05/25/2012 12:07AM

Triple Crown bid is a race against history

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Bob Coglianese

1978

Affirmed beats Alydar by a nose in the Belmont to become the 11th, and last, Triple Crown winner.

When I’ll Have Another attempts to win the Belmont Stakes on June 9 and capture the Triple Crown, he must do more than defeat a formidable group of opponents. He must overcome history.

The Triple Crown series almost unfailingly thwarts horses who are not among the sport's all-time greats. In the past 64 years, only Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed  have swept the 3-year-old classics. Since Affirmed’s success in 1978, a total of 11 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before failing in the Belmont Stakes.

If a committee of experts tried to design a definitive test of American racehorses, it could not have devised one more effective than the Triple Crown series. In theory, a less-than-great horse ought to be able to beat a subpar group of rivals three times or hit a streak of hot form lasting for a few weeks. But of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only one - Omaha in 1935 - might be considered a fluke.

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) ?

No one conceived or planned the Triple Crown. It evolved haphazardly. The distances and schedule of the races underwent various changes over the years before it took its present form in the 1970s:  the 1 1/4-mile Derby is run at Louisville’s Churchill Down on the first Saturday in May. The 1 3/16-mile Preakess is contested two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Three weeks later, Belmont Park on Long Island is the site of the 1 1/2-mile final leg of the series.

When Sir Barton won the three stakes for 3-year-olds in 1919, there was no Triple Crown. Charles Hatton, a Daily Racing Form columnist, began using the term in the 1930s, and when Whirlaway completed a sweep in 1941, he was the first horse universally hailed as a Triple Crown winner. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations created a Triple Crown trophy in 1950.

Four horses won the Triple Crown in the 1940s, but no horse did it in the quarter of a century between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973. The 1970s, the so-called decade of champions, produced three Triple Crown winners. But now 34 years have passed since Affirmed outdueled Alydar in an epic Belmont battle.

Before 1978, horses who captured two-thirds of the Triple Crown were just as likely to be foiled in the Derby or Preakness as the Belmont. Racing luck was a frequent culprit; Native Dancer's rough trip cost him the 1953 Derby and Little Current was badly blocked in 1974.

But since Affirmed's triumph, the Belmont Stakes has become the great obstacle in the Triple Crown. Two changes in the modern game have made the Belmont so elusive. American Thoroughbreds have become less durable, and running three times in a five-week period is more stressful for modern horses than for their ancestors. (The schedule used to be even more demanding. Sir Barton had only three days' rest between the Derby and the Preakness.)  Relatively few modern-day horses compete in all three legs of the series unless they are pursuing a Triple Crown sweep, in which case they are usually facing a field of fresher rivals.

The major difficulty in the Belmont, however, is its distance. Contemporary American horses almost never compete at 1 1/2 miles on the dirt. Few are bred to run so far. The history of the race suggests strongly that a horse's running style plays a great part in determining his effectiveness. And the ideal style for the Belmont is antithetical to the style that often succeeds in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Horses frequently seize command of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with one bold move - usually on the final turn. But when a horse tries to unleash a similar burst at Belmont Park, he still has a seemingly endless stretch in front of him, and rarely can sustain momentum to the finish line.

Many horses have won the Derby or the Preakness with eye-catching acceleration on the turn: Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999). All of them lost their Triple Crown bid in the Belmont, and almost all of them were fading in the last quarter-mile.

Plodders sometimes win the Belmont and speed horses often do - but in either case they are likely to be even-paced runners, not ones whose forte is sharp acceleration. When Affirmed led all the way in 1978, he meted out his speed, running the first quarter-mile in 25 seconds flat and the final quarter in 25.20. Such controllable speed is the most formidable asset a horse can have in the Belmont. It is no coincidence that the past four Triple Crown winners won the race by leading all the way.

As I’ll Have Another bids to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, he has certain obvious strengths and weaknesses. He has not yet proved himself to be in the class of greats such as Secretariat and Affirmed. He will be competing for the third time in five weeks against challengers who have been given a breather before the Belmont. But he appears to have a respectable pedigree, and he possesses a blend of speed and stretch-running  ability that could add up to an effective running style at 1 1/2 miles. Now he has a chance to add his name to a list that includes some of the greatest Thoroughbreds who ever lived.

This article was revised from a previously published Andrew Beyer column.