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Triple Crown


It’s hard to imagine now, but before the rise of thoroughbred racing during the Great Depression, there was no such thing in America as the Triple Crown. People didn’t go crazy when Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in 1919. At least not as crazy as they would today.

There were times before the sport’s Golden Age where the Preakness and Belmont weren’t run at all because of anti-gambling sentiment on the East Coast. In 1917 and 1922, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness were run on the same day. Our earliest known reference to the idea of a “Triple Crown” came in 1923, when The New York Times used the term casually in reference to Preakness winner Vigil II and his quest to win the Kentucky Derby – yes, the Preakness happened first that year, as it did on 10 other occasions.

The Triple Crown concept picked up steam again in 1930 after Gallant Fox won all three races. Times racing columnist Bryan Field noted that the three races in question had achieved a special level of prominence, comparable to the Triple Crown of English racing (the 2,000 Guineas Stakes, the Epsom Derby and the St. Leger Stakes). Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton popularized the Triple Crown idea, but technically, the Times beat him to it.

Whichever side you prefer in that barstool debate, by 1931, event organizers made sure to schedule all three races as part of a series, with the Kentucky Derby coming on the first Saturday in May, followed two weeks later by the Preakness and another three weeks after that by the Belmont. The words Triple Crown were uttered again when Omaha won all three races in 1935. Once 1937 had rolled around, everyone was talking about the Triple Crown as War Admiral completed the trifecta.

Whirlaway Won the Next Triple Crown in 1941

This was the first of two Triple Crown titles for jockey Eddie Arcaro, the only jockey ever to pull off this feat. Arcaro would return in 1948 with the great Citation; both Whirlaway and Citation were owned and bred by Calumet Farm in Lexington. The only other owner to double up at the Triple Crown was Maryland-based Belair Stud, which produced both Gallant Fox and Omaha. Jim Fitzsimmons trained both horses, making him the only two-time Triple Crown trainer in history.

The 1940s produced two other Triple Crown champions: Count Fleet in 1943 and Assault in 1946. The performance by Count Fleet was especially dominant; he won all his races as a 3-year-old, taking the Kentucky Derby by three lengths, the Preakness by eight lengths, and the Belmont by an amazing 25 lengths. Count Fleet was recognized as the No. 3-ranked U.S. Racehorse of the 20th Century by The Blood-Horse magazine.

Appropriately enough, the only horse to win the Belmont by a wider margin checks in at No. 2. Secretariat broke Count Fleet’s record in 1973 when he took the Belmont by 31 lengths. Not only was this the first Triple Crown in 25 years, but Secretariat also captured the world’s imagination by setting a record time at all three races. Those records still stand today. Only the legendary Man o’ War, who never raced at the Kentucky Derby, is ahead of Secretariat among the Top 100 horses of the century.

It’s always difficult to put greatness in context, but we’ll try anyway. Secretariat was to thoroughbred racing as Wayne Gretzky was to hockey and as Michael Jordan was to basketball – the Greatest of All Time (of the modern era, at least) in their respective sports. Andrew Beyer, the man behind the Beyer Speed Figure statistic, has calculated that Secretariat would have earned a 139 at the Belmont. Anything over 115 is considered to be of the highest quality.

Secretariat’s great Triple Crown run in 1973 propelled horse racing to new levels of interest, and fans were rewarded in 1977 when Seattle Slew won all three races. Thoroughbred racing arguably reached its peak the following year when Affirmed won the Triple Crown; jockey Steve Cauthen was already famous by then, earning several Athlete of the Year awards in 1977, but his Triple Crown pursuit landed the photogenic Cauthen on the cover of Time magazine. “A Born Winner,” they called him.

And that was the last time a horse won the Triple Crown until American Pharoah did it in 2015. It’s an increasingly difficult feat in thoroughbred racing; the Belmont is something of an anachronism at 1.5 miles long, and the horses who have the stamina to win that race are usually not fast enough to win the Kentucky Derby (1 1/8 miles) or the Preakness (1 3/16 miles).