilling. But the track was muddy on race day so Cudgel was scratched and sent back to New York and the Ross temporary stables at Belmont Park. He brought with him a cough that soon spread to other horses in the stable.

On June 6, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s W.C. Vreeland reported that Cudgel’s bad cold had spread to Sir Barton, putting both out of commission. Sir Barton would not go to Latonia, remaining in New York instead to contest the Belmont Stakes. Other than War Cloud the year before, no other horse to that point had run all three of these stakes and War Cloud had won only one, a division of the Preakness Stakes. After setting a precedent with victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, a recovered Sir Barton faced only two others in the Belmont Stakes.

Of course, the rest is history: Sir Barton stalked the pace until the stretch, easily overtaking Natural Bridge and powering to a five-length victory in American record time, running the 1 3/8 miles in 2:17 2/5. In front of a crowd of 25,000, the colt who had won the run for the roses as a maiden and then proved he was no fluke with a dominant Preakness win brought home the Belmont Stakes, completing what we now know as the Triple Crown.

Then, though, these three races did not yet have a name, but those victories did earn him the esteem that would tap him as the right horse to face the whirlwind that was Man o’ War at the height of his prowess the following year.

History made all because of a cold.

The Little Things

From the flip of a coin to the fluke of a cough, the lives of America’s 13 Triple Crown winners each have moments where chance intervened and changed the course of what became a remarkable career. The story of the sport’s most elite and elusive achievement is tied to these turning points, and from each comes a new perspective on the horses whose names make up this short list of champions and the circumstances that brought out the depth and breadth of their greatness.

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