You hear it all the time: It’s been 37 years since Affirmed crossed the finish line at Belmont Park and since then 12 horses have tried and failed to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. Many jaded journalists, trainers, jockeys, owners, and fans make the claim that the modern thoroughbred cannot win the series. But if one thing’s for sure, it certainly is not easy and it was never meant to be.
Though with this 37-year drought there is some call for the series to change, add longer breaks between races as the culture of racing has changed, or make it so if you run in one you have to run in all three, or even let the glory of the Triple Crown fade as it is no longer relevant. Interesting ideas for sure, but totally unnecessary, and here’s why.
The coward’s way out
In case you missed it (if you did I don’t know how), owner Steve Coburn said the “cowards way out” is to skipping the Derby, or Preakness, or both and running in the Belmont Stakes like Tonalist did in last year’s Belmont to spoil California Chrome’s Triple Crown attempt. He also went on to say, “if you’ve got a horse that earns points that run in the Kentucky Derby, those horses should be the only ones who should run in all three races… It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one.” Coburn is new to the game, and after all his partnership is called Dumb Ass Partners, but his comments got a lot of attention from many people who didn’t even watch the Derby. When I was a tour guide at Churchill Downs, many people me asked what the racing world thought of the comments, followed by how they sort of agreed with him and didn’t understand the backlash. And to be honest, from an outsider’s point of view what Coburn says does make a lot of sense, but here’s basically what I told them and I still stand by…
The three races that make up the series are run at three different tracks, in three different states, at three different distances, and all are Grade One races worth $1,000,000+, why should all three be required to follow the same rules as one of them? Many horses, such as Tonalist, while they may have had Derby dreams early on, intentionally avoid it completely to run in the Preakness or Belmont because they are completely different races from the Derby. The Preakness and Belmont do not follow the Derby’s point system to qualify in, and Tonalist did not have a single point to his name but sure showed he was qualified enough to win the Belmont, as that was the goal for him all along. Da’Tara is another spoiler who also did not have (well, would not have as the point system was only put in place only a few years ago) a single Derby point to his name. Sarava would not have had any, even Lemon Drop Kid who did run in the Derby itself would not have actually had any points to his name. Summing, who spoiled Pleasant Colony never even planned on running in the Derby itself, but came on later in the Belmont. Coastal in 1979 also never had any dreams of roses, did have his eyes on the carnations from the get go. Hell, this year Tale of Verve was entered in the Derby without having a point to his name either!
At the end of the day though, the vast majority of Kentucky Derby runners do not run in all three races. Some go to the Preakness, some skip it and go to the Belmont, and very few do all three. Only the Derby winner is almost always in the Preakness (except Spend a Buck that jerk). Plus, if they come up short in the Preakness then there is absolutely no need to run in the Belmont and most skip it completely. With very few turnover besides the winner, why force the others to run in all three too? And, lets be honest, do we really want or need horses like Vicar’s In Trouble or Mr. Z to be running in all three when they clearly couldn’t handle one? Not only that, but the Derby winner had already proved himself once against that field, would it really be fun to watch him beat up the same 20 horses three times? All 11 Triple Crown winners beat “cowards” who skipped one or two of the races, and they still came out ahead.
The style of racing has changed
Penny Chennery, who owned Secretariat and Derby-Belmont winner Riva Ridge, once said, “today, a horse will go six weeks without being in a race. In my day, we raced every other week.” And well, she is correct. Horses simply do not run nearly as much as they once did. Back in the day horsemen wouldn’t bet on a horse if he had more than two weeks off, meanwhile today if they run within two weeks they’re normally discarded. A few early Triple Crown winners even ran in (some even losing) the Dwyer Stakes between the Preakness and Belmont to “stay sharp.” In the last 30 years, horses have been slowly racing less and less to instead be 100% for every race, rather than 70% for some smaller races. Even as recent as Barbaro in 2006, it was a big deal that he had five weeks off before the Derby, but he came out ahead and had one of the most commanding wins in the history of the race. Now, quite a few horses have done that move since with many being favorites and one even winning with Orb in 2013. Since Barbaro though, no one has questioned having such a long gap between races, its just how it is.
But whats weird is quite a few horses who have made the Triple Crown attempt have had about as many races under their belt as past winners, but with less time between. Seattle Slew and Sir Barton ran six times before the Derby, Gallant Fox ran eight times before the Preakness (run before the Derby that year), War Admiral also had eight races.
But look at this, Charismatic had 14, Real Quiet had 12, California Chrome had 10, War Emblem had seven, Smarty Jones and Funny Cide also had six and so on. These are pretty small sample sizes, but horses today do tend to have generally as much race experience as horses of yesteryear, but they have more time between them.
Extremes on both ends: Whirlaway had 23 races before the Derby whereas Big Brown had only raced three times!
What about Point Given? Given the nickname “The Big Red Train” this horse was a powerhouse leading up to the Derby. The favorite for the race, he had finished first or second in all eight races before hand. For some reason, he finished fifth that day. We may never know why he went belly up in the Derby, but with him going on to completely dominate the Preakness and Belmont Stakes he showed that the time between races wasn’t a big deal for him.
The horses just aren’t good enough
Now, this one bothers me a lot. I’ve come into racing looking a the 1970s as the golden age of the sport, the epitome of what our equine athletes can and will achieve. If we compare a horse like Curlin to the likes of one of the champions of the 1970s, people will laugh and say something along the lines of “there’s no way Curlin can ever compare to Affirmed.” No way? Ever? Not even as three year olds when Curlin, who was in the money in all Triple Crown races while winning one, and was actually able to beat older horses unlike Affirmed was 29 years prior? Deciding on who was better will always come down to sheer opinion, but to say they can’t even be compared is ludicrous.
Between 1948 and 1973, there was a 25-year drought where the same conversation was happening, that horses just can’t win the Triple Crown anymore for a number of reasons. Now, between Citation and Secretariat, 15 horses attempted and all came up short. Between 1978 and now, 19 horses have tried and failed. Those numbers are different than whats normally used, 7 and 12, because I’m counting every horse that won 2/3 of the races because just like Derby-Preakness winners.
Lets talk about Afleet Alex first. Going into the Kentucky Derby he had nine races under his belt, finishing first or second in all except one where he had a lung infection. Going into the gate he was the second-choice behind Bellamy Road, the dominant winner of the Wood Memorial. Turning for home he was caught behind a few slowing horses, had to cut outside and had the lead at a point in the stretch but was swallowed up by two longshot closers in Giacomo and Closing Argument. He went on to win the Preakness in spectacular fashion after going to his knees at the top of the stretch, and then won the Belmont Stakes dominantly. After finishing only a length behind Giacomo, Afleet Alex showed he was plenty good enough to win the Triple Crown but lacked something that is just as needed: luck.
Now Real Quiet. Had 12-races going into the Derby and it took him quiet a long time to really come into his own. Won the Derby, won the Preakness and then in the Belmont Stakes he lost the Triple Crown in a photo finish to Victory Gallop. Had the finish line been a few inches sooner, we would have had a Triple Crown winner in 1998. To say he was not good enough to win all three is ridiculous.
How about Smarty Jones? In 2004 he captured the heart of the country after becoming the first undefeated winner of the Derby since Seattle Slew, then won the Preakness by nearly a dozen lengths. In the Belmont Stakes when he put his head in front with a mile still to go, the crowd at Belmont Park screamed as Tom Durkin called “and Smarty Jones takes the lead!” So loud that on the race replay you can hear everyone get louder. He was pushed by Eddington and Rock Hard Ten the whole way around, with some claims that the two jockeys intentionally pushed Smarty too hard to make him lose. He eventually lost the race by only one length getting caught in the last sixteenth. While Smarty definitely had enough talent to win it all, much like many before him, he just wasn’t lucky enough.
One horse that is rarely discussed is Thunder Gulch. Had nine races before he won in Louisville as one of the longshots. In the Preakness he came up about a length short of Timber Country, who the year before was the champion two-year-old and the beaten favorite in the Derby. Unlike many Derby winners who lose the Preakness, he came back again in the Belmont as the favorite.
Many other horses tried and failed to win the series, some more spectacularly than others. But with those wild failures, there are just as many near misses. Some horses, such as Curlin and even Mine That Bird, only won one of the races but still finished in the money in the other three.
All in all, the slump we’re in is long and hard to bear with. There are many people in the sport who were born after Affirmed’s run who in their lifetime have never seen someone sweep the series. When talking about it with handicappers or longtime railbirds, they often look at me like some sort of hopeless dreamer who hasn’t been slapped in the face by reality yet. I don’t blame them, if I lived through this draught I might feel the same. The way I see it though, every year is a new year, with a new group of horses, new cast of characters (though some make multiple appearances), with how horses have done recently, there is no reason why it should’t happen again.