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How the First Triple Crown Winner Wound Up in the Army

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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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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olympics
9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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