In his final year in the irons, Johnny Loftus was the regular rider of two of the most famous Thoroughbreds of all time. The year was 1919 and Loftus was making history with Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, and Man o’ War, arguably the greatest racehorse in history.
Loftus was the leading rider in America in 1919 with earnings of $252,707 and he won on 35 of his 82 mounts that year, but his reputation as an elite rider was established well before he rode Sir Barton and Man o’ War. Contemporaries regarded Loftus as a first-class post rider, an excellent judge of pace, a powerful finisher and an intelligent and capable handler of horses.
Born in Chicago, Loftus decided to become a jockey at age 15, but the left-hander looked as if he would develop into a large man. His first boss, George Moreland, said Loftus “had calves like a wrestler and never would be a race rider.” Moreland turned over the contract rights to Loftus to trainer John M. Goode in exchange for a mare. Loftus rewarded Goode by riding numerous winners, including his first victory, which he scored at Latonia in 1909.
Loftus continued to develop his skills and eventually rode for prominent owners such as Col. E.R. Bradley, Joseph E. Widener, John Sanford, H.P. Whitney, Commander J.K.L. Ross and Samuel Riddle. Loftus won his first Kentucky Derby with Sanford’s George Smith in 1916 and his first Preakness on War Cloud in 1918. He took the 1916 Travers and Withers Stakes with Spur, the 1917 Gazelle Handicap with Regret and the 1918 Latonia Cup with Exterminator.
Sir Barton was a maiden when Loftus piloted him to victory in the Kentucky Derby in 1919. Although the term “Triple Crown” was not used at the time, Loftus became the first jockey to complete the series when Sir Barton also took home the Preakness and Belmont.
That same year, Loftus won five stakes with Man o’ War before being defeated by Upset in the controversial Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga. In Loftus’ version of the Sanford, starter E.H. Pettinghill was responsible for Man o’ War’s only defeat in 21 career starts. A substitute starter that day, Pettinghill released the barrier while Man o’ War was facing the wrong way following a false start, according to Loftus. Man o’ War rallied but fell short of Upset at the finish.
Loftus and Man o’ War avenged the defeat to Upset 10 days later in the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and closed out the 2-year-old’s remarkable campaign with victories in the Hopeful and Futurity. Loftus never rode again after 1919.
Along with his two victories in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and his score in the Belmont Stakes, Loftus won the Travers Stakes, Hopeful Stakes (2), Jerome Handicap, Withers Stakes (2), Toboggan Handicap (2), Gazelle Handicap, Kentucky Oaks, Stuyvesant Handicap (2), Remsen Stakes, Empire City Handicap, Fall Highweight Handicap, Saratoga Cup, Kentucky Handicap, Saranac Stakes, Carter Handicap, Latonia Derby, Suburban Handicap, Alabama Stakes, Beldame Handicap and Latonia Cup.
After his career in the irons, Loftus enjoyed success as a trainer. He conditioned Pompoon to victories in the San Carlos and Dixie handicaps in 1938 and also won stakes with Chestnut Oaks, Chickahominy, Mountain Elk, Pasha, Errand’s Guide and I’m Marie.
Johnny Loftus was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1959.
Sir Barton with Loftus up, by Franklin B. Voss