American racing fans have been waiting a long time for a Triple Crown winner. We have come tantalizingly close so many times; since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 11 horses have come to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line, and 11 have walked off the track defeated.
Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
Yet still, we hope. We believe it can be done. It is part of our racing DNA to will home the Derby winner in the Preakness, and it is unthinkable for the winner of those two races to not continue on to the Belmont.
Three thousand miles to the east, hope does not spring quite so eternal. The English Triple Crown—the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, and the St. Leger—was last won by Nijinsky in 1970, and only two horses since then (Nashwan in 1989 and Sea the Stars in 2009) have won the 2,000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby; neither contested the St. Leger. Horses who win the 2,000 Guineas don’t even necessarily run in the Derby, and in this century, only seven horses have won all three races, five of them before 1920.
But rather than this rarity whetting the British racing public’s appetite for another winner, the English Triple Crown is considered something of an anachronism. Here, the Triple Crown is racing’s highest accomplishment. There, it’s barely relevant.
According to Nick Godfrey, the international editor of the Racing Post, the English Triple Crown has fallen out of favor for multiple reasons: the three races are spread out over four months; they are at vastly different distances over vastly different courses; international competition from the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders’ Cup offers the temptation to avoid the final race in the series in September.
British racing broadcaster Nick Luck concurred. “There are a lot more competing attractions in terms of intrigue and value and international stud value,” he said. “Winning the St. Leger won’t add anything to a horse’s value.”
Yet, even as we contemplate the possibility of I’ll Have Another’s becoming this country’s 12th Triple Crown winner, there is talk abroad of, perhaps, for the first time in a long time, a horse setting his sights on all three English Classics.
On the same day that I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby, Camelot (GB) (Montjeu (IRE)-Tarfah (Kingmambo)) won the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, and according to Godfrey, his connections are intimating, perhaps barely suggesting, a Triple Crown campaign. Camelot is owned by Derrick Smith, Mrs. John Magnier, and Michael Tabor.
“Derrick Smith said it might be nice to have a go at the Triple Crown,” said Godfrey. “I did an article for the Racing Post and he said that was vaguely interested in running in the St. Leger.”
Despite Smith’s suggestion, neither Luck nor Godfrey is particularly sanguine about the British public seeing Camelot in the St. Leger. As each pointed out, he’s first got to win the Epsom Derby, in which he’ll be the favorite and which is run the same day as the Belmont. Beyond that? Said Godfrey, “I would be quite surprised.” Luck called it “a quasi-realistic chance.”
Compare that to this country. Imagine a Derby winner skipping the Preakness; imagine the Derby–Preakness winner bypassing the Belmont. Imagine the howls of outrage. Here, the pursuit of the Triple Crown is an obligation, an obligation to racing fans and to its history.
There? Not so much.
Luck pointed out that in England, no one outside the racing public much cares about a horse winning the Triple Crown. “A much sexier sell,” he said, “for those marketing racing, more eye-catching, would be Frankel taking on Black Caviar.”
Godfrey sees it differently. “If Camelot were to run in the St Leger, everyone would get excited. It would be a massive talking point and would revive the Triple Crown in this country.”
Still, he acknowledged, “The Triple Crown is a doff of a hat to tradition. It’s sad—it’s almost a curio here, where in the U.S. it’s the be-all and end-all.
“It’s just so outside the thinking of people these days, but the romantics among us want a Triple Crown winner.”
And that, at least, we have in common.
[Video] 2012 Qipco 2000 Guineas Stakes - Camelot
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The week before the Kentucky Derby, I sat with Allen Jerkens in his golf cart on the Belmont backstretch. He had just returned from a winter in Florida; the chill of the Belmont morning had him attired in several layers. His face was ruddy from the Gulfstream Park sun.
It was just a week before the Kentucky Derby, and he wanted to know who I liked. Dodging the question, I asked him who he liked. Dodging the question, he mused, “I wonder…did all those horses win those Triple Crowns because they didn’t have to face fresh horses? When they won, did they have all those new horses coming in like they do now?”
I can only hope that the high school students in my classroom attack their assignments as zealously as I did this one.
According to the Daily Racing Form’s list of Preakness probables, I’ll Have Another can expect to face six horses, in a field of 12, that didn’t race in the Derby. Though the likely field is changing daily, it seems clear that if I Have Another wants to come to Belmont as a Triple Crown candidate, he’s going to have to put away fresh horses, some of whom haven’t raced since early April.
The Chief might be heartened to know, though, that the 11 Triple Crown winners also had to face horses that hadn’t raced in the Kentucky Derby. Of course, racing schedules were different then; in 1930, when Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown, the Preakness was run eight days before the Derby.
Even leaving out that 1930 season, it’s entirely possible that those non-Derby horses who showed up for the Preakness had raced not long before their arrival in Baltimore. Still, a look at the results from the Triple Crown years shows that the “new shooter” idea isn’t exactly a recent development.
In 1919, before the three races were known as the Triple Crown, Sir Barton faced 11 other horses in the Preakness, eight of whom hadn’t raced in the Derby. In 1935, Omaha had it relatively easy: the Preakness field that year was only eight, and all but three had raced in Kentucky.
In 1943, Count Fleet faced only three other horses, two of whom had skipped the Derby; he won by eight lengths. Five years later, Citation won the Preakness by five and a half, triumphing over three rivals, none of whom had made an appearance at Churchill Downs.
The biggest Preakness field in which an eventual Triple Crown winner raced was 12, and that was Sir Barton’s; Gallant Fox faced 11, Assault 10.
In 1937, 1943, 1973, and 1978, the horses that finished second in the Kentucky Derby (Pompoon, Blue Swords, Sham, and Alydar respectively) came back in the Preakness…and finished second again. Let’s not tell Bodemeister that.
Certainly, all this talk of Triple Crown records and fields and foes is premature: like my New York Rangers, engaged in game 1 against the dreaded Devils as I type, I’ll Have Another has a long way to go before he can be compared to the 11 horses who have captured sport’s most elusive title.
But if he does win this weekend, the Chief—and the rest of us—will know that he didn’t have it any easier than they did.
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Racing collection
This is where it begins. Since 1875 racing fans have flocked to Churchill Downs to watch The Derby -- yes, it's in Kentucky, but we need no modifier. It's The Derby.
Back home in New York, we watch with keen eyes for the winner, for that horse that we hope will become the 12th Triple Crown winner, the first in 34 years, the horse will bring home one of sport's most elusive prizes on our home turf.
We also watch to see how our hometown horses do, those horses that spend much of the year in New York, or the ones that have come to visit and added their names to New York racing history.
This year's Derby isn't short of either of them; if you're a New York racing fan, you've got plenty to root for.
Alpha broke his maiden at first asking last summer at Saratoga for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and Godolphin Stable. The homebred son of Bernardini has done little wrong in his six lifetime races, five of them over New York strips, the last a neck loss to Gemologist in the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial. With three wins and two seconds to his credit, New York racing fans have reason to hope that he'll bring roses home to New York and give McLaughlin his first Kentucky Derby victory.
Gemologist, the horse that beat Alpha in the Wood, doesn't boast quite the same New York pedigree. His only start in the Empire State came in the Wood, but he made it a memorable one, running his record to a perfect five-for-five. Trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Winstar Farm, he hails from the same connections as 2010 Derby winner Super Saver. The only time Gemologist was tested was in the Wood; his tenacity in holding off Alpha will serve him well in a much bigger, much tougher field at Churchill Downs.
Hansen has no New York-based connections, and this nearly white son of Tapit could rightly be called an invader when he shipped to New York to win the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes in March. The reigning 2-year-old champion is owned by Kentucky-based Dr. Kendall Hansen and Sky Chai Racing; he's trained by Michael Maker. His Gotham was noteworthy in that he showed a new dimension, winning from just off the pace instead of on the lead for the first time; should that versatility help him to prevail on Saturday, we'll be able to look at that Gotham as an essential step in his racing maturity. And any horse that wins the Gotham is granted honorary New Yorker status.
Trinniberg and his connections are based in Florida, but they've sure made themselves at home in New York. He looked like a winner in the slop in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga before giving way late to Spa native Terri Pompay's Currency Swap, losing by less than a length at odds of nearly 70-1. Last out, he was an easy winner of the Grade 3 Bay Shore, leading, as is his wont, every step of the way. Having never raced beyond seven furlongs, he may not be able to carry his speed a mile and a quarter, but if Trinniberg somehow manages to carry the roses, we can say we knew him when.
Based in Maryland, Union Rags lit up both Saratoga and Belmont as a 2-year-old. A seven-length victory in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special stamped him as one to watch, and he didn't disappoint in the Grade 1 Champagne two months later, romping by more than five lengths. His trainer, Michael Matz, and owners, Chadds Ford Stable, both call the mid-Atlantic home, but he commanded the stage in New York last year, and he's got no shortage of fans who'll be rooting for him on Saturday.
Went the Day Well hasn't spent much, if any, time in New York since 2009, but he was born here and that makes him one of us. This well-traveled colt has spent time in Ireland, England, Kentucky, and Florida, but he got his start in the Empire State. He's owned by Team Valor, trained by Graham Motion, and ridden by John Velazquez, the team behind last year's Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, and they hope that he'll become only the second New York-bred to win this country's most famous race.
So this weekend, embrace Kentucky's traditions: make yourself a mint julep, sing along to "My Old Kentucky Home." But when the gates open, keep your eye on the New Yorkers and hope that in five weeks, we're rooting for one of them to wear white carnations and make racing history.
So back a few weeks ago, we looked at some trends in the Belmont over the last 20 years.
How did the 2011 renewal live up to those trends? Let’s take a look.
Said trainer Dale Romans after the Preakness: “You know, Woody Stephens said a long time ago, Belmont is a speed horse's race.”
Perhaps. Perhaps. Not this year, though, to the disappointment of Shackleford’s many fans. That quotation didn’t influence many bettors, though, as he was sent off as the fourth choice, at odds of 6.30-1.
I noted that eight horses in the last 20 years had won the race by sitting close to the pace. Make that nine…Ruler On Ice was never more than a length from the lead.
In the last 20 years, only one winner has led wire to wire. Sorry, Shackleford.
The Belmont has offered generous prices over the last two decades, and this year was no exception. Ruler On Ice crushed the 20-year average payout of $15.30, paying $51.50; the previous high payout was Commendable’s $39.60 in 2000.
And take a look at this…I wrote:
“As for attendance…in non-Triple Crown years, an average of 52, 082 have turned out for New York’s biggest racing day. When the winners of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness show up, so do an average of an additional 3,000 fans.”
Saturday attendance was 55,779. Not bad, eh? We should have been taking prop bets on that one.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners have met in the Belmont five times since 1991, with the Preakness winner taking the Belmont four of those times. The Preakness winner finished ahead of the Derby winner again this year, but neither came near crossing the wire first. One can’t help but wonder, though, how different the outcome might have been had not Animal Kingdom stumbled so badly at the start.
The weather gods were not kind to Belmont on this damp, chilly, and at times miserable Saturday. But even as people shivered and sought warm spaces in this place’s massive expanse (the Heritage Bar might have been the most popular spot in the place), they refused to let weather deter their pleasure.
Even when races started way back on the other side of the track, the crowd cheered at the break. Horses returning to the winner’s circle received ovations. And when the sounds of Frank Sinatra wafted through Belmont before the big race, nearly 56,000 racing fans joined in, audible even from above the crowd.
If you were here, I hope that you had a great day and that you cashed plenty of tickets. If you weren’t, you’ve got a year to plan for Belmont 2012.
Thanks for reading, thanks for commenting, and see you next year.