George Barbee was born in Norfolk, England, in 1854 and arrived in America in the spring of 1872 to ride horses for John Chamberlain. Barbee began working thoroughbreds as a young lad in his native land for the racing stable of Count de Lagrange. As a youth, he exercised the famous Gladiateur, winner of the 1865 English Triple Crown.
Barbee’s first mounts stateside took place at Jerome Park in 1872. He won only one of the 12 races he participated in that year (aboard King Henry at Monmouth Park at odds of 50-1), but his career quickly ascended. In 1873, Barbee won the inaugural Preakness Stakes atop the Chamberlain-owned Survivor by 10 lengths. The margin of victory stood as a Preakness record until Smarty Jones won the 2004 edition by 11½ lengths. Barbee won 15 races in 1873, including the Monmouth Oaks, Monmouth Sequel and Bowie Stakes.
With his star on the rise, Barbee began riding for Pierre Lorillard’s powerful stable in 1874. That year he won the Belmont Stakes on Saxon “after a great rush at the finish” according to The Spirit of the Times. He added a memorable victory in the Travers that summer at Saratoga aboard Attila (in a runoff following a dead heat with Acrobat) and triumphed again in the Travers the following year with D’Artagnan.
Barbee won his second Preakness in 1876 aboard Shirley and his third in 1883 with Jacobus. His three victories in the Preakness were not surpassed until Eddie Arcaro broke the mark in 1951.
Barbee rode many of the elite racehorses of his era, including Parole, Duke of Magenta, Eole, Mistake, Gerald, Uncas, Springbok, Lizzie Lucas, True Blue, Glenmore and Tom Ochiltree. Barbee won the Saratoga Cup, Monmouth Cup, Centennial Cup, Westchester Cup and Baltimore Cup with Tom Ochiltree, who was owned by Pierre Lorillard’s brother, George.
Barbee won a verified 136 races in America from 1872 through 1885. He rode for some time in England in 1880 and 1881, winning the Newmarket International in the latter year with Mistake. Other notable victories for Barbee included two runnings of the Jockey Club Handicap and the United States Hotel Stakes, as well as single scores in the Champion Stakes, Autumn Cup, Buffalo Handicap, Champagne Stakes, Flash Stakes, Morrissey Handicap, Hunter Stakes, Nursery Stakes, Excelsior Stakes, Long Branch Handicap, Foam Stakes and Kenner Stakes, among others.
Turf historian Walter Vosburgh described Barbee as “a perfect man-model of the smaller type, tremendously muscular, and his whipping was very severe. Springbok was so savage that jockeys were afraid of him, but Barbee hit him with the whip and it tamed him.” Of Barbee’s Belmont win aboard Saxon, Vosburgh wrote: “Many said it was the riding that won, and certainly George Barbee that day rode the greatest finish of his career.”
Barbee was aware his strength was a great asset. Of Springbok, he said: “I was able to ride him because he was stated at the time. I could strike him so hard with the whip it took out of him for the time being all of his deviltry. One blow was enough and Springbok would run for me. It was hopeless for others to try and ride him.”
As his riding career faded, Barbee turned to training horses for J.E. Kelly and others. He died in 1941 while attending the races at Belmont Park, where he shined aboard Saxon 67 years earlier. He was buried near the racetrack.