If you follow racing at even a superficial level, i.e., watching the Derby with friends on the first Saturday in May, or reading a typical article in what passes for racing coverage in late April, you probably know that we haven't had a winner of the Triple Crown since Affirmed outdueled Alydar in 1978. If you follow racing a little more closely, you know that we've had a parade of horses since then come to the Belmont with a chance to win, all of which failed, and some of which have familiar names. Alysheba. Sunday Silence. Silver Charm. Funny Cide. Smarty Jones. And last year, Big Brown. None of them won. And this 31-year drought has had racing geniuses asking everyone what the heck is keeping horses from winning the Triple Crown?
A news search through the archives of the Daily Racing Form, Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times, and anything else in racing press, plus the racing blogosphere, reveals a whole series of excuses that are unavailing. Horses aren't as durable anymore and can't take 3 races in 5 weeks. Breeding. Medication. Training methods. Track conditions. The sheiks of Dubai. Etc., etc., etc. Nobody has really argued another theory: how about the notion that we've only had a few horses who were really Triple Crown material surface in the last 31 years, and most of them have had some bad luck?
It's worth remembering is that there are three ways to lose the Triple Crown. While everyone focuses on the defeats in the Belmont by horses that won the first two legs, a horse can lose the Triple Crown by not winning the Derby or Preakness and winning the other two legs. When you think about Triple Crown "misses" this way, it opens up the debate to a lot more horses that should be in the argument for why they didn't win the Triple Crown. And it also really changes the focus of who should and shouldn't have won the Triple Crown. Horses that got hot for the first two legs like Pleasant Colony, Charismatic and War Emblem are no longer really interesting candidates, because they were non-entities before the Triple Crown and only got hot for a few weeks. Their bids were accidental more than anything else.
So who should have won the Triple Crown in the last 31 years? By our count there are five horses that fall into the coulda woulda shoulda category that won two of the Triple Crown races, and frankly, it's pretty much just bad luck/timing that it didn't happen for one of them. Let's take a quick peek at them.
Spectacular Bid, 1979. The Bid was one of the 15 best horses ever and followed up a great 3yo campaign with an even better 4yo season. I could go into details about how his coked up rookie jockey cost him the Belmont by having him step on a safety pin during the post parade and dueled into defeat, but that story's been told a thousand times. Suffice to say that there's really no great excuse for this horse not being TC winner #12.
Swale, 1984. The son of the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, this perfectly bred colt won a pair of G1's as a 2 year old, the Florida Derby in March 1984, and absolutely dominated the Kentucky Derby. He then went to the Preakness...and promptly ran 7th. What happened? As Woody Stephens thought would happen, the rock hard surface of Pimlico tore up Swale's tender feet, and much like Riva Ridge in 1972, he wasn't able to adapt to the surface. Swale proved his superiority by winning the Belmont easily 3 weeks later, before dropping dead of a heart attack after a routine morning gallop. His strong 2yo and 3yo campaigns showed that he would have been a perfect Triple Crown winner, had he not just reacted poorly to the Pimlico surface (which mind you, is not a small deal).
Real Quiet, 1998. Many would argue that Real Quiet really wasn't that good, and frankly, they have a point--the horse did lose 14 of his 20 starts, and had either Alex Solis or Gary Stevens given Victory Gallop a decent ride in the Derby or Preakness, Real Quiet would have never been in line for a Triple Crown. Still, when you come this close to winning the Triple Crown, you're in the discussion:
Point Given, 2001. One of the most talented horses this decade, Point Given was a staunch favorite in the 2001 Derby, off of his close 2nd in the Breeders Cup Juvenile as a 2yo, and subsequent victories in the San Rafael and Santa Anita Derby. He came to Churchill Downs, and ran the worst race of his career, finishing 5th behind Monarchos' stellar performance. After that, he won 4 races all worth $1 million and all Grade 1's: the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers, where in the process he thumped every 3yo of note. He was then retired before facing older horses and was awarded Horse of the Year.
So what the hell happened on Derby day? It's impossible to argue that he didn't like the track, because he ran a great race there as a 2 year old. It's better to argue that his short 3yo campagin of 2 races left him a little short on the big day. But it's also worth noting that Monarchos ran his eyeballs out on Derby day. Even had Point Given run the race two seconds (10 lengths) faster, he still would have lost. So let's not chalk this up to how bad he was on Derby day, let's really chalk this up to him running into an absolute buzzsaw in Monarchos. It happens.
Afleet Alex, 2005.While Point Given and Real Quiet at least had the excuse of not being the best horse on a given day, and Swale's feet were a valid Achilles Heel, there is absolutely no excuse for this horse not being a Triple Crown winner, as he was a mile better than his competition (save for one-hit wonder Bellamy Road). Afleet Alex had a great 2yo campaign, winning the Hopeful and the Sanford, and finished up with an odd 2nd place finish in the BC Juvy, behind 1-time wonder Wilko. He returned as a 3yo to win the Arkansas Derby, went off the 2nd choice in the Derby, and ran an inexplicably blaise third...to 1-time wonder Giacomo. He then blasted the competition in the Preakness (where he almost fell at the top of the stretch and still won by daylight) and the Belmont, and was promptly retired thereafter. He was clearly clearly clearly the dominant horse of his class.
But his puzzling clunker in Kentucky kept him from immortality, and nobody has given a good answer as to why he ran so poorly that day. (Yes he ran third. His Gowanus Speed Figure was so low he would have run 7th in most other years.) It's one thing to lose to a talented horse like Monarchos that just runs a performance for the ages, which Point Given did. It's another thing to just not show up on Derby day, especially when it's sandwiched between three runaway wins. But that, in short, is what separates a Triple Crown winner from an ordinary horse: being able to deliver an A performance three straight times in three tough spots.
Coming up: another look at the Derby rules, and our annual Derby countdown.