In 1919, Sir Barton became the first of 13 horses to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, capturing what would become the Triple Crown, horse racing’s most expensive and elusive prize.
Before the Kentucky Derby rolls around each spring, every trainer, owner, jockey and punter dreams of a Triple Crown winner.
Racing fans who see a Derby winner at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., hope and believe they are witnessing greatness. Every once in a while, the Derby winner wins at the Preakness two weeks later, at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and the thrill of the possibility lingers all the way to the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in New York. And on rare occasions, history is made.
What is the Triple Crown?
The Kentucky Derby (first run in 1875), the Preakness Stakes (1873) and the Belmont Stakes (1867) make up the Triple Crown series for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds. Although the term for sweeping three races was used as early as the 1920s, Charles Hatton of The Daily Racing Form is generally credited with popularizing it in the 1930s.
While the Triple Crown has always required winning the same three races, the order, spacing, distances and tracks of these races have varied. From 1969 to 2019, everything was consistent. In 2020, however, the pandemic saw the Belmont run first, in June, followed by the Derby in September and the Preakness in October. The races have returned to their usual place on the calendar in 2021.
What is the difference between races?
The Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, takes place on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, where hat-wearing worshipers sip mint juleps under the iconic Twin Spires. Up to 20 horses that have earned qualifying points in a series of preparatory races can compete in the one-and-a-quarter mile race, often referred to as “the most exciting two minutes in sport” because it can sometimes feel more like a stampede than a horse race. While a blanket of roses is reserved for the winner, a $3 million purse will be split among the top five, with $1.86 million for the winners.
If the Derby is the epitome of polished Southern charm, the Preakness Stakes, with its raucous infield and infamous runs atop portable toilets, is its rowdy cousin. The Preakness takes place two weeks after the Derby, at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore, where the black-eyed Susans count both as decorations for the winner and as the name of a popular drink for revelers. At one mile and three sixteenths, the race is not as long as the Derby and has a maximum field of 14, but winning it after capturing the Derby is no easy task, given the relatively layoff short between runs.
While several Derby competitors inevitably skip the Preakness in favor of the Belmont or one of the flagship summer races, in most years the winner of the Derby will face what riders call new shooters – horses that have left the Derby to focus on the Preakness, the $1.5 million crown jewel of the track known as the Old Hilltop. One such horse this year is Early Voting, which finished second in Wood Memorial. His trainer, Chad Brown, made the difficult decision to keep him out of the Derby despite qualifying for the race. “When you hit hard in the Derby and miss, you have to deal with the consequences when you’re the coach, and sometimes that’s not pretty,” Brown said. “Part of my job is not just to train racehorses, but to manage risk.”
While the Derby requires a bit of racing luck and the Preakness demands durability, the mile-and-a-half Belmont, held three weeks later at Belmont Park in New York, is dubbed the Test of the Champion for a reason: he requires the perfect mix of speed, stamina and courage. The main trail, the longest in North America, is nicknamed Big Sandy and looks more like a highway than a place for thoroughbreds.
The song inaugurating the horses on the track for the $1.5 million race is “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra and a blanket of white carnations salutes the winner, Triple Crown hero or not.
Which horses have won the Triple Crown?
The 13 Triple Crown winners are Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948 ), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015), and Justify (2018).
And although 11 fillies have won a Triple Crown race, none have won more than one.
In 1973, Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought in emphatic fashion, establishing himself as one of the greatest racehorses of all time, winning the Belmont by 31 lengths and prompting the announcer of the track, Chic Anderson, to exclaim, “He moves like a formidable machine!”
When Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, he was the third horse to do so in six years, and it seemed like securing the sport’s biggest prize wasn’t so demanding anymore. But after that, the next 13 horses that won the Derby and the Preakness ran headlong into grief at the Belmont.
Then in 2015, American Pharoah pulled away from their rivals down the home stretch at Belmont Park and suddenly 37 years of agony gave way to ecstasy. Just three years later, Justify repeated the feat, making Bob Baffert the second coach to win two Triple Crowns, along with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox and Omaha).
Will there be a Triple Crown this year?
The simple answer: no. Kentucky Derby champion owner Rich Strike has announced his colt will jump the Preakness Stakes on May 21 and head to the Belmont Stakes on June 11 instead.
Rich Strike, the 80-1 shot ridden by Sonny Leon and coached by Eric Reed — certainly not household names in horse racing, let alone the sport’s biggest scene — staged a furious and unlikely rally to capture the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7. He wasn’t even in the field until another horse was withdrawn the day before the race, and before the Derby his only win in seven tries came in a dirt claiming race at Churchill Downs . He had raced on a synthetic track in his previous three races.
But on the first Saturday in May, in front of an announced crowd of 147,294, Rich Strike was behind 17 horses heading into the far bend and behind 14 horses entering the stretch. Benefiting from the lightning-fast pace set in the first half of the race, he fought his way through the 20-horse field, climbed the rail, passed pre-race favorites Epicenter and Zandon and found himself first at the most important moment: at the finish.
“Obviously, with our tremendous effort and winning the Derby, there’s a very, very temptation to change our course and run into the Preakness,” owner Rick Dawson said of the original plan to skip the rematch if Rich Strike ran in the Derby. “What’s best for Ritchie is what’s best for our group.”