He Was a Horse After All
The book Duel for the Crown by Linda Carroll and Dave Rosner recounts the story of the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry through the 1978 Triple Crown. The two horses, one a front-runner who always rallied when challenged and the other a tenacious closer, had contrasting personalities in addition to their different running styles: Affirmed was gentle and laidback, enjoying the company of humans, while Alydar was more macho and less sanguine about human contact. Alydar’s trainer John Veitch described the colt as “all horse,” recounting how he had startled a sleeping Alydar, who turned on him, teeth bared, forcing Veitch to dive out of the stall to avoid the flying hooves. In the next minute, when Alydar recognized his trainer, the horse was poking his head back over the stall’s webbing, asking for a treat (215).
Anyone who spends time with horses knows the varieties of personalities that these magnificent animals show. Some are like Affirmed and American Pharoah, horses that enjoy the people around them, so calm and relaxed that it’s possible to forget they’re animals. Others are like Alydar and Justify, horses that may not abide human contact in the same way, baring teeth and biting, reminding you always of their strength and speed. At the most extreme, some horses are like Man o’ War or Nashua, aggressive and even belligerent, challenging to even the most patient of horsemen.
How do we know what these great horses were like? We can see American Pharoah and Justify for ourselves, via television coverage of their careers and visits to their home at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud, but, for these others, we are reliant upon the perceptions of those around them recounted to others and, for one historic horse, those perceptions may not be completely accurate.
Perception vs. Reality
For one hundred years, the going wisdom on Sir Barton, America’s first Triple Crown winner in 1919, was that his personality was “downright evil,” a description bestowed on Sir Barton by the son of his owner Commander J.K.L. Ross (119). The younger Ross’s memoir Boots and Saddles recounts the personality of Sir Barton, creating a perception of Sir Barton that puts him in the vein of a young and challenging Man o’ War, but my research for my book Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, coming soon from the University Press of Kentucky, found that the horse’s personality might have been less “evil” and more along the lines of what Veitch found in Alydar: a thoroughbred that was less of a pet than an athlete, a smart horse who might challenge but not savage.
Whereas Ross used the word “evil,” Margaret Phipps Leonard used the phrase “full of vim and fire, and even a little headstrong at times,” in her obituary for Sir Barton in The Horse magazine (May-June 1938). The Daily Racing Form echoed that, describing Sir Barton as “a stallion of some stubbornness” in March 1920. Ross’s description might evoke the image of a horse that wants to injure, but Sir Barton was not known to bite or lunge at other horses in workouts or races. Ross pointed out that Sir Barton would lash out at people when someone looked at him too long (119), but Phipps shared the story of H.G. Bedwell’s habit of slapping Sir Barton on the muzzle until Sir Barton would grab for his hand with each slap. Sir Barton, as she described him, “was not vicious, but played roughly” (14). If someone knew how to handle him, Sir Barton was not inclined to cause trouble, but he could sense a person’s fear of him and knew how to bully if he was allowed.
Ross’s description of Sir Barton comes from his memoir, published in the 1950s, three decades after the time of Sir Barton and Man o’ War, whereas Phipps’s portrait came in the months after Sir Barton’s death in late 1937. The younger Ross was a teenager during Sir Barton’s time as part of Commander Ross’s stable, his education preventing from being present with the stable full time. Phipps cites anecdotes of Sir Barton’s life that could only come from people who were there, especially when discussing the Triple Crown winner at stud. Sir Barton stood at Audley Farm in Virginia, after being acquired by Montfort and B.B. Jones in 1922. B.B. Jones shared several details with Phipps for her obituary, including one where Sir Barton caught Jones’s little finger in his teeth. Jones chided the stallion, telling him to turn the finger loose and Sir Barton complied (15). Stories like this are valuable additions to the portrait of America’s first Triple Crown and contrast with Ross’s perception of an “evil” horse to some extent.
Other details from Ross’s recounting of this time include Sir Barton’s rejection of a companion animal, like the great Exterminator’s pony friend Peanut, and his seeming disinterest in the goings-on of the stable around him. Sir Barton might have eschewed animal companions naturally, but continuous stabling until his retirement and his trainer’s habit of teasing him whenever his head was poking out of his stall could have left the Triple Crown winner reluctant to exhibit some of that innate curiosity. His final years in Wyoming, on the ranch of Dr. J.R. Hylton, saw Sir Barton still showing the same physical and mental vigor he had as a younger horse until his early death at age 21 from equine colic.
In the end, my research yielded these two contrasting portraits of the first Triple Crown winner with a few other details scattered in other publications. When I read Veitch’s observation about Alydar, it invoked the portrait I had created in my mind about this horse that I spent five years researching and writing about: a smart horse, focused, macho even, straddling the middle ground between pet and fighter. These accounts of who Sir Barton was are composed of words. They might evoke an image or a scene, but they fall short of the satisfaction that comes with seeing a horse, touching him, experiencing him personally.
As I put the last touches on the manuscript, I gathered photographs of Sir Barton and others, meant to put faces to the names I discussed. I found the usual handful of the first Triple Crown winner, taken mostly from the Cook collection at the Keeneland Library. These were photographs of him racing or standing on the track after a race. I found confirmation shots, but candid shots were nearly impossible to come by – until I found the collection of photographs from the family of Montfort and B.B. Jones. Included were three rare photographs of Sir Barton from his time at Audley; you will find them all in the book Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown.
One photograph stood out to me. Sir Barton’s lead shank is in the hands of a gentleman standing on the left side and Sir Barton himself is looking at in the opposite direction. It’s one of the rare shots of most of his head, the white blaze cascading down his beautiful face, the only white on his chestnut body. He has one ear facing front and the other cocked to the side, as if he’s listening, vigilant yet observant. After the years spent reading and writing about him, this photo allowed me to see him finally. This image, frozen in time, showed me that Sir Barton had been real. That photograph gives me what those descriptions lack: Sir Barton in the flesh, his satiny coat lit by sunshine and his bright eyes taking in the scene before him. Ross’s and Phipps’s contrasting portraits of the horse he was are made of words, words that fall away when I look at that photo and remember that Sir Barton was a horse after all, lauded and admired and loved, especially a century later.
Jennifer Kelly is the author of Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown, published by the University Press of Kentucky. After years of teaching writing and literature, she has now devoted her career to researching and writing about horse racing history, with a focus on the Triple Crown.