The Triple Crown is truly a benchmark in all of sports. The status an equine athlete achieves by accomplishing this feat is rivaled by none in the sporting world. In every sport, every year, champions are crowned. The sport of kings is the same but different. We have our divisional champions, voted upon in a subjective format, but we have no guarantee we will have a Triple Crown winner. We will see a World Series, Super Bowl, and other winners and champions, year in and year out, but the Triple Crown remains the most elusive of prizes. We never know when we will witness a horse capable of actually getting it done. We only know if we are patient enough, we will get to see a true benchmark in the measurement of athletic greatness.
For a horse to win the Triple Crown they have to bring it, and bring it hard, three times in a short span of time and each under very different circumstances. It is a testament to the trainer and jockey, but make no mistake, it is the Thoroughbred who does the running.
The Kentucky Derby is among the most difficult horse races to win. It ranks right there with the Grand National, Melbourne Cup, and Prix De Arc Triomphe as a true test of will and stamina. It is not called the most exciting two minutes in all of sports for nothing. It is the race every horseman from every country has heard of and longs to win. It takes first place in fame and prestige, and stamps the winner as part of history. Three-year olds are asked to go a mile and a quarter, against the best of their age, for the first time. They do this in the mass confusion of a large screaming crowd, often in a larger field than they are used to. Traffic, rough riding, crowding and herding are all common place during that run for those roses.
In the Preakness, the Kentucky Derby winner is asked to come back in two short weeks following a strong effort at a new distance. This time, the distance is a sixteenth of a mile shorter, but that means little with the quick turnaround. Add some fresh horses and factor the horses who may have had trouble in the Derby, and this test is not a whole lot easier than the last one. You have to bring it again.
Ah the Belmont. The test of champions. Now one has to go a grueling mile and a half on three weeks rest, against tough battle-hardened foes, along with fresh new faces all gunning for you. Oh yeah, you’ll have to bring it again and then some. Arguably the Belmont is as tough to win as the Kentucky Derby and is truly a test of determination and stamina.
The Triple Crown was never intended to be a walk in the park. It never has been. It has survived all the changes and evolving of the sport and never has lost an ounce of its significance. It remains the crowning and most difficult achievement in sports regardless of the changes or current state of the game. In that respect, it is timeless.
I have been fortunate to see four Triple Crown winners in my lifetime thus far. Each was special, each historical, and each extremely difficult, as intended but doable. I have also seen many a fine horse step up to the plate, only to fall short for a variety of reasons, the most glaring of which and the common denominator, being how tough the series is to take down. There are many ways to not get it done up against only one way to do it; win all three races.
Sir Barton in 1919, Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935, War Admiral in 1937, Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946, Citation in 1948, Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, Affirmed in 1978, and American Pharoah in 2015, were the ones great enough to get it done and make their way to the most elusive list in sports.
When you look at the list you see a span of nearly a century. A lot changes in a century. We have seen changes in breeding, drug usage, training methods, and other variables, but the Triple Crown holds steadfast as the benchmark of which greatness is measured. That is no coincidence. Years ago, horses did it without Lasix and other modern drugs and remedies like lasers, acupuncture, massage, and shock wave therapy. Today you will likely never see a horse with a start in between the Derby and Preakness, or the Preakness and Belmont, but prior to Secretariat that was not rare at all. It was actually, almost if not common.
We also see a glaring and almost unexplainable pattern of cycles. Our Triple Crown winners almost come in spurts followed by long droughts. We all know racing is a cyclical game, but the way we see our Triple Crown winners group together begs the question why. Coincidence, cycles, I don’t know but have long believed coincidences are for romance novels.
I have been to Super Bowls and heavyweight championship fights ringside. I do not know of any atmosphere more electric than that of Belmont Park, as the horses near the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes, when one of those horses has a shot at earning their way on to that most precious and elusive list. The roar makes the huge facility tremble. You know the horses feel and sense it, and you can almost instinctively feel “the horse,” with so much on the line, somehow knows what is at stake. Anyone who has spent their fair share of time on the back stretch knows the really good ones know the difference between winning and losing.
While the Triple Crown is never a guarantee, and always a mystery, one certainty is when a horse has a shot at it, you will see spectacular sports drama unfold. Real Quiet pulls away at the top of the stretch under what looked like wraps, only to be nailed at the wire by a whisker by Victory Gallop. Silver Charm, as tough and game as they come, takes the lead in the stretch, only to be gobbled up by the masterfully trained Touch Gold, who just a few yards back looked beaten. Smarty Jones opens up and takes it to the final strides only to be run down by Birdstone. Spectacular Bid, picked before the Belmont Stakes, to step on a safety pin. A safety pin! He already showed he was good enough to overcome the worst of trips in the Florida Derby, so we can’t blame that and have to go with the darned pin. War Emblem chose the most inopportune time to stumble out of the gate. I’ll Have Another looked poised only to have to scratch a day out. If you open the list to horses who lost the chance prior to the Belmont like Riva Ridge, Point Given and Afleet Alex, the many ways one can fall short increases and how totally on your game every time one has to be, is even more clear. Riva Ridge saved Meadow Stable, not the great Secretariat a year later, and if not for rain in Baltimore, a lot more people would know that.
There are no excuses or second chances. There shouldn’t be for the benchmark of champions.
When people say the series should be tweaked I laugh. That’s the equivalent of buying a vintage Ferrari and putting an aftermarket spoiler on it. We don’t fix what is not broke. I remember in the 70’s, people and turf writers opining the series was too easy and it needed to be made more difficult. There was no “LOL” back then, but we can collectively give a big “LOL” now. We can do the same to those who said it was too difficult prior to American Pharoah coming along and reminding those who chose to ignore the game’s great history, that the “right horse” can do it.
If all goes right, Justify will look to add to his most impressive resume in a little over two weeks in Belmont, New York. This horse has already stamped himself in history by winning the Kentucky Derby and knocking off the almost ancient Apollo curse of no horse winning the Run for the Roses without racing at two years old. He showed it was no fluke by digging down deep and taking the Preakness to put himself in line to get his shot at going on one of two lists, both great in and of themselves, but only one the true benchmark of the best of the best. The Triple Crown.