A century ago, the leading 3-year-old of 1919, Sir Barton (by Star Shoot), was in winter quarters at this time of year and pointing toward his 4-year-old season. Owner J.K.L. Ross had high hopes for the successes of that campaign because Sir Barton was the stable’s leading money winner, largely from the purses for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes that would later be labeled the Triple Crown.
The Canadian-born Ross wanted to be the leading owner in all of America, not just that large country to the north of the 49th Parallel, and Sir Barton did his part in making that goal a reality. Sure enough, Ross was the leading owner in North America in 1918 and 1919. John Madden was the leading breeder, Sir Barton was the top racehorse by earnings, and Star Shoot was the leading sire in 1919 (he had also been the top sire in 1911, 1912, 1916, and 1917).
In 1919, Sir Barton won eight races, all stakes, and his first was the Kentucky Derby, which was also his seasonal debut. The Derby was not only Sir Barton’s first start and first stakes for the season, it was also his first stakes victory of any kind and his first victory.
Sir Barton was, of course, an awfully good maiden.
There was no lingering in maiden special company for this chestnut star. Co-breeder John Madden had raced the colt only in stakes, and after Madden’s sale of Sir Barton to Ross in 1918, the colt had finished second in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park behind Dunboyne, then Sir Barton was laid off until the following season.
In the Kentucky Derby, Sir Barton was part of an entry with the generally acknowledged second-favorite Billy Kelly, and they finished one-two, scooping the great majority of the rich Derby purse into the Ross stable. Wheeled back four days later in the Preakness, Sir Barton was the favorite as part of an entry with the high-class filly Milkmaid, and the colt won nicely.
The son of Star Shoot added the Withers to his list of successes before racing in the Belmont Stakes, and as the great racing writer Joe Palmer once noted, “It took a month and one day to settle the 3-year-old leadership of 1919.” That was the span of Sir Barton’s four-race winning streak, and of his nine remaining races that season, the Ross champion won four more, earning $88,250.
That was a great season, and Sir Barton was an exceptional racehorse. For much further detail about Sir Barton, his racing challenges and significant success, the University of Kentucky published a volume in 2019 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the chestnut charger’s greatest season of racing. Jennifer Kelly wrote the book, which provides an emotive and interesting picture of the racing times of Sir Barton and the people around him. (Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown. By Jennifer S. Kelly. Published by University Press of Kentucky)
The book, quite naturally, features the pageantry of sport and the story of the racing life of Sir Barton. That is only right because Sir Barton, like most top racehorses, enjoyed his greatest moments on the racetrack, and the long years thereafter were not filled with headlines and successes of corresponding merit.
Once finished racing in 1920, when Sir Barton was outshone by the mighty Man o’ War, the major winner of 1919 was trained early in 1921 but did not start. When it became apparent in the late spring that Sir Barton was done racing, he was bred to a modest number of his owner’s mares at Ross’s Maryland farm, and the stallion’s first foal was reported on April 9, 1922, born to the 1919 Spinaway Stakes winner Constancy (Ambassador), also owned by Ross.
Before any of the horse’s foals arrived, however, Ross had made up his mind to sell his best racehorse, even though he was not able to get a sum in the neighborhood of $200,000 for the stallion that had been rumored as having been turned down earlier. As Kelly writes, in “late 1921, the Triple Crown winner was sold to B.B. and Montfort Jones and then retired to Audley Farm in Virginia, where he headed their new breeding operation.”
By a leading sire and son of an English Triple Crown winner out of a mare by leading sire Hanover, Sir Barton was as impressively pedigreed as any of his contemporaries, but there may have been a slight disdain among the better Kentucky breeders because, of the earlier sons of Star Shoot at stud, only Uncle at Hal Price Headley’s Beaumont Farm had made a reasonable stir at stud.
And who else was to pay the price for the horse that Ross wanted? The top racehorse owner was clearly not leaning toward operating a vast breeding establishment, and the wealthier Kentucky breeders were looking at other lines. The Kentucky breeders who might have wanted Sir Barton apparently couldn’t have afforded him.
So, just as with horses today, the sale followed the money, and on the advice of Madden, the Joneses bought the Triple Crown winner. The price was not announced at the time but was later printed in the Blood-Horse magazine as $75,000. For that sum, the Jones brothers got a headline stallion and from him they bred two of his best racers, Easter Stockings and Nellie Custis.
The most notable overall was the high-class filly Easter Stockings, who won the Kentucky Oaks and Latonia Oaks of 1928 and was generally considered the best 3-year-old filly of the season. Her earnings of $91,495 far more than paid for the acquisition of her sire, but Easter Stockings was notably the best of his foals, which included only eight stakes winners.
Despite total progeny earnings of more than $800,000, most were closer to the average, and Sir Barton was only slightly above average as a sire. So, when the Great Depression settled on the country, breeders quickly ignored an average sire, and Sir Barton was sold to the Army Remount Service in the mid-1930s.
It wasn’t a glorious end to the grand horse’s stallion days, but he had the respect of horsemen working with him and the great afterglow of a rich racing career. All in all, it makes for a great story that Kelly has retold with enthusiasm.