Photo: Eclipse Spotswire
Growing up in one of the golden ages of horse racing I became spoiled. Great horses came along on a yearly basis, and the sport’s holy grail was anything but unattainable. I was in attendance the day Secretariat won the Triple Crown in the most spectacular fashion imaginable, but I was too young to realize the magnitude of the 25-year drought that he was ending. A few years later, Seattle Slew did it with front running dominance. The year after, it was the game Affirmed who simply refused to lose against the talented Alydar in each leg of the Triple Crown series. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to see these fantastic horses sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes within a period of five weeks, but as a kid, I came to expect the amazing. When Spectacular Bid entered the starting gate at Belmont Park in 1979, I naturally assumed, it was just more of the same. Not quite.
One of the greatest horses I have ever seen seemed invincible as he smoked his competition race after race through the Preakness. On the brink of immortality, the Bid was cut down by a safety pin in the hoof the morning of the Belmont. The fast Belmont pace, the marathon distance, and the talent of the up-and-coming Coastal, did not help the Bid either as he faded to third. And so it began.
The eighties came and went without a horse coming too close in The Test of a Champion. Pleasant Colony, in 1981, gave Johnny Campo his month in the limelight, but his strapping son of His Majesty would come up short at twelve furlongs against an unlikely winner in Summing. Six years later, a late developing son of Alydar, named Alysheba, looked like a million bucks in powering past Bet Twice in both the Derby and Preakness. Sans lasix in New York, though, Alysheba looked anything but extraordinary on Belmont Day. One of my all-time favorites, Sunday Silence got the better of his great rival, Easy Goer, in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but at Belmont and at 1 1/2 miles, he had little chance to stop the oncoming power that was Easy Goer. Suddenly, eleven years removed from Affirmed, it became apparent that this Triple Crown thing was not so easy after all.
The 90’s was quiet on the Triple Crown front for most of the decade, until all hell would break loose in the final three years of the decade. Like Affirmed 19 years earlier, Silver Charm was not discernibly better than his main competition, but like the last holder of the Crown, he possessed the heart of a champion. He gutted out wins in the Derby and Preakness, over horses like Free House, Captain Bodgit, and Touch Gold, and almost got there in the Belmont, before seeing his lead at the eighth pole vanish at the hands of the lightly raced talent, Touch Gold. Not even close for so many years, Silver Charm brought us only ¾ of a length away from the promised land. The following year would be even closer.
For the early part of 1998, few would have picked out Real Quiet as the horse that would flirt with immortality, but after solid wins in Louisville and Baltimore, it looked like it was all over but for the celebration when he opened up a big lead coming out of the Belmont Stakes far turn. That lead would have held up to, if not for a spirited rally from the Derby and Preakness runner-up. A four length lead of Real Quiet was methodically cut down by his rival Victory Gallop, and the Triple Crown dream died on the very last jump.
One year later, Charismatic truly came from nowhere to win the Lexington, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness in successive races. Would the third time be the charm for the late nineties? No, as an injury in the stretch ended any chance the D. Wayne Lukas trainee had to negotiate the 12 furlongs of the Belmont.
In 2002, War Emblem went all the way in the first two legs, but most handicappers felt it would be hard for him to get the extended distance in New York. It became a non-issue when the speed horse broke bad and effectively had no chance in the New York. The following year, a plucky New York-bred gelding upset his talented rival in the Derby, and when Empire Maker skipped the Preakness, Funny Cide won for fun. Fresh and ready for the Belmont, Empire Maker proved too much for the game fan-favorite, Funny Cide, though and the drought had now made it through a quarter century.
Undefeated and unchallenged, many thought we had finally found the horse that would attain Triple Crown glory in 2004. Coming off his best race to date in a smashing Preakness win, America’s newest darling, Smarty Jones looked home free as he accelerated to a clear lead in the Belmont. After 26 long years it finally looked like we could celebrate, that is until an unheralded long shot, named Birdstone, turned on the afterburners to run down and run right by Smarty in the final yards. Since that heartbreak, only Big Brown, in 2008, and I’ll Have Another, last year, have been able to negotiate the first two legs of the Triple Crown with consecutive wins. The former stopped running on the far turn, while the latter did not even make it into the starting gate.
Writing this all down today, I wonder what that young racing fan of the late seventies would say if he knew that 35 years would pass without a horse able to repeat the feat of Affirmed in 1978 ... Where have all the Triple Crown winners gone?