The ultimate test for a race horse, the Triple Crown pushes young horses further than they have been before. And further than many will be ever again.
Human track athletes can be classed into ‘sprinters’ and ‘distance’ runners. Similar groupings exist for racehorses. Generally when two-year-olds first start, they do so at relatively short distances, like 5/8 or 3/4 or a mile. The higher class ‘stakes’ races for two-year-olds can get a bit longer than that, but not much. Distance is generally saved for their three-year-old year.
That said, the Triple Crown races will be the longest any of these horses have ever run. Several of the most high-profile “prep races” clock in at 1 1/8 mile, but no longer than that.
The Kentucky Derby
The first race of the Triple Crown is 1 1/4 mile long. It may be the first time the horses race over that distance, but it likely won’t be the last. One and 1/4 miles is the standard “classic distance” of many of the biggest races for the-year-olds and older horses. The Breeders Cup Classic is that length, along with the Travers Stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap, to name only a few. The three of these are some of the most prestigious races on the calendar outside the Triple Crown. And assuming the horses racing in the Derby don’t retire they will probably be aiming for one of those (or an equivalent) in the future.
The middle jewel of the Triple Crown is a slightly shorter 1 3/16 miles. The race is in no way a pushover, but it lacks the atmosphere of the Derby or the challenges of the Belmont — more on that in a moment — so has been the easiest to win in recent years. It is also the shortest in the series. Since 2000, seven horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and only one went on to win the Belmont.
The final race, the victory required to win the Triple Crown, is the ultimate test. At 1 1/2 miles, it is the longest race that many of these horses will ever run. This challenge makes it unique, and it has proven the most elusive of the Triple Crown Jewels. In the 37 years between Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah in 2015, 13 horses won the Derby and Preakness but not the Belmont Stakes.