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How the First Triple Crown Winner Wound Up in the Army

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At Saturday's Belmont Stakes, California Chrome will attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. At some point in the coverage, an announcer will likely rattle off the names of all 11 horses who have completed the Triple Crown, including familiar names like Secretariat, Citation, and Seattle Slew. Today let’s look at a champion who doesn’t get quite as much mention: Sir Barton, who in 1919 became the first horse ever to win the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont.

To call Sir Barton an unlikely champion is a bit of an understatement even though he had good bloodlines. The chestnut colt was sired by well-known stud Star Shoot, and his grandsire was legendary British racehorse Isinglass, who had won the English Triple Crown in 1893. Despite his speedy breeding, Sir Barton took his sweet time getting started on the track. He had tender feet – a trait he inherited from Star Shoot – that gave him a particularly nasty disposition.

It’s one thing for a horse to be disagreeable, but Sir Barton had an even bigger problem for a thoroughbred: he wasn’t very fast. Owner and breeder John E. Madden raced Sir Barton four times as a two-year-old in 1918, and he finished out of the money each time. Sir Barton had a tendency to start quickly before fading badly down the stretch, and his soft feet sometimes led to his shoes flying off mid-race.

After Sir Barton flopped in his fourth race as a two-year-old, Madden decided to get rid of what he thought was a dog of a horse. Canadian businessman and former naval commander J.K.L. Ross agreed to pay around $10,000 to take Sir Barton off of Madden’s hands. Ross turned Sir Barton over to Hall of Fame trainer H. Guy Bedwell. Bedwell cleverly addressed the soft-feet issue by inserting a strip of piano felt between Sir Barton’s hoof and shoes, and the horse started to show signs that he might eventually be a competent racer.

Sir Barton hardly enjoyed an instant turnaround, though. Ross and Bedwell entered the colt in two more races as a two-year-old. He again finished out of the money at the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, but in his final race of the season, the Belmont Futurity Stakes, he finally showed some stretch speed in roaring back to finish second.

Even after this promising finish to his two-year-old season, Ross and Bedwell didn’t have particularly high expectations for Sir Barton. They already had a budding superstar who was the same age, a horse named Billy Kelly. The trainer and owner decided to start Sir Barton’s three-year-old season with a run at the Kentucky Derby, but they didn’t think he would win. Instead, he was part of their strategy for helping Billy Kelly win the race. Sir Barton would act as a “rabbit”—a horse that sets a quick pace early in the race to wear out the rest of the field, particularly the favored Eternal. Once Sir Barton wore down the competition, Billy Kelly would storm past the fatigued horses to an easy victory.

Rabbit, Run

At least that was the plan. A funny thing happened at that Derby, though: Sir Barton didn’t fade down the stretch. If anything, he got stronger, and he ended up winning his first race by five lengths on a muddy track. Just four days later he proved he was no fluke by winning the Preakness Stakes by four lengths over Eternal. Ten days later he won another stakes race when he came from behind to knock off Eternal in the Withers at Belmont.

By this point, Sir Barton had won three big-name stakes races in the span of two weeks. When the Belmont Stakes rolled a few weeks later, breeders and trainers only bothered entering two other horses into the race. Probably a good call. Sir Barton again dominated while setting a new American record at the distance.

And so Sir Barton had won the first Triple Crown. There wasn’t a lot of hoopla, though. At the time, there was no such thing as the Triple Crown. The first recorded use of the term to refer to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont didn’t come until 1923. Sir Barton was just another terrific horse. He even got the nod as the 1919 Horse of the Year.

May the Best Man (o' War) Win

Sir Barton’s wins as a three-year-old were impressive, but he wasn’t the undisputed best horse in the world. Now-legendary horse Man o’ War won nine of 10 starts in 1919 as a two-year-old and would go on to win the Preakness and the Belmont in 1920. (He didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby.) On October 12, 1920, Sir Barton faced off against Man o’ War in a highly anticipated match race at Canada’s Kenilworth Park. Sir Barton’s soft feet again plagued him, and he was no match for Man o’ War, who won by seven lengths after Sir Barton lost all four of his shoes.

In retrospect, there’s no shame in losing a match race to arguably the greatest thoroughbred of all time. After this defeat, though, Sir Barton’s racing career was effectively over. He ran in three more races without a victory in 1920 before retiring to stud. He stood stud for 11 years in Virginia but never enjoyed much success as a sire. (One exception was the filly Easter Stockings, who won the 1928 Kentucky Oaks.)

Reporting for Duty

At this point, Sir Barton’s story takes another odd turn. When interest in his stud services dwindled, his owners handed him over to the U.S. Remount Service, the Army’s division in charge of breeding and supplying military horses. As part of the Remount Service’s program, the former Triple Crown winner’s stud fee dropped from hundreds or thousands of dollars to a paltry $5 or $10.

Sir Barton didn’t last long in this job, either. By the end of 1933, the Army sold Sir Barton to Dr. J.R. Hylton, who moved the 1919 Horse of the Year to his Wyoming ranch. Sir Barton died of colic on October 30, 1937, after what was surely one of the strangest lives a Triple Crown winner has ever had. Today he’s buried beneath a statue in Washington Park in Douglas, Wyoming.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Courtesy of Dave Drason Byrzynski

Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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