The third time’s the charm

With one jewel in the Triple Crown still undecided (the Belmont Stakes will be run on June 9th 2007) most people have already lost interest in horse racing for the year. Yes, there are still those fans that will watch the race for the shear love of horse racing but, due to the length of a horse’s nose, there will be none of the excitement that surrounded the Belmont in 2004 when Smarty Jones had a shot at the Triple Crown.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘Triple Crown’ it refers to a series of three races on dirt tracks for three year old thoroughbreds. Although the races are open to three year old fillies (female horses), it is rare for them to run in the races. There have been Kentucky Derby winners that have been fillies and geldings (castrated males), but the field typically consists of colts (uncastrated males). Typically the trainers choose to run the fillies in the women’s version of the Triple Crown which starts with the Kentucky Oaks the Friday before the Derby. As is typical in most sports the female’s version gets much less attention than the male’s. So although as a female athlete this offends me, I am going to go along and choose to focus on the mostly boys’ races here.

The three races that make up the Triple Crown are: the mile and a quarter Kentucky Derby run the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky; the mile and 3/16th Preakness Stakes run two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland; and the mile and a half Belmont Stakes run five weeks after the Kentucky Derby at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. If one horse has the stamina and talent to win these three races it gets awarded the prestigious title of Triple Crown winner. The winner also receives a $5 million dollar bonus for winning all three races. This amount pales in comparison to the stud fees a Triple Crown winner could accumulate. Throughout the history of horse racing in America there have been eleven Triple Crown winners.

Year Triple Crown Winner
1919 Sir Barton
1930 Gallant Fox
1935 Omaha
1937 War Admiral
1941 Whirlaway
1943 Count Fleet
1946 Assault
1948 Citation
1973 Secretariat
1977 Seattle Slew
1978 Affirmed

Watching the Preakness I was deeply saddened when Street Sense didn’t have the strength to hold off Curlin in the final strides before the finish line. This loss added another year to the drought of Triple Crown winners that stretches back 1978 when Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont to become the most recent Triple Crown winner. To add insult to injury, on May 7, 2002 Seattle Slew, the Triple Crown winner of 1977, died. Seattle Slew’s death marked the first time since Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown in 1919 that no Triple Crown winner roamed the green pastures of this earth. This lack of Triple Crown winners leaves me wondering why there are no current living title holders.

Since 1932 there have been twenty-nine horses that have remained eligible for the Triple Crown going into the Belmont (meaning that they won the Derby and the Preakness). Nine of those horses went on to win the Triple Crown. Of the twenty that were not able to win the Belmont, ten have been since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978. Clearly a lack of horses eligible to win after the Preakness is not the problem. Perhaps the problem lies in the Belmont Stakes itself. The longest of the three races, it comes five weeks after the Derby and three weeks after the Preakness Stakes. This means that any horse hoping to win all three has to be able to run the longest distance after winning the two previous races. For some horses going that distance would be difficult even without having two races in the previous five weeks.

Looking at the statistics for the twenty horses that were able to win the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, but faltered in the Belmont, some interesting patterns arise.

Year Derby Winner Preakness Winner Finish at Belmont (Belmont winner – Previous Race Stats)
1932 Burgoo King Burgoo King DID NOT START (Faireno – Did not run in Derby or Preakness)
1936 Bold Venture Bold Venture DID NOT START (Granville – 14th in Derby, 2nd in Preakness)
1944 Pensive Pensive 2nd (Bounding Home – Did not run in Derby or Preakness)
1958 Tim Tam Tim Tam 2nd (Cavan – Did not run in Derby or Preakness)
1961 Carry Back Carry Back 7th (Sherluck – 5th in Derby, 5th in Preakness)
1964 Northern Dancer Northern Dancer 3rd (Quadrangle – 5th in Derby, 5th in Preakness)
1966 Kauai King Kauai King 4th (Amberoid – 7th in Derby, 3rd in Preakness)
1968 Forward Pass Forward Pass 2nd (Stage Door Johnny – Did not run in Derby or Preakness)
1969 Majestic Prince Majestic Prince 2nd (Arts and Letters – 2nd in Derby, 2nd in Preakness)
1971 Canonero II Canonero II 4th (Pass Catcher – Did not run in Derby or Preakness)
1979 Spectacular Bid Spectacular Bid 3rd (Coastal – Did not run in Derby or Preakness)
1981 Pleasant Colony Pleasant Colony 3rd (Summing – Did not run in Derby or Preakness)
1987 Alysheba Alysheba 4th (Bet Twice – 2nd in Derby, 2nd in Preakness)
1989 Sunday Silence Sunday Silence 2nd (Easy Goer – 2nd in Derby, 2nd in Preakness)
1997 Silver Charm Silver Charm 2nd (Touch Gold – Did not run in Derby, 4th in Preakness)
1998 Real Quiet Real Quiet 2nd (Victory Gallop – 2nd in Derby, 2nd in Preakness)
1999 Charismatic Charismatic 3rd (Lemon Drop Kid – 9th in Derby, did not run in Preakness)
2002 War Emblem War Emblem 8th (Sarava – Did not run in Derby or Preakness)
2003 Funny Cide Funny Cide 3rd (Empire Maker – 2nd in Derby, did not run in Preakness)
2004 Smarty Jones Smarty Jones 2nd (Birdstone – 8th in Derby, did not run in Preakness)

Eleven of the horses that beat the Triple Crown contenders in the Belmont did not race in the Preakness three weeks prior, meaning that they were much more rested going into the mile and a half race. Of those eleven, eight did not run in the Derby or the Preakness. Four of the Belmont winners finished second in the Derby and the Preakness. Of the remaining five horses that beat out the Derby and Preakness winners in the Belmont, most finished in the middle of the pack (4th – 7th) in the previous races. The interesting thing is that since Affirmed won in 1978 only one horse that won the Belmont, beating out a Triple Crown hopeful, finished worse than second in the Preakness, if they ran in it. All three of the horses that ran both the Derby and the Preakness finished second to Triple Crown hopefuls in both races before beating them in Belmont. In two of those three cases the Derby and Preakness winners finished second to the Belmont winners. The other six Belmont winners did not run in the Preakness, thus allowing more prep time. These statistics are interesting, but do they shed any light on what it will take to get another Triple Crown winner? Is not having a Triple Crown winner for this long really that odd to begin with?

The first time there was a long break between Triple Crown winners it was eleven years long and no horse came close during that time. After Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown in 1930 there were seven Triple Crown winners, and three other horses won just the first two between 1930 and 1948. After that, nothing but close calls (seven of them) until a horse named Secretariat won the Triple Crown in impressive fashion in 1973. From 1973 until 1978 there were three Triple Crown winners. So the first drought lasted just over ten years, the second just over twenty, and in the current drought we are heading into the thirtieth year without a Triple Crown winner. If we follow the pattern maybe we just need to wait a few more years.

Even though there is no Triple Crown prospect as we head into the Belmont, I will still watch the race, if I am not busy with other things. However, May 3rd of next year will find me sitting in front a television, trying to hold back tears as the University of Louisville marching band plays the first verse of “My Old Kentucky Home” and wondering if any of the horses walking out to the starting gate at Churchill Downs will become the next Triple Crown winner.


3 Responses to The third time’s the charm

  1. Kevin says:

    My first impression is to wonder if maybe the Triple Crown is actually bad for the sport of horse racing (I’ll leave feminist and animal rights issues out for the purposes of this commentary). As you accurately note, nobody cares about the Belmont since Street Sense lost the Preakness. Maybe the focus should instead be on the quality of the competition in the big races. It seems like every year all three races are close, but the latter two matter only when a strong winner comes out of the Kentucky Derby. I think it’s a marketing problem. The Triple Crown is such a rare event that it’s really not worth talking or even thinking about until the Derby and the Preakness are done. But as I don’t know an eighth as much on the subject as you do, I’d love to hear what you think about that.

  2. kidsilkhaze says:

    The thing is that the Preakness and Belmont are just races. The Derby has something going for it. You can celebrate Derby day without ever watching the race, and I think that’s why it’s such a big event.

    But dress in a white dress or suit, find yourself a big hat, and have a nice mint julep and you’re all Derby-fied.

    The Derby is a traditional event– the race is almost eclipsed by the hats and drinks.

    Preakness and Belmont need to find a way to become an event.

  3. akdmyers says:

    That’s a good point about the Preakness and Belmont needing to find a way to become an event; I was startled watching the Preakness this year at how casually everyone was dressed, especially compared to the Derby. Granted, the casual attire made more sense given that this was a horse race on dirt, but it really did look like much less of an Event.

    I think I would enjoy the coverage of the races more if the focus of the commentary weren’t so strongly on Triple Crown prospects – it just gets so tiresome after awhile. On the other hand, I have to admit that part of why I watch is in the hopes that this year will be the year.

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