05/31/2012 1:31PM

Triple Crown near-misses: Since Affirmed, 11 failed attempts

Barbara D. Livingston
War Emblem (middle), stumbling out of the gate in the 2002 Belmont, is one of 11 horses since 1979 who have failed to complete the Triple Crown sweep by losing in the Belmont.

The notion persists, agonizing in its simplicity. If Spectacular Bid, as good as he was, couldn’t win the Triple Crown, nor Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, or Smarty Jones, was it ever reasonable to expect Pleasant Colony, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, or Big Brown to pull it off?

The question will be asked and answered again June 9 at Belmont Park when I’ll Have Another, the horse of the hour, is thrown into the maw of a daunting historical trend in his attempt to add the Belmont Stakes to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories.

Since 1979 there have been 11 horses with a chance to win the Crown and 11 horses who failed. By comparison, during the Triple Crown drought that stretched from 1949 through 1972 there were seven horses who won the Derby and Preakness before losing the Belmont.

Two of them – Tim Tam and Majestic Prince − went wrong and never raced again. Northern Dancer ran once more and was gone, and Canonero was off for nearly a year. Kauai King benefitted from the 1966 Triple Crown absence of Graustark and Buckpasser and, went the thinking, was a lucky overachiever. It also should be noted that Forward Pass, had he managed to win the 1968 Belmont, would have been burdened by an asterisk throughout history because he won the Derby only after Dancer’s Image was disqualified for running on Bute.

In fact, of those seven near Triple Crowns, only Carry Back shrugged off his Belmont defeat and soldiered nobly on, all the way to the Hall of Fame: He ran 30 times before losing the 1961 Belmont Stakes and 30 times after, one of those coming in the Arc de Triomphe.

Even as the frustrations of that earlier era unfolded, there was no widespread denigration of the breed, no hand-wringing over the state of the game. What was heard, year after year after year, was a firm reminder that the Triple Crown was extremely difficult to win, and to expect there ever would be another decade like the 1940’s − when there were four winners of the Crown – was a mistake.

Then came the 1970’s, when Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed won Triple Crowns, and Spectacular Bid appeared a mortal lock to join the club. When he did not – for want of a healthy hoof or a more sensible ride – it turned out to be apocalyptic. The golden era ended with a whimper, ushering in a three-decade span during which the idea of another Triple Crown winner has become no more substantial than a desert mirage. As Guildenstern observed to Rosencrantz after losing a 76th straight toss of the coin, all heads:

“A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability.”

Immutable laws aside, explanations abound for the failures of the last 33 years. The horses have not been tested. They’re frail and feeble compared to Thoroughbreds of the past. They worked too fast. They worked too slow. And don’t get folks started about the rides they were given by jockeys caught like deer in the Triple Crown headlights.

It is to the eternal credit of the game’s most ardent believers that hope for I’ll Have Another abounds. The chorus is in full throat: He’s got the class, the style, the pedigree, and a young jock in Mario Gutierrez who fits him like a glove. If he wins, welcome to history. But if he doesn’t, if the coin toss comes up heads again, he will add a 12th chapter to a poignant collection of Triple Crown what-ifs since the day Affirmed dealt Alydar that final Belmont blow.

Continue reading: 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)