The Heart That Wears the Crown: Sir Barton

February 13th, 2023

In the near century and a half that the three races of the Triple Crown have existed, only thirteen horses have been victorious in all three.

Their names are synonymous with the best of the best that the sport has to offer, and they remain among the most familiar to fans. We know what they achieved on the track, but what were they like in those quiet moments between races, when they were away from the spotlight and had a chance to be a horse?

Thoroughbreds are fast and powerful athletes and the most elite are the ones whose names become a part of our collective consciousness, but, like familiar faces like Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, they were living, breathing beings who interacted with the world around them and left a distinct impression on those who cared for them. 

Sir Barton (Photo Courtesy of the Keeneland Library/Cook Collection) Must acquire permission for additional usage from Keeneland Library.

Stingy & Gifted

Rather than a horse who is ‘evil’ as his owner's son called him, Sir Barton seemed to be one who was playful to a point but also preferred the openness of track or paddock to the claustrophobia of a stall.

From his earliest days as a racehorse in training through his years on the track, Sir Barton spent much of his years in a stall rather than out in the open and that seemed to tell on his demeanor. Author Margaret Phipps Leonard attributed his obstinance to being almost continuously shut in a stall. Away from the barn, on the racetrack or out in the open, Sir Barton showed no meanness. He did not reach out to savage another horse on the track. Instead, he showed “a disdainful calm; his head was held proudly erect as with a bold, clear eye he directed his gaze toward the far distance,” Ross remembered. The first Triple Crown winner showed “the look of eagles” associated with the best that the Thoroughbred has to offer.

His love for his job showed on the track. If he was ready to race, he showed it. An April 1920 report from the Daily Racing Form shared that the first Triple Crown winner’s “exuberance of spirit had been marked” to the point that he not only had torn the sweater of a stable boy, but also had tried to eat the light bulb in his stall. He was spoiling for a race after his winter off, but he would not extend himself in his morning workouts to take the edge off. No, he was too smart for that. H.G. Bedwell needed relays of horses to work with him to simulate a race so Sir Barton would do the work.

Perhaps he only gave his all on race day for one very good reason: his feet. Like many horses sired by Star Shoot, his hooves were thin-walled, making him difficult to shoe and often on the brink of unsoundness. Such chronic discomfort had to have taken its toll on the spirit of this champion and made him selfish about sharing his athletic gifts except when called on to give his best. And when he was at his very best, he was immortally gifted.

Like the other twelve horses to wear the crown, Sir Barton was flesh and blood, with people who cared for him, played with him, and cheered for him. He had left an impression on those who knew him, and those moments came down to us via the observations of the trainer who teased him, the writer who crafted his obituary, and the young man who thought enough of him to share his memories of the first Triple Crown winner.

Sir Barton conformation (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Derby/Churchill Downs)

Demanding & Intelligent

When Sir Barton joined the stable of Commander John Kenneth Leveson Ross in August 1918, he came into the barn of trainer H.G. Bedwell as a maiden, winless in four starts to that point, but with a pedigree that suggested ability. As Ross’s son J.K.M. shared in his memoir, this addition to the stable came with quite a bit of potential and “an abundance of [temperament].” Or, as Ross succinctly puts it on the next page, “Sir Barton was at times downright evil.”

Ross’s memoir was a source for Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, my biography of America’s first Triple Crown winner, but, in my research on Sir Barton, I found a different portrait emerging. Rather than an ‘evil’ horse, I found “an intelligent horse, full of vim and fire, and even a little headstrong at times,” per an article by Leonard a year after the stallion’s death. To a young man like Ross, one accustomed to placid pleasure horses for leisurely strolls, Sir Barton might have seemed aggressive or unpleasant. Rather, he was a finely tuned athlete, one with low tolerance for racetrack life. He was indifferent to stable mascots like dogs and goats and seemed to prefer only the company of his groom Warren “Toots” Thompson.

Truly, though, Sir Barton was still a horse, still prone to stick his head out of his stall to observe the barn’s activities. In the years on the backside, he picked up an interesting habit: Sir Barton tended to lash out with his teeth at any person or object within his reach. Rather than attributing this to maliciousness, H.G. Bedwell himself likely had something to do with the horse’s ready use of his teeth. Whenever the trainer saw Sir Barton hanging his head out of his stall, he would walk by and teasingly slap the horse on the muzzle, to the point that Sir Barton would grab for Bedwell’s hand with each slap.

That habit of grabbing with his teeth carried over to his stallion years. In Leonard’s obituary for the first Triple Crown winner, she shared B.B. Jones’s recounting of Sir Barton’s tendency to catch Jones’s pinky finger in his teeth. The master of Audley Farm would admonish the stallion, who let go rather than bite down. He was not ferocious, but prone to playing rough and bullying those who might fear him. If one were to show no fear of him, he would repay that with respect and permission to even sit down in the stall with him.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)