Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Does Horse Racing’s Triple Crown Still Matter?

Posted on May 05, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Secretariat dominated thoroughbred racing in 1973 and was named as the 35th greatest athlete of the 20th Century.

There was a time when the most important sporting event on the first weekend of May wasn’t the NBA or NHL Playoffs, but rather a two minute race between the fastest three-year-olds on four legs.  While still an exciting event for those lucky enough to make it to Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby and thoroughbred racing in general isn’t quite the national obsession that it once was.

However, the history of this regal sport is laced with many great champions, some of whom captured the spirit and hearts of the American public.

While greatness for a thoroughbred is often identified with winning the famed Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes), only some of the best known horses actually claimed that distinguished honor.

Chances are you have never heard of the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, in 1919, but may have heard about the legendary Man O’War, who many consider the greatest horse of all-time with victories in 20 of his 21 races. However, Man O’War did not follow Sir Barton as a Triple Crown winner during his three-year old year of 1920 as his owner held him out of the Kentucky Derby.

The next Triple Crown champion was Gallant Fox in 1930 and he started an 18-year stretch when seven horses won all three Triple Crown races.

Among these champions was War Admiral, a son of Man O’ War, who may be best known for losing a match race to Seabiscuit in 1938.

The horse Seabiscuit, who was chronicled in the 2003 film with the same name, never won a Triple Crown race, but gained a huge national following during the depression and was the 1938 Horse of the Year.

The last of the seven Triple Crown champions was Citation in 1948. Citation was the second Triple Crown champion ridden by the great Eddie Arcaro, who had also been in saddle for Whirlaway in 1941.

Over the next 25 years, seven horses would win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to fail in the final mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes.

In 1969, Majestic Prince was the first horse to enter the Kentucky Derby undefeated in 47 years and won both the Derby and the Preakness in photo finishes. After suffering an injury in the Preakness, Majestic Prince probably should not have run the Belmont, but the pressure of winning the Triple Crown was too great and his trainer decided he would run. He ended up finishing second in the final race of his career.

By 1973, many believed there would never be another Triple Crown champion. Then along came a horse that didn’t just win the Triple Crown, he obliterated it. Secretariat was the first horse to finish the Kentucky Derby in under two minutes and after setting another record at the Preakness won the Belmont Stakes by an amazing 31 lengths.

The performance by Secretariat was such a dominating effort that ESPN ranked him (yes a horse) as the 35th greatest athlete of the 20th Century.

It was just four years when Seattle Slew became the next Triple Crown champion, but his reign is often forgotten because of what happened the following year.

In 1978 racing enjoyed its greatest rivalry ever with Affirmed and Alydar battling wire-to-wire in all three Triple Crown races with Affirmed and young jockey Steve Cauthen claiming all three victories.

After winning the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones won the Preakness by 11 lengths, but finished one length behind Birdstone at the Belmont.

Since 1978, 11 horses have claimed the first two Triple Crown races, but been unable to finish the deal in the Belmont Stakes. Each of these horses, Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Big Brown have captured the imagination and interest of the sporting world for a short period of time, but eventually faded away as their brush with destiny ended in defeat.

Many believe that it will take another Triple Crown champion to get horse racing back in the public consciousness, but even such a champion might have a difficult time gaining traction in today’s fast paced sports world.

Horse racing, and especially the three Triple Crown races, still has a magic for those who remember the grand era of the sport or for general sports fans who enjoy the “major” events in each sport. However, the casual fan is no longer drawn to horse racing and with each passing year the sport fades further into irrelevance with the younger generations.

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