06/01/2012 1:58PM

Crist: Triple Crown gods play no favorites

Tom Keyser
I'll Have Another will try to add his name to the Triple Crown pantheon on Saturday.

For all their battle-scarred cynicism about an often unpredictable game, horse-racing fans can also be romantically credulous about the justice of the racetrack when it comes to the Triple Crown. The very difficulty of achieving the sport’s greatest prize, which has now gone unclaimed for 34 years, is widely believed to reflect a harsh but fair verdict. We haven’t had a Triple Crown winner since Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1970’s, the thinking goes, because we have not seen their equal, and the racing gods will not allow pretenders to join the pantheon.

It is a charming notion, and one which I have been as guilty as anyone of embracing, especially when a horse who seems particularly unlike those legends is on the verge of joining them. The failures of some of the 11 horses who won the Derby and Preakness, only to fail in the Belmont, seemed to reinforce the idea that the universe of racing is a fair and orderly one.

This theory of the racing cosmos, however, does not stand up to much scrutiny. While the extraordinary challenge of winning three races at different tracks in five weeks sometimes exposes the limitations of horses who fail in the final leg, there have been more than a few who deserved to win it and whose defeats can most fairly be ascribed to poor racing luck rather than the equitable judgment of racing deities.

Profiles of Triple Crown winners

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) ?

Take the first of the 11 most recent unsuccessful bidders, Spectacular Bid in 1979. Whether or not he was compromised by stepping on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont, he received an atrocious ride from Ron Franklin, moving too soon and coming up empty late to finish third behind Coastal and Golden Act, nice horses but ones he would have beaten any other day.

He won 12 of his 13 subsequent career starts, losing only to the older Affirmed in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup, His 9-for-9 campaign as a 4-year-old was one of the greatest in racing history, and more than qualified him to stand alongside the other Triple Crown winners in any pantheon. If there indeed are racing gods barring the unworthy from the Triple Crown, they were out on the golf course the day of the 1979 Belmont instead of welcoming Spectacular Bid to the club.

Others who lacked the greatness of the Triple Crown winners or Spectacular Bid lost the Belmont despite being the best horse in the field, for any of the dozens of reasons that can get a deserving favorite beaten by lesser rivals on any given Saturday. No one confuses Charismatic with Secretariat but he was on his way to victory when he broke down. Big Brown was virtually eased with a bad foot behind Da’ Tara and seven other horses he would have beaten under a hold had he been healthy. The horse who came closer than anyone, Real Quiet, was hardly the best horse since the 1970’s when he squandered a premature rush to a four-length lead and came up a nose short in 1998, in a photo that could have gone either way.

The history is instructive and should sound a cautionary note on two fronts. Any horse is eligible to throw in a clunker on his biggest day, and this does not disqualify him from greatness or immortality; Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, and Sunday Silence all were Hall of Fame shoo-ins despite their Belmont defeats. Conversely, one of these years a horse is going to win the Crown without measuring up to those greats or the Crown winners of the 1970’s. If I’ll Have Another loses next Saturday, he will not necessarily have been revealed as an unworthy pretender; if he wins, it will not make him the best American racehorse since Affirmed.

At the same time, the elusiveness of the Crown is what makes it so special. If most or all of the 11 most recent bidders had been successful, winning it would fail to capture the public imagination and it would be just another thing in the world of sports that happens every few years. The other thing that makes it so compelling and special is the sameness of the challenge.

Every year there are busybodies who call for a change in the conditions of the series, to change the distances of the races to a more logical progression or to extend the time between the races to reflect changes in training styles. To do so, however, would not only put a giant asterisk next to the name of the next Triple Crown winner, but also be raising an unwarranted white flag of surrender to the notion that we can no longer produce racehorses capable of the feat. That’s what people were saying 40 years ago, that we would never see the likes of Whirlaway and Citation again. Then along came Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

More: Hovdey on Triple Crown near-misses

Spectacular Bid (1979) Pleasant Colony (1981) Alysheba (1987) Sunday Silence (1989)
Silver Charm (1997) Real Quiet (1998) Charismatic (1999) War Emblem (2002)
Funny Cide (2003) Smarty Jones (2004) Big Brown (2008)