06/02/2004 11:00PM

Crowning Moments: The winners

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Lazaro Barrera, a man who loved being on stage, was once asked about the Triple Crown trophy awarded to Affirmed for winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes of 1978. Without missing a beat, the trainer unbuttoned his shirt and displayed the telltale scars of open heart surgery.

"Right there," said Barrera, tapping his chest. "I wear the trophy every day."

The illustration was ripe, but the point was made. Winning a Triple Crown is the hardest possible thing to do in the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Only the strongest survive, and then just barely. The effort can take its toll - on man, on beast, and even on the news media and fans who whip themselves into a frenzy of anticipation for an achievement so blissfully rare.

On Saturday, Smarty Jones will try to do what only 11 other horses have done before. The idea buckles the knees. Only 11, from among all the thousands of Thoroughbreds foaled and raised over the 130 years that the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont have been run.

With such a small database - 11 is hardly a trend - it is impossible to find much common ground. The 11 represent an array of physical types, from the monstrous dimensions of Secretariat to the delicately balanced War Admiral. Their styles vary as well, whether it was the scorched earth policy of Seattle Slew or the late-inning heroics of Whirlaway. Smarty Jones has been compared to Affirmed in terms tactical style, but to the eye they would have little in common, save for their generous length from withers to tail.

In the end, the precious 11 were, quite simply, the best of their generation on three difficult days in the springtime of their 3-year-old campaigns. So here they are again, in shorthand review, waiting patiently for Smarty Jones to make them an even dozen.

1919
SIR BARTON

Believe it or not, there was a time when winning a Triple Crown was really no big deal. By 1919, at the end of the war to end all wars, there already were 13 of them in the history books. The British history books.

Horses started winning the English Triple Crown with regularity in 1853. But America had no races then that even roughly corresponded to the British trio of the 2000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, and the St. Leger. For instance, in 1890 the Preakness Stakes was moved from a bankrupt Pimlico to the New York tracks at Morris Park and Gravesend, then back to Maryland in 1909. In 1895, the Belmont Stakes was run in November. And in 1910, the Kentucky Derby was run three days after the Preakness.

In the spring of 1919, a second-stringer named Sir Barton from the stable of H.G. "Hard Guy" Bedwell entered the Kentucky Derby as a maiden. It was his first start of the year for his owner, Commander J.K.L. Ross. Sir Barton was a pig-earred chestnut with a long, wide blaze. When he won the Kentucky Derby by five lengths, leading all the way, he earned a purse of $20,825. That was fine, but Ross made $50,000 on the side, betting that his other runner, Billy Kelly, would defeat the well-regarded Eternal. The man who lost the bet was Arnold Rothstein. Later that year, he fixed the World Series.

The 1919 Derby took place on May 10. On May 14, Sir Barton won the Preakness. Presumably, they unsaddled him in between. On June 11, he had an easy time against two opponents in the Belmont Stakes. But as far as the chroniclers of the day were concerned, Sir Barton's Derby, Preakness and Belmont were nothing more than three of the eight stakes he won that year.

1930
GALLANT FOX

By 1930, Charles Hatton was making his mark on the face of American racing journalism with his work in the Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form. Hatton is credited with the application of England's "Triple Crown" as a term of honor linking the three major springtime tests for 3-year-olds in Kentucky, Maryland, and New York. Even so, the idea needed some fine-tuning.

In the rota that year, the Preakness came first on Friday, May 9, with the Derby on May 17, and the Belmont on June 7. For the first two, starting gates replaced the tape barrier for the first time. Belmont Park, on the other hand, waited until 1931 to switch to the stationary gates.

It mattered little to Gallant Fox. Standing tall as the pride of William Woodward's Belair Stud, the son of Sir Gallahad III was a gorgeous blood bay with black points, delicate white spats, and a commanding blaze. He was imposing enough for the legendary Earl Sande to come out of a two-year retirement to ride the colt for Woodward and his trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

Gallant Fox got past the Preakness with a three-quarter-length victory over Crackling Brigade. The Derby, attended by England's Lord Derby himself, fell to the Fox by two lengths, and the Belmont went down by three. Hatton had his inspiration to promote the concept of the Triple Crown. And, by the end of the 1930 season, "The Fox of Belair" was as well known to the American sporting public as Babe Ruth or Bobby Jones.

1935
OMAHA

It is unreasonable to expect great horses to replace themselves. Gallant Fox, who retired at the end of his Triple Crown season, came tantalizingly close with his very first crop.

Omaha was not as precocious as his sire. Nor was he as good-looking. But he was a powerful colt who got better with age and distance, and by the time the 1935 Kentucky Derby came around on May 4, he was ready to run the race of his young life for the owner-trainer team of Woodward and Fitzsimmons.

He needed to be ready. With 20-year-old Willie Saunders in the saddle, Omaha survived a muddy Churchill Downs track and a logjam on the first turn to win the 18-horse Derby by 1 1/2 lengths. One week later, Omaha was even more impressive in winning the Preakness Stakes by six, after which he tossed in a second-place finish to Rosemont in the Withers Mile in New York.

When they met again in the more demanding Belmont, Rosemont was a distant third while Omaha took home the Triple Crown by 1 1/2 lengths from Firethorn. And though he never enjoyed the popularity of Gallant Fox, Omaha was clearly the best colt of his generation.

In 1936, Omaha was sent to England. He had an admirable campaign, winning twice and placing in two of Britain's most prestigious events, the Ascot Gold Cup and Princess of Wales Stakes. As a stallion, however, he was a bust, fathering just seven stakes winners from 206 foals. So ended a budding Triple Crown dynasty.

1937
WAR ADMIRAL

On May 6, 1937, the German airship Hindenberg exploded and burned over Lakehurst, N.J. On May 8, while Hindenberg headlines still blazed, War Admiral won the Kentucky Derby.

War Admiral was Man o' War's best son. But even though War Admiral had much of Man o' War's ability and fiery speed, he looked nothing at all like his famous father.

War Admiral was small, standing 15-2 hands and weighing less than 1,000 pounds. He was dark, sealskin brown. And instead of Man o' War's mighty stride, War Admiral had a short, efficient motion that carried him to victories at distances ranging from five to 16 furlongs.

In the Derby, War Admiral went right to the lead and never looked back, rudely ignoring the 19 horses scattered behind him. He won by 1 3/4 lengths. One week later in the Preakness, War Admiral and jockey Charlie Kurtsinger toyed with Pompoon through the stretch and prevailed by a deceptively simple head.

Between the Preakness and the June 5 Belmont Stakes, trainer George Conway poured it to the little Admiral. Working at three-day intervals, War Admiral breezed 11 furlongs in 2:22, 12 furlongs in 2:35.40, 12 furlongs in 2:34.60, and 12 furlongs again in 2:34.60, the last move coming just three days before the Belmont.

If War Admiral had a weakness, it was his nervous energy at the starting gate. The Belmont brought out his worst behavior. At the bell, he overreached and almost stumbled. A hind foot sliced off a piece of his right front heel, but War Admiral shot forward to take the lead and did not stop until he had won by three lengths.

1941
WHIRLAWAY

When Whirlaway dismantled his Triple Crown opposition in 1941, it prompted a backlash against the weak efforts put up by his challengers.

"Never before have our 3-year-olds, of supposed stake calibre, made so sorry a showing in these great events," wrote John Hervey in "American Race Horses."

Hervey was careful, however, to exempt Whirlaway from his criticism. In fact, the muscle-bound chestnut with the tail like Rapunzel's tresses was considered brilliant.

Whirlaway, the top money-winning 2-year-old of 1940, was known as a difficult horse. He would lug out, pull himself up, and otherwise act the part of a confused young brat. Eddie Arcaro never looked forward to riding him, only to the results. Trainer Ben Jones fished around for the right mix of hard workouts and proper equipment. In a last-minute improvisation that may be more legend than fact, Jones supposedly whipped out a pocketknife before the Derby and sliced off the left cup from Whirlaway's blinkers. Whatever Jones did, it worked.

As the first of eight Derby winners for Calumet Farm, Whirlaway set a daunting standard. He won the Derby by eight lengths and set a track record. He won the Preakness by 5 1/2 lengths, and then, one week later, he went slumming in an allowance race at Belmont Park, beating older horses at 1 1/16 miles.

Two days before the June 6 Belmont Stakes, Whirlaway worked 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.40. That was enough to send any serious competition scurrying for cover. Only three horses could be mustered against him. Arcaro let Whirlaway take the lead after leaving the first turn, and together they strolled home to win by 2 1/2 merciful lengths. The Triple Crown was not supposed to be that easy.

1943
COUNT FLEET

He was the wartime Triple Crown winner. His career lasted barely one year to the day. He was brave beyond words, and, as far as Johnny Longden is concerned, Count Fleet was the best horse there ever was.

Longden should know. He was in the saddle the morning Count Fleet worked six furlongs in 1:08 and change down the Belmont Park straightaway - as a 2-year-old. He was aboard later that season when Count Fleet set an American record for one mile in the Champagne Stakes. And he was by Count Fleet's side to help nurse the colt through a bout of colic during the train ride from New York to Louisville the following spring.

The 1943 Derby was considered a luxury trip at a time when gas and tires were being rationed. More than one writer noted with irony that the normally countless taxis were all but missing from Churchill Downs that day. John D. Hertz, the owner of Count Fleet, was the man behind the huge Yellow Cab Company, based in Chicago.

With a quick colt like Count Fleet, Longden kept it simple. They shot to the lead, backed up the pace, and were never threatened while winning by three. The same thing happened in the Preakness. Only this time they won by eight.

Back in New York, trainer Don Cameron kept Count Fleet on edge by running him in the Withers. He won with authority.

Count Fleet's performance in the Belmont Stakes gave fans a memory forever. Like War Admiral six years earlier, there was only token opposition of two horses. And also like War Admiral, Count Fleet injured himself at the start when he rapped his left front ankle.

Longden sensed something amiss and let Count Fleet run on his own until the colt was moving comfortably. After that, there was no holding him back. Count Fleet ignored any discomfort and leveled off to win by 25 lengths, coming within a second of the track record.

Sadly, the ankle was badly damaged. Count Fleet never raced again.

1946
ASSAULT

The racing press can be so cruel, in spite of all the free food. Consider the nicknames they hung on Assault, hero of the 1946 Triple Crown for King Ranch and trainer Max Hirsch.

As a young horse Assault stepped on something sharp. Whatever it was pierced the sole of his right front foot and exited through the front of the hoof wall. As a result, the foot was stunted and misshapen in its development. The press of the day, hungry for the catchy phrase, labeled Assault "The Club-Footed Comet" and "The Magnificent Cripple." Perhaps they were meant to be compliments.

In an interview with Joe Palmer, Hirsch fleshed out the tale.

"When he walks or trots you'd think he was going to fall down," the trainer said. "I think that while the foot still hurt him he got in the habit of protecting it with an awkward gait. But he gallops true. There isn't a thing wrong with his action when he goes fast."

Smarty Jones is considered on the small side, but at 15-1 1/2 hands and 950 pounds, Assault may have been the smallest Triple Crown winner of them all. A dusty dun chestnut with a short-coupled frame, he was nothing special at age 2, then at 3 he won the Wood Memorial.

The Derby of 1946 was worth $100,000 for the first time. Assault, ridden by Warren Mehrtens, was 8-1 and won by eight lengths. One week later, there were suggestions that Mehrtens moved too soon in the Preakness when Lord Boswell nearly caught them at the wire. Assault's winning margin was a neck.

As a result, Lord Boswell was favored over Assault in the Belmont Stakes. Yet in the end, he was nowhere to be found. Assault bobbled at the break, made one of his trademark swerves in the stretch, but was still good enough to win by three.

"He was thoroughly game," Palmer wrote, "possessed of one tearing run which needed only to be held until there could be no counter to it."

1948
CITATION

Unlike Assault, the ultimate overachiever, Citation was expected to win the Triple Crown of 1948. Nothing less would be tolerated. Triple Crowns were being won with regularity in the 1940's, and if any horse had the look, it was Big Cy of Calumet Farm.

Citation was an outstanding 2-year-old, winning eight of nine races. He was even better after turning 3, when he blew away his opposition in the Flamingo Stakes. Bad karma ensued, however, when his jockey, Al Snider, disappeared in a boating accident off the Florida coast. Eddie Arcaro replaced Snider and promptly lost his first collaboration with Citation in a prep for the Chesapeake Stakes.

By the time they got to Louisville, though, Arcaro and Citation were in perfect sync. They won the Derby by 3 1/2 lengths under wraps, defeating Calumet's other monster, Coaltown. At Pimlico, only three showed up to try Citation. They left quietly after Citation won by 5 1/2 lengths.

Between the 1948 Preakness and Belmont stretched a gap of four weeks. Trainer Ben Jones was hardly shy about running his star colt, so Citation killed time by winning the 1 1/4-mile Jersey Derby by 11 lengths. After that, the Belmont was more like a floor show than a horse race. Citation won by eight lengths, and, in a fitting reunion of Triple Crown alumni, among those he defeated were horses owned by King Ranch, Belair Stud, and Glen Riddle Farm.

1973
SECRETARIAT

Bill Nack, Secretariat's biographer, recalls watching the handsome chestnut colt pause while grazing at Belmont Park and stare into the sky to follow the flight of a plane. Wishful thinking? Envy? Or was Big Red just checking out the competition?

By the time Secretariat got through with the 1973 Triple Crown, most earthly metaphors had been exhausted. His image adorned Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. His stallion syndication had commanded $6.08 million, and that was beginning to look like the biggest bargain since the Dutch bought Manhattan for pocket change.

More than simply win the Triple Crown, Secretariat singlehandedly restored its place as one of America's great sporting achievements. It had been 25 years since Citation's sweep in 1948, and with each passing year, the Triple Crown had been losing much of its mystique. It had become, instead, an impossible dream.

Secretariat lifted the Triple Crown on his broad shoulders and carried it to new heights. A record in the Derby. An unofficial record in the Preakness. And then still another record in his operatic Belmont Stakes that may last as long as horses run in circles.

"No one can remember anything quite like it, not even the oldest veteran," Nack wrote of Secretariat's singular grandeur as he approached the end of the Belmont, 31 lengths in front of the runner-up.

"No one applauds during the running of a race," Nack wrote, "but now the crowds in the box seats and the grandstand are standing as one and clapping as Secretariat races alone through the homestretch. They've come to see a coronation, America's ninth Triple Crown winner, but many are beginning to realize that they are witnessing the greatest single performance in the history of the sport."

1977
SEATTLE SLEW

Secretariat was an impossible act to follow. But in the wake of his achievement, appetites were whetted anew for the taste of another Triple Crown. In 1977, they had a perfect candidate.

Seattle Slew accomplished something not even Secretariat could achieve. The dark brown son of Bold Reasoning went into the Kentucky Derby with an unbeaten record and emerged from the crucible of the Belmont Stakes, 35 days later, still the picture of perfection.

If that sounds familiar, Smarty jones will try to do the same. And like Smarty Jones, Seattle Slew could boast a blue-collar story the public could love.

As a yearling, Seattle Slew sold for $17,500 at public auction. Even by the standards of the mid-1970's, this was a sum most middle-class Americans could get their hands on.

His owners were working people: Mickey Taylor was a lumberman, his wife, Karen, was a former flight attendant, and their partner, Jim Hill, was a practicing veterinarian at Eastern racetracks. Billy Turner, their trainer, was lanky and country-boy handsome - Jimmy Stewart's little brother - while jockey Jean Cruguet, an earthy Frenchman, supplied a touch of the exotic.

In the end, it was Seattle Slew who made them all look good. Facing 14 opponents in the Derby, he bulled his way through horses after breaking slowly and won by a length and three-quarters. In the Preakness, he was challenged by a European hotshot named J.O. Tobin, but the result was the same: Seattle Slew by a length and a half.

Then, in the Belmont, he controlled every yard of the mile and one-half. Cruguet stood in the irons to begin the celebration even before they reached the finish, four lengths clear of the runner-up. Purists criticized Cruguet's act, but they could not argue with the sentiment.

1978
AFFIRMED

It has been 26 years since the last Triple Crown winner, in 1978. Perhaps the subsequent generations saw what it took to win the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes that year and decided it would just be too much trouble.

To win the Triple Crown that year, Harbor View Farm's graceful red colt Affirmed had to survive the sporadic training of a wet winter in California. In the Derby and the Preakness, Affirmed had to stay cool and collected despite constant attacks from his nemesis, Alydar, a colt who never gave up.

Finally, Affirmed had to survive a virtual match race in the Belmont Stakes, as Alydar came alongside entering the backstretch and refused to go away. In the end, it was Steve Cauthen's surprising shot with the left-handed whip that sent Affirmed a head in front of Alydar at the wire.

Affirmed wore his Triple Crown well. In fact, no Triple Crown winner has gone on to accomplish more. Winning the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont was enough to make him Horse of the Year for 1978 at a time when Seattle Slew, Exceller and, of course, Alydar roamed the land.

The following year, at age 4, Affirmed improved his game for trainer Lazaro Barrera and won the Strub Stakes, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Californian, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It was more than enough to make him Horse of the Year again.

Despite the years, the memories of 1978 are still fresh. Affirmed had the kind of cool personality just right for the age - for any age. The word is charisma.

"He was a smarter horse than most of the people I know," Barrera would say, bending his Cuban accent around unshakeable logic.

That may be just what it takes to break the Triple Crown spell--another charismatic chestnut, cool, confident and smart. Real smart.