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 known as the Triple Crown, horse racing’s most cherished and yet elusive prize.
Before the Kentucky Derby is run each spring, every trainer, owner, jockey and bettor dreams of a Triple Crown winner.
Racing fans who see a Derby winner at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., hope and believe that they are witnessing greatness. Occasionally, the Derby winner prevails at the Preakness two weeks later, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and the thrill of possibility lingers until 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 all three races was said to have been in use as early as the 1920s, Charles Hatton of The Daily Racing Form is commonly 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 those races have varied. From 1969 to 2019, everything was consistent. In 2020, however, the pandemic caused the Belmont to be run first, in June, followed by the Derby in September and the Preakness in October. The races returned to their regular spots on the calendar in 2021.
What’s the difference between the races?
The Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, is held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, where the hat-wearing faithful sip mint juleps under the iconic Twin Spires. As many as 20 horses who have earned qualifying points in a series of prep races can compete in the mile-and-a-quarter race, which is often referred to as “the most exciting two minutes in sports” as 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 finishers, with $1.86 million going to the victors.
If the Derby is the epitome of refined Southern charm, the Preakness Stakes, with its raucous infield and infamous races atop portable toilets, is its rowdy cousin. The Preakness is held two weeks after the Derby, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, where black-eyed Susans count as both the decorations for the victor and the name of a popular drink for the revelers.At a mile and three-sixteenths, the race is not quite as long as the Derby and has a maximum field of 14, but winning it after capturing the Derby is no easy feat, considering the relatively short layoff between races.
While several Derby contestants inevitably skip the Preakness in favor of the Belmont or one of the marquee summer races, the Derby victor will have to contend what horseplayers refer to as new shooters — horses who sat out the Derby to focus on the Preakness, the $1 million crown jewel of the track known as Old Hilltop. One such horse this year is Early Voting, the lightly raced second-place finisher in the Wood Memorial. His trainer, Chad Brown, made the tough call to hold him out of the Derby despite qualifying for the race. “When you swing hard at the Derby and you miss, you have to deal with the aftermath when you’re the trainer, and sometimes it’s not pretty,” Brown said. “Part of my job is not just training racehorses but managing risk.”
While the Derby requires a bit of racing luck and the Preakness calls for durability, the mile-and-a-half Belmont, held three weeks later at Belmont Park in New York, is nicknamed the Test of the Champion for a reason: It requires the perfect mix of speed, stamina and grit. The main track, the longest in North America, is nicknamed Big Sandy and looks more like a highway than a place for thoroughbreds.
The song ushering the horses onto the track for the $1.5 million race is Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and a blanket of white carnations greets 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 while 11 fillies have won a Triple Crown race, none has won more than one.
In 1973, Secretariat broke a 25-year Triple Crown drought in emphatic fashion, stamping himself as one of the greatest racehorses ever, winning the Belmont by 31 lengths and prompting the track announcer, Chic Anderson, to exclaim, “He’s moving like a tremendous machine!”
When Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, he was the third horse to do so in six years, and it seemed that securing the biggest prize in the sport was no longer so demanding. But after that, the next 13 horses who won the Derby and the Preakness ran headfirst into heartbreak at the Belmont.
Then in 2015, American Pharoah pulled away from his rivals in the homestretch at Belmont Park and, just like that, 37 years of agony gave way to ecstasy. A mere three years later, Justify repeated the feat, making Bob Baffert the second trainer to earn two Triple Crowns, along with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox and Omaha).
Which horses have the best shot at it this year?
Two horses are likely to be vying for favorite status heading into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on Saturday: the Blue Grass Stakes winner Zandon, the 3-1 morning-line favorite, and the Louisiana Derby winner, Epicenter, the second choice at 7-2.
Zandon and Epicenter both have successful trainers — Brown and Steve Asmussen, respectively — who have somehow never won the Derby. And their jockeys, Flavien Prat and Joel Rosario, have each secured a Derby victory, although Prat’s came when Country House was elevated from second to first after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference in 2019.
Not to be overlooked are a pair who were evvel trained by Baffert: the Santa Anita Derby runner-up Messier, the third choice on the morning line at 8-1, and the Santa Anita winner Taiba, who is 10-1.
The horses were transferred to the barn of Baffert’s former assistant Tim Yakteen in March because Baffert was ineligible to receive Derby qualifying points. He is under a two-year suspension by Churchill Downs stemming from a medication violation involving his 2021 Derby winner, Medina Spirit, who was later disqualified.
Yakteen, who has never saddled a Derby horse since going out on his own, is trying to keep a low profile and enjoy the moment.
“I sort of had a lottery ticket dropped in my lap,” he said, “and I’m trying to go to the window and cash it.”