08/28/2014 11:31AM

Crist: Double Crown title streak could end

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As any schoolchild knows, every 3-year-old since 1978 who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness failed to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown. But did you know there’s an even longer streak regarding the winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown?

Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971 through last year, 16 horses have won the Derby and Preakness – and every single one of them won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old: Canonero II (1971), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2001), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2007), I’ll Have Another (2012) and ... wait, not so fast on adding California Chrome (2014) to the list.

After Shared Belief’s impressive victory against his elders in the Pacific Classic last Sunday, he inched ahead of the idle California Chrome in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly Horse of the Year poll. (Shared Belief and California Chrome are now ranked second and third behind the 7-year-old gelding Wise Dan.)

You have to go back 45 years, before the dawn of the Eclipses, to find a 3-year-old who won the Derby and Preakness but was not acknowledged as the division’s champion: That would be Majestic Prince in 1969. He beat Arts and Letters by a neck in the Derby and by a head in the Preakness, but Arts and Letters beat him by 5 1/2 lengths in the Belmont and then reeled off consecutive victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. (He also won the Blue Grass and, in between the Preakness and Belmont, the Met Mile.) Arts and Letters was understandably acclaimed as the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year.

It looked as if things might go the same way a couple of times since. Twenty years after Arts and Letters, Easy Goer had a very similar streak after falling short to Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness. He was heavily favored to complete the turnaround in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but then Sunday Silence beat him for the third time in four meetings and was deservedly a nearly unanimous choice.

In 2003, it seemed that Empire Maker had edged ahead of Funny Cide when he beat him in the Belmont, giving him a 2-1 lead in head-to-head meetings and a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 victories. Neither one of them, however, won a race past June, and by the time ballots were due in December, Funny Cide’s Derby and Preakness made it seem to a majority of voters that he had been the more successful 3-year-old and deserved the nod.

The 2004 voting would have been interesting if Birdstone had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. After denying Smarty Jones’s bid for the Triple Crown by beating him in the Belmont, Birdstone returned to win the Travers. Would a BC Classic victory have pushed him past the Derby-Preakness winner? We’ll never know since he finished seventh, and Smarty Jones was an easy Eclipse winner.

So, the question now is whether Shared Belief can catch up to a Derby-Preakness winner. Let’s say he makes his fourth and final start of an unbeaten 3-year-old season in the BC Classic and wins it, beating California Chrome in their only meeting. Would it be enough? California Chrome would still have a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 wins (Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness vs. Pacific Classic and BC Classic), but Shared Belief’s two big victories would have been against older horses instead of the uninspiring 3-year-olds whom California Chrome was walloping last spring.

Still, winning the Derby and Preakness is a powerful double that tends to look even better in hindsight. The discussion then comes down to accomplishment vs. talent. It’s possible that one could simultaneously believe at season’s end that Shared Belief is the better horse but that California Chrome accomplished more this year.

It would be a fascinating debate if we get that far. Maybe the best part is that this could develop into more than a one-race rivalry: California Chrome is scheduled to race as a 4-year-old, and Shared Belief is a gelding with an unlimited future on the track. These things are always best settled on the racetrack, so here’s hoping.