The Triple Crown

By Candice C. Curtis


Jockey Rosie Napravnik riding Pants on Fire. The duo raced in the 2011 Kentucky Derby and finished 9th, which made Rosie the highest-finishing female jockey in Derby history!
©Bill Denver

The most celebrated event in American horse racing is the Triple Crown. This series of three races, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, has made legends and sparked rivalries that racing fans recount for generations. The winners influence racing today, as their names are still found in pedigrees of champions.

It is also one of the most difficult challenges in sport, and its trophy is the rarest - only eleven horses have successfully completed the grueling triple. Adding to the difficulty is the condition that a horse only has one chance at Triple Crown glory - the races are restricted to three-year-old colts and fillies.


The Races

The first jewel in the Triple Crown is the Kentucky Derby. Run annually since 1875 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, the Derby is America's oldest continuously-held sporting event. The race is always on the first Saturday in May, and run at a distance of 1 1/4 miles. The Kentucky Derby is noteworthy because it is the first time the horses run the "Classic" distance. Known as "The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports," the Derby lives up to that moniker by bringing together the 20 best three-year-old colts in the nation for a high-drama gallop under the famous twin spires, to the cheers of 150,000 fans.

The Preakness is the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland two weeks after the Derby, the Preakness tests a horse's ability to bounce back after the often-roughly-run Derby. The horses get a distance break in the Preakness, which is run at 1 3/16th miles.

The Belmont Stakes is the final leg of the Triple Crown, and it is also the longest race, at a marathon 1 ½ miles. The Belmont is the oldest of the Classics, first run in 1867. The race is held at Belmont Park in New York, a single lap around the biggest track in America. Run the second Saturday in June, Triple Crown contenders get three weeks to prepare. Known as the "Test of the Champion," the Belmont has been the undoing of many Triple Crown hopefuls, as the horses push their limits in stamina, speed and heart. It takes an outstanding individual to compete, and win, all three races, and the Belmont is a fitting final round.


The Winners

The drought of Triple Crown winners began in 1979 with Spectacular Bid, who stepped on a wayward stickpin and fell to defeat in the Belmont. Since then, there have been 12 near-misses.
Racing fans dream of seeing the next Triple Crown winner. They begin tracking Derby contenders from their first starts at age 2, ranking them by their pedigrees and stakes wins. They track money and points earned, hoping their favorites can make it into the gate on Derby day. Even when the Belmont ends without a Triple Crown winner, it is merely the beginning of the next year's chase, in a cycle of ups and downs, history and heartbreak, that makes it horse racing's greatest prize. Here is a list of horses that have achieved Triple Crown victory!

Sir Barton - 1919: The first Triple Crown winner had never won a race before surprising everyone in the Kentucky Derby.

Gallant Fox - 1930: The term "Triple Crown" was first used in 1930 by racing writer Charles Hatton, who coined the phrase when covering the exploits of Belair Stud's champion and Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox.

Omaha - 1935: Omaha was among Gallant Fox's first crop of foals for Belair Stud, the only father-son winners. Omaha also raced in Europe, the only Triple Crown winner to race outside of North America.

War Admiral - 1937: Though Man O'War is considered by many as the greatest of all time, he did not win the Triple Crown. Owner Sam Riddle believed the Kentucky Derby was too great a challenge to ask of young colts in early May. It wasn't until 1937 that Riddle could be convinced to run a horse in the Derby, and that was Man O'War's best son, War Admiral.

Whirlaway - 1941: Trained by Ben Jones and ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro, Whirlaway was Calumet Farm's first Triple Crown winner.

Assault - 1943: During the dark days of World War II, Assault took the Triple Crown for King Ranch of Texas. Nicknamed "The Club-Footed Comet" due to an injury he sustained as a foal, Assault overcame his physical limitations and earned championship honors in 1943.

Count Fleet - 1945: Count Fleet was a freakishly speedy son of a Kentucky Derby winner, and owned by John Hertz. He won the Belmont stakes by a dominating 25 lengths, a margin no one thought would ever be eclipsed.

Citation - 1948: Calumet repeated its Triple Crown success with the legendary Citation. Citation won the Derby, Preakness, and scored in the Jersey Derby before the Belmont. He also defeated older horses and began a record 16-win streak that would not be broken for 60 years. Citation retired in 1950 with over $1 Million in earnings.

Secretariat - 1973: Secretariat was Meadow Stable's record-breaking Triple Crown winner. He won the Derby in record time of 1:59.2. In the Preakness, the official timer at the track malfunctioned, denying Secretariat the record for 40 years. "Moving like a tremendous machine," Secretariat won the Belmont in 2:24 flat, by an eye-popping margin of 31 lengths.

Seattle Slew - 1977: Seattle Slew was a "blue collar" Triple Crown winner, having been a $17,500 yearling purchase by Karen and Mickey Taylor from Washington. Seattle Slew went undefeated at age 2, and carried his winning streak into the Triple Crown. He returned at age four, where he twice defeated the 1978 Triple Crown winner, Affirmed.

Affirmed - 1978: Affirmed is forever linked with his rival Alydar, as the two met up 6 times before the Triple Crown. In the Derby, Affirmed bested Alydar by a length; in the Preakness, the margin shrank to a neck. In the Belmont, Affirmed and Alydar engaged in an epic stretch battle that saw Affirmed win by a head. Alydar is the only horse to place second in all the Triple Crown races.


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