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Ps: This site is monitored but not actively posting on a regular basis. Mostly these are stories & some photos saved from a defunct site known as Verdun Connections which was on MSN Groups initially then on a social network called Multiply.
It’s horse racing’s most elusive feat, last accomplished almost four decades ago.
When American Pharoah steps onto the track at New York’s Belmont racetrack Saturday, he will try to repeat what only 11 thoroughbreds have done: win all three races of what is commonly known as the Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Improbably, the first to do it, 96 years ago, was a sore-footed chestnut colt owned by a moneyed and flamboyant Montrealer, John Kenneth Leveson (J.K.L.) Ross.
The horse’s name was Sir Barton, and he was, by all accounts, a handful. “An irascible, exasperating creature” was the description given by Ross’s son, James, in his book Boots and Saddles.
Ross had bought his first thoroughbreds in 1915, after inheriting $16 million upon the death of his father, James, a major shareholder of Canadian Pacific Railroad and former president of Dominion Bridge. A year later, Ross already was making a splash in his new pursuit, capturing the Preakness Stakes at Maryland’s Pimlico racetrack with a horse called Damrosch.
He owned a sprawling horse farm on 2,000 acres in Verchères, served for a decade as president of Montreal’s Blue Bonnets racetrack and in 1918 secured the services of American horseman Guy Bedwell as his private trainer. Their success is evidenced by the fact Bedwell led all North American trainers for racetrack earnings in 1918 and 1919.
Racehorses were just one of Ross’s passions. An accomplished yachtsman and former commander of a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, he owned a schooner. He also loved deepsea fishing, and in 1911 set a world record by reeling in a 680-pound tuna off the coast of Nova Scotia after a four-hour battle.
Ross lived lavishly, with a Rolls-Royce in the driveway of his mansion on upper Peel St. (built across the street from his father’s, now the Chancellor Day Hall building of his alma mater, McGill University). But he also was known for philanthropy, donating $700,000 in his father’s memory to the Royal Victoria Hospital for the construction of the six-storey Ross Pavilion, and $500,000 to help support the families of enlisted men killed during the First World War.
In a United Press International photo from the era, taken as he boarded a cruise ship bound for England, he’s described as “Canada’s fabulous Commander J.K.L. Ross, the owner of Sir Barton.”
In spring 1919, however, Sir Barton wasn’t yet a household name. He wasn’t even considered the best 3-year-old in the stable.
Ross, who spent freely on horses, had paid $25,000 the previous year to buy a top 2-year-old called Billy Kelly.
Sir Barton, also purchased privately as a 2-year-old in 1918 after Ross had seen him at Saratoga, cost $10,000, despite the fact he had not won a race to that point. He still hadn’t when he joined Billy Kelly for the trip to Kentucky for the 45th Kentucky Derby in May of 1919.
The stable’s strategy was for Sir Barton to set a blistering pace in the Derby, tiring out the top contenders including favourite Eternal, so his star stablemate could rally late for the victory.
Sir Barton flew to an early lead as planned, but then abandoned the script. He was never headed and won by five lengths over Billy Kelly. Eternal finished well back, which was more good news for Ross, who collected on a $50,000 bet he’d made with a notorious gambler that Billy Kelly would finish ahead of Eternal.
That was significantly more than the $20,825 Sir Barton collected for winning the Derby.
The Preakness at Pimlico racetrack was only four days after the Derby in those days, not two weeks as it is now, but Sir Barton was none the worse for wear. Jockey Johnny Loftus again sent him out for the early lead and he beat Eternal by four lengths.
The Belmont Stakes was still almost a month away, so Sir Barton’s connections found another race for him in the meantime, the Withers Stakes at Belmont, which was run clockwise. This time he let Eternal do the early running, then cruised past for the victory.
On Belmont Stakes day, only two rivals challenged Sir Barton, and he made short work of them, prevailing by five lengths in an American record for the distance.
He finished the year with eight wins, three seconds and two thirds in 13 starts and earnings of $88,250, along with the title of U.S. Horse of the Year.
Sir Barton raced again at 4 but without the same success, notably losing a match race with 3-year-old Man O’War in Windsor, Ont., for what was then a record purse, $75,000.
Ross sold him to American breeders at 6 for $75,000. Retired to stud, the horse died in Wyoming at age 21.
He’s in the U.S. horse racing hall of fame, where he’ll soon be joined by Billy Kelly, to be inducted this summer in the veteran category. Billy Kelly, who died in 1926 at Ross’s farm in Verchères, raced against his more celebrated stablemate a dozen times and actually beat him eight times.
Sir Barton also is in the Canadian horse racing hall of fame, as is his owner.
Ross’s high-rolling days ended with the Great Depression in 1928, which cost him most of his fortune and forced him to liquidate his Peel St. mansion and his racing stable.
He left Montreal and moved to Montego Bay, Jamaica, where he remarried, sailed, fished and reportedly never lamented the wealth and high life of his past. He died in 1951, age 75.