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Repeat champion colts once were common
Thirty years ago this month, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male of 1978, Spectacular Bid, captured the Florida Derby en route to becoming the third consecutive juvenile male champion to go on to be voted champion 3-year-old. He followed Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
All three colts also continued on to be named champion handicap male in their 4-year-old seasons.
Since Spectacular Bid, no Eclipse-winning juvenile male has won any championship of any kind after his first season on the track.
And, during this 30-year drought, arguably only four juvenile male champions were even in the running for an Eclipse Award at the end of their 3-year-old seasons: Chief's Crown in 1985; Forty Niner in 1988; Easy Goer in 1989; and Street Sense in 2007.
These four each likely would have won the 3-year-old male championship had they captured their final race of the year. In each case, it was the Breeders' Cup Classic and all four were defeated.
With the Florida Derby set for its 58th running Saturday, test your knowledge of 2-year-old champions of the past and what they accomplished at age 3.
1. When formal polling for national champions began in 1936, Pompoon edged out War Admiral for 2-year-old male honors.
The following year was another story. Pompoon managed to finish second to War Admiral in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but War Admiral dominated his division all year, winning the Triple Crown and earning not only 3-year-old honors, but the title Horse of the Year, as well.
Since formal polling began, who was the first juvenile male champion to also be champ at age 3?
2. No one was surprised when this bay colt - a $700 yearling purchase - finished 14th and last at 72-1 in his first start at age 2 on Hialeah's Nursery Course.
They were surprised, however, when he finished the year winning 10 straight stakes races (including a match race). He was easily voted juvenile male champion. Many sportswriters thought he also deserved to be Horse of the Year.
He lost his first eight starts at age 3 before capturing the Preakness Stakes. Name this dual champion.
3. In 1949, renowned handicapper John B. Campbell made Middleground the 126-pound highweight on the Experimental Free Handicap, two pounds more than the next highest juvenile.
The following season, Middleground won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and finished second in the Preakness Stakes. Yet, he was never voted champion. Middleground lost the title at both ages 2 and 3 to a future member of racing's Hall of Fame. Name that horse.
4. When one ponders the number of champions bred in Florida - such giants as Dr. Fager, Susan's Girl, and Affirmed - it is hard to imagine that the first registered Florida-bred Thoroughbred was not recorded by the Jockey Club until 1936.
And it was another 20 years before a Florida-bred was voted national champion for the first time. The colt won the title of the year's best in his division in both his 2-year-old and 3-year-old seasons. Name him.
5. During the 1970s, in addition to Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid, Secretariat also won back-to-back championships at ages 2 and 3. He retired prior to his 4-year-old season.
And while these were the only four males to turn the trick during that decade, two other 1970s juvenile male champions also made strong cases for being named 3-year-old male champions the following year. Both won the Kentucky Derby and one of them did win an Eclipse at age 4 as the top handicap male. Name the two horses.
1. In the 43 years from the first national poll in 1936 to 1979, the year in which Spectacular Bid was voted champion 3-year-old male, 13 males were champions in both their 2-year-old and 3-year-old seasons - roughly 30 percent. In the 30 years since, the percentage is zero.
The first juvenile repeater was Col. Edward R. Bradley's colt Bimelech (1939-1940). A sensation at age 2, Bimelech won all six of his starts, including the Hopeful Stakes and the futurities at Belmont and Pimlico.
He won his first two starts at age 3 and became the fourth horse to that point in history to enter the Kentucky Derby undefeated. He was upset at 2-5 by the upstart Gallahadion.
Bimelech won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes but no other races that season. It was generally a weak year for 3-year-olds, and Bimelech was able to repeat as national champion despite not winning again after June 8.
2. Alsab made a remarkable 22 starts as a juvenile, crushing his opposition during the last half of 1941.
That tough schedule caused him to struggle early in his 3-year-old season, losing to Shut Out in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, but beating that one in the Preakness. He won the Withers Stakes, but still had only two wins in his first 10 starts at age 3 - hardly the record of a champion.
Later that year, however, he won the American Derby, Lawrence Realization Stakes, and New York Handicap. But more importantly, he upset 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway in a celebrated match race at Narragansett Park in Rhode Island, to clinch the 3-year-old championship of 1942.
3. Middleground was the most talked-about 2-year-old of 1949, but Hill Prince had the most impressive record on paper and was voted champion because of three stakes wins in the fall.
Noted racing journalist Joe Palmer said Middleground would have easily been named champion 3-year-old in 1950 - if the vote had been taken in June.
But Hill Prince, who had won the Wood Memorial, Preakness and Withers stakes, and the American Derby, came back in the fall to beat older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Sunset Handicap (run in December that year).
Hill Prince was not only voted 3-year-old champion, but also got the nod over imported Noor for Horse of the Year.
4. The colt developed pneumonia when he was 5 weeks old and was injected so many times that the only name for him that seemed to fit was Needles.
The pride of Florida, Needles won the Sapling and Hopeful stakes en route to the championship at age 2 in 1955.
The following season, Needles won the Flamingo Stakes, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont Stakes and was again voted champion.
5. Riva Ridge, champion 2-year-old of 1971, seemed to be coasting to the title as champion 3-year-old. He captured the Blue Grass Stakes by four lengths, the Kentucky Derby by more than three, and the Belmont Stakes by seven.
Three weeks after his Belmont win, Riva Ridge went west and scored a hard-fought win in the Hollywood Derby. That race knocked the colt out and he was soundly beaten in his final five starts in 1972.
Meanwhile, Key to the Mint, trounced by Riva Ridge in the Belmont Stakes, won four straight stakes (the Brooklyn Handicap and the Whitney, Travers, and Woodward stakes) and received the nod for champion 3-year-old.
Riva Ridge returned at age 4 in 1973 to be voted champion older male.
In 1974, Foolish Pleasure was the undefeated male juvenile champion. The following season, he won the Flamingo and Wood Memorial stakes and the Kentucky Derby. He ran second in the Preakness and Belmont stakes before winning a legendary match race against the ill-fated Ruffian.
However, back-to-back losses in the fall to the late-developing Wajima, who had also won the Travers Stakes, cost Foolish Pleasure the championship.