It seems that three or four Saturdays of the year, America all of the sudden becomes very interested in horse racing – and with good reason. The Triple Crown of racing: The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness and The Belmont Stakes, are some of the most exciting few minutes in sports.
After an impressive pair of wins in the first two legs of the crown, the California bread horse with a story that will give you the butterflies, California Chrome, has positioned himself at a shot to be the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the series. Withstanding, The Triple Crown is not the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals; you can’t just breeze through it, hence, why no horse has done it since 1978.
It’s funny seeing tweets and articles regarding California Chrome being the one to break the streak. Don’t get me wrong, California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza are going to be the heavy favorite to win as the calendar turns to June 7th in New York. This of course makes sense, because he is the best horse in the field, but there have been some great horses that could not finish the daunting 1.5 mile task the Belmont offers (the longest of the three races for you non-racing fans).
The last horse to have a chance was Big Brown in 2008. Remember? The horse that looked like this:
Big Brown was a specimen to observe. A physical phenomena. It was a forgone conclusion that Big Brown was going to win. His trainer knew it. We all knew it. It didn’t happen; he pulled up. Technically, War Emblem was the last horse to win both the Derby and the Preakness in 2012, but he scratched before the race even began due to a tendon injury.
Four years prior to Big Brown, “America’s Horse” Smarty Jones had it’s shot at the crown. He got off to an early start. Many say jockey Stewart Elliot took Smarty Jones (Author’s Note: SJ… great initials) out of the gate too quickly. Down the lengthy back stretch of Belmont Park SJ (the horse, not me) ran out of gas and long-shot Birdstone passed him in the last few hundred yards. The largest crowd any sporting event in New York had ever seen, over 120,000 people went silent. The loss was so shocking, so devastating, the jockey and owner’s of Birdstone apologized to the Smart Jones camp, multiple times.
Similar fates awaited for Funny Cide (2003), War Emblem (2002) and Charismatic (1999); the distance proved to be too much. That brings us to the incredible races in 1997 and 1998. Silver Charm went three wide in ’97, and was unexpectedly overtaken by Touch Gold. In ’98, Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet had it all but won. When out of nowhere, Victory Gallop stormed from the field to catch the sure winner, Real Quiet. It came down to a photo-finish and was decided by a nose, literally.
All in all there have been 22 horses that won both the Preakness and the Derby, but failed to win last leg. Some other horses of note would be Majestic Prince in 1969 and Tam Tam in 1958, both narrowly taking home second place. There has only been 11 derby winners, so the odds certainly do not lie with California Chrome.
There are another 24 horses that won two of the three races, not necessarily in order. For example, Point Given and Afleet Alex are arguably two of the better horses in the last few decades, but both failed to capture the Derby. In 2001, Monocros won the Derby with a time that rivaled that of Secretariat (The Michael Jordan of horse racing). A few races later, Point Given ends up winning the Belmont by 11 lengths. Probably, the most notable in this bunch is Man O’ War in 1920. One of the best horses ever to step foot on a racetrack won all but one of his 21 races, and most likely would have won the Kentucky Derby, but did not run. He went on to win the Preakness and Belmont with ease. His last race ever was a match race against 1919 Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton. He won by seven lengths.
I say all of that to make a simple point: California Chrome is undoubtedly a great horse. However, there have been many great horses that won two legs of the Triple Crown, but not the third. 46 of them to be exact (click here to see a complete list). So, before we go handing out any crowns or titles, we should probably let June 7th play itself out first. California Chrome may very well dominate the field, but cite a terrific Keith Olbermann quote: “Let us not be so hasty to write history, that we overlook real history.”
However, if I were to have a dollar to gamble on the race. I’d put it on CC. No one wants to be the guy who didn’t bet on the Triple Crown winner.