The Triple Crown, like many of the best traditions, was not created, it evolved. During the late 1800's three different tracks created races to test the speed and stamina of the new crop of three year olds. The first Belmont Stakes took place in 1867, the first Preakness ran in 1873, and it was not until the advent of the Kentucky Derby in 1875 that all three races were run in the same year for the first time. Forty-four years later in 1919 Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three. The term Triple Crown was not coined until 1930 when a Daily Racing Form columnist, Charles Hatton, used it while covering Gallant Fox's road to becoming the second Triple Crown champion.
In the 133 years that have passed only 11 horses have managed to accomplish what is arguably the most difficult feat in sports. Compared to the Triple Crown, no-hitters in baseball are a common occurrence. There have been more solar eclipses in our lifetime than Triple Crown winners and every year more people are stuck by lightening than the total number of Triple Crown winners in history.
Some of horse racing's most legendary names failed to capture this event. Man o 'War managed only 2 out of the 3 legs, skipping the Kentucky Derby. Seabiscuit, after losing 17 straight races as a two year old was not even considered for a Triple Crown start. Seabiscuit did later beat 1937's Triple Crown winner, War Admiral in a match race. Cigar did not compete, having started his great winning streak late in his fourth year.
What makes this event so difficult to win? Several factors must be considered. First there's the age of the horses. Triple Crown races are limited to 3 year olds, all of which exclusively have their birthday on January 1st each year. By the time of the Kentucky Derby, though most of the contestants will have actually reached their third birthday, they will not realize their full growth and potential until their fourth or fifth years.
Another significant aspect is the brief time between races. Most graduated stakes caliber horses of today run with 30 to 60 days off between races, but Triple Crown contenders must run 3 grueling races within the span of 35 days. Races at these distances take a toll on these young horses and it takes some time to fully recover. Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, won the Preakness only 4 days after winning the Kentucky Derby while today's contenders do have 14 days between the two races. Neverheless, it is quite a strain on their still developing bodies.
One of the most important factors is the distances of these races; the Derby is a mile and a quarter, the Preakness, a mile and three sixteenths and the Belmont at a mile and a half, the last and the longest of the three. The horses that survive their attempt at the Triple Crown will seldom, if ever, compete at these distances again and never with such short layoffs. And yes, survival is a consideration. Many Triple Crown hopefuls are never able to compete again after the Triple Crown, even superstars such as Smarty Jones and Barbaro who ended their careers, and Barbaro extremely His life, in the vain pursuit of this elusive goal.
Perhaps the deciding factor is that, unlike other sports championships, a new contender can enter the contest at any race without competitiveness in all three races. Due to the large purses for these races, a horse may skip the Derby and / or the Preakness to be rested and ready for the Belmont Stakes. Twenty seven horses have gone into the Belmont with Triple Crown hopes alive. Nine have won it, seven have been beaten by other Triple Crown contenders and eleven have been beaten by horses that did not compete in all three races. Perhaps it's time to level the playing field … if we want a true champion, let's require that horses must enter each race to be eligible for the next. We would not crown a World Series or Super Bowl champion that did not make it through the plays. Why then in horse racing do we allow honest hopefuls to be beaten by non-contenders?
The Triple Crown stands as the ultimate test of greatness, and that's why on the first Saturday in May each year, America's thoughts turn to horse racing and the hope of just one more Triple Crown winner. Because, after all, we do need another hero.
Triple Crown Facts:
The Belmont Stakes was first run in 1867 for $ 1,850.00 at the Jerome Park Race Course in New York at a mile and five eights. It has also been run at a mile and one eighth and a mile and three eights before settling at a mile and a half in 1926.
The first Preakness Stakes was held in 1873 for $ 2,050.00 at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland at a mile and a half, but has been run at six different distances between a mile and a mile and a half before stabilizing at a mile and three sixteenths in 1925 .
The first Kentucky Derby was in 1875 for a purse of $ 2,850.00 at the Louisville Jockey Club Course, later renamed Churchill Downs, at a mile and a half, but was shortened to a mile and a quarter in 1896.
There have been 5 years when it was not possible to have a Triple Crown winner:
- In 1890 the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness where on the same day at the same track
- In 1911 and 1912 the Belmont Stakes was not run
- In 1917 and 1922 the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness where held on the same day
The only Triple Crown winner to directly sire another was Gallant Fox (1930 winner) who sired Omaha (1935 winner).
Only two trainers have trained more than one Triple Crown winner, James Fitzsimmons – Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935) and Ben A. Jones – Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948).
Only one jockey has ridden more than one Triple Crown winner, Eddie Arcaro – Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948).
No filly has ever won the Triple Crown.
The number of living Triple Crown winners … none, Seattle Slew (1977) passed away in 2002, marking the first time since the first Triple Crown winner in 1930 that no Triple Crown winner has been alive.
No Triple Crown winner has ever won the Breeder's Cup which began in 1984; six years after Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978.