There is at least one racing term that immediately inspires respect, and even awe, from people within the racing industry, long-time railbirds, and even from those with little knowledge of the sport – the Triple Crown.
The difficulty of capturing the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, at three different distances, on three tracks, all in the span of five weeks can not be overstated.
That task is such a tall order that only 13 horses have accomplished it in 145 years of the series – and until AMERICAN PHAROAH conquered all three races in 2015, no horse had done it since AFFIRMED in 1978.
So just who are these talented and tenacious Thoroughbreds?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at the last five Winners of the Triple Crown.
SECRETARIAT (1973) Jockey: Ron Turcotte. Trainer: Lucien Laurin. He was named Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old after Winning eight of nine starts and was syndicated for a record $6.08-million dollars early in his sophomore season. The chestnut colt lost the Wood Memorial but proceeded to set the stakes record in each of the three Triple Crown races, including an American record 2:24 in the Belmont, a race he Won by 31 lengths. Belmont Park has since installed a blue and white pole 31 lengths from the finish line, signifying the magnitude of BIG RED‘s Victory.
SEATTLE SLEW (1977) Jockey: Jean Cruguet. Trainer: William Turner Jr. He was the first, and remained the only undefeated Triple Crown Winner until JUSTIFY joined him in 2018. SLEW sustained the first loss of his career in his next race after the series, at Hollywood Park in the Swaps Stakes. As a 4-year-old he Won five of seven starts, including a Win over fellow Triple Crown Winner AFFIRMED in the 1978 Marlboro Cup.
AFFIRMED (1978) Jockey: Steve Cauthen. Trainer: Laz Barrera. His rivalry with ALYDAR, (the 2nd-place finisher in each of the 1978 Triple Crown races) is one of the most famous rivalries in any sport. Though he lost to SEATTLE SLEW in that year’s Marlboro Cup, AFFIRMED was named 1978 Horse of the Year, and he would duplicate that title in 1979 with six straight Grade 1 Wins. He was the first $2-million earner in Thoroughbred racing.
The 70’s almost had a 4th Triple Crown Winner in 1979 when SPECTACULAR BID easily Won the KD and the Preakness only to finish 3rd in the Belmont after a dubious ride by jockey Ronnie Franklin.
So as that decade ended, fans got spoiled; this Triple Crown series is easy, 3 Winners (almost 4) in 10 years they claimed. How difficult could it be? It was then the gods of racing would say; not so fast my friends. And the Triple Crown dry-spell began. Until…
AMERICAN PHAROAH (2015) Jockey: Victor Espinoza. Trainer: Bob Baffert. He ended the longest drought in Triple Crown history when he became the first Triple Crown Winner in 37 years. He lost his first start before breaking his Maiden in a Grade 1 race and Winning eight consecutive races. Like six of the previous seven Triple Crown Winners, the colt had been named 2-year-old champion in 2014. He wrapped up his career with a Win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses and was later named Horse of the Year.
JUSTIFY (2018) Jockey: Mike Smith. Trainer: Bob Baffert. He became the first horse since APOLLO in 1882 to Win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. He began his career in mid-February 2018 and Won three races, including the Santa Anita Derby, before sweeping the Triple Crown. He is only the second Triple Crown Winner to do so while undefeated, and his trainer Bob Baffert became only the second person to train a pair of Triple Crown Winners.