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Sports Then and Now

Okay, We Care About Horse Racing Again (At Least for the Next Three Weeks)

Posted on May 17, 2014 by Dean Hybl
California Chrome will look to break the 36 year drought of Triple Crown champions.

California Chrome will look to break the 36 year drought of Triple Crown champions.

It is very likely that you had no idea that the Preakness Stakes was held this afternoon near Baltimore. However, now that California Chrome has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown you can guarantee that you will hear plenty about the Belmont Stakes, which will be held on June 7th.

While all but the most die-hard of sports fans generally don’t pay much attention to the three triple crown horse races contested over a five year period from early May through early June each year, there is still a little magic left in the idea of the Triple Crown.

Always recognized as an amazing accomplishment, it has been 36 years since a horse has been able to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in the same year. Since Affirmed became the 11th horse to accomplish the feat in 1978 (ironically the third horse to do it in five years following Secretariat and Seattle Slew), 12 horses have won the first two races, but failed to capture the most physically demanding and longest of the three races.

The first few times that a horse fell short – Spectacular Bid in 1979, Pleasant Colony in 1981, Alysheba in 1987 and Sunday Silence in 1989 – the failure wasn’t necessarily a huge deal as it had only been a few years since the last Triple Crown and each had come pretty close to joining the elite club.

However, when no horse was able to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness for seven straight years, by the time Silver Charm claimed the first two races in 1997 the appetite for having another Triple Crown champion was starting to build. He very nearly pulled it off, but Touch Gold came from behind in the final stretch to edge him by three-quarters of a length.

Real Quiet missed winning the triple crown by a nose to Victory Gallop (11) in the 1998 Belmont Stakes.

Real Quiet missed winning the triple crown by a nose to Victory Gallop (11) in the 1998 Belmont Stakes.

The very next year Real Quiet came even closer to claiming the Triple Crown as he was edged by a nose on the last stride of the Belmont by Victory Gallop.

Making it three years in a row with a chance for the Triple Crown, Charismatic came up short in 1999 as he faded down the stretch to finish third. However, the most dramatic moment of the day happened immediately following the finish when jockey Chris Antley suddenly jumped off the horse and held up its right front leg. The quick action proved to save the horse’s life as he underwent successful surgery the next day.

There was another stretch of three straight near-misses from 2002-2004. War Emblem stumbled to an eighth place finish in 2002. In 2003, Funny Cide tried to become the first gelding to win the Triple Crown, but finished third on a muddy track.

With five Triple Crown champions amongst his pedigree and with an undefeated record that included dominant victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones seemed destined to grasp history in 2004. He grabbed the lead as expected, but was shockingly caught down the stretch by 36-1 longshot Birdstone.

Prior to California Chrome, only two horses in the last decade had won the first two Triple Crown races and neither even finished the Belmont Stakes.

In 2008, Big Brown was pulled up prior to the finish as his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, sensed something was wrong. Nothing was found at the time, but later photos surfaced that showed the horse may have had a loose shoe during the race.

When I’ll Have Another was scratched from the 2012 Belmont the day before the race because of tendentious, it deflated the excitement that had been building around the possibility of ending the Triple Crown drought.

Now, just two years later, California Chrome will have a chance to run into immortality. If he can do what the last 12 horses in his position have failed to accomplish, it could reinvigorate a sport that has struggled to maintain relevance has fans have become a bit dismissive following the long string of Triple Crown failures.

So, for the next three weeks expect to hear quite a bit about horse racing and the Chestnut Colt from California. Only time will tell if he becomes part of horse racing immortality or just another footnote.

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