Horse Racing: The Triple Crown Gods…They are Real and They are Ruthless

The question that I keep being asked via email, text message and in person, is can I’ll Have Another win the 2012 Belmont Stakes and become Horse Racing’s 2012 Triple Crown winner? No horse has done it since Affirmed in 1978. In fact, the last 11 horses that have gone to Belmont Park having won the first two legs, have failed. This in turn makes us 0 for our last 11 attempts and 0 for the last 34 years.

My answer is the same every time. “Can he win it? Yes…he obviously has the ability to do so….the real question is will the Triple Crown Gods allow him too”?

Call me crazy readers, but the Triple Crown Gods exist and they are ruthless. I was skeptical at first but after doing my homework I realized they are for real.

Who they are, where they come from and how many of them there are is…well… beyond me; all I know is that they don’t just allow any old horse to win it. They have stopped some pretty darn good horses over the years. I mean, if they won’t allow the great Spectacular Bid or a dominant Big Brown to win it? Who will they?

I haven’t quite figured out their thought process yet (and at this point, I may never), but I do know two things. One, they are not snobs. They allowed the great Seattle Slew to win it in 1977 because the owners (The Hill’s and Taylor’s) spent a measly $17,500 for him. Certainly if they let a $17,500 yearling win it then I’ll Have Another, who was originally purchase for $11,000 and then again for $35,000, could to right? And two, I believe they were born somewhere in either late 1931 or very early 1932.

By 1930 they had already allowed two Triple Crown winners, Sir Barton in 1919 and Gallant Fox in 1930 and from the looks of things in 1932, Burgoo King was supposed to be the third Triple Crown winner. But, depending on whom you listen to, Burgoo King was not eligible to run in the Belmont Stakes due to a failure of his connections to file all of the required paperwork. Another source claimed he twisted a fetlock (ankle) before the race and could not run and a third rumor was that Burgoo King bowed a tendon right before theBelmont. Personally, I believe the first and third bits of information. I believe his paperwork was mishandled and he bowed a tendon shortly before the race because, after the Preakness, it would be two years before he would run in another race. Overall, I’d call that more than just bad luck.

In 1936, Bold Venture was undefeated in his three year old season. He won a wildly run Kentucky Derby (One horse got off to bad start and interfered with several other horses at the start but Bold Venture came away unscathed) which he was very lucky to win. He got lucky again in the Preakness as he beat a formidable rival in Granville by a whisker…literally.

Either Bold Venture used up all his luck in the Derby and Preakness or the Gods decided they had seen enough because, like Burgoo King, Bold Venture bowed a tendon shortly before the Belmont Stakes and was retired.

Fast forward to 1944 when Pensive won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but the Gods must have been shaking their heads “no” as he was coming down the stretch in the Belmont. Pensive was in command late but a horse by the name of Bounding Home (a winner of just 8 of 59 lifetime starts) was able to draw on even terms with Pensive and go on to beat him by less than a half a length. Losing the Triple Crown by less than a half length is painful but the Gods, unfortunately, didn’t stop there. Pensive would go on to lose eight consecutive races after theBelmont before being retired thereafter.

After allowing two more Triple Crown winners to slip thru, Assault in 1946 and Citation in 1948, the Gods came back with a vengeance.

In 1958, the regally bred Tim Tam (by Tom Fool ranked #11 on the Top 100 Thoroughbreds of All Time out of Two Lea at #77 on the same list) brought a six race winning streak into theDerby and Preakness. After those two races his streak had hit eight straight and looked almost unbeatable coming in the Belmont Stakes.

No doubt the Gods were angry in June of ‘58, because albeit they let Tim Tam have a commanding, almost insurmountable lead in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes, he fractured a sesamoid bone and had to limp the last few yards of the race and finished in second place. The injury ended his career immediately….like I said….ruthless.

Carry Back, who was a wildly popular three year old with an electrifying stretch run, won the Derby and Preakness in 1961. Heading into the Belmont Stakes he was a heavy 2-5 favorite but Carry Back took a bad step during the race and sprained an ankle. With that, he faded to a disappointing seventh-place finish in the field of nine. Sherluck, a 65-1 shot that Carry Back manhandled in both the Derby and Preakness, crossed under the wire first…..another weird outcome.

I’m not sure exactly how much the Gods had to do with the one and only Northern Dancer in 1964. Northern Dancer was small is stature and, after winning the Derby and Preakness, perhaps the greatest sire of our generation checked in third, beaten in the Belmont six lengths behind winner Quadrangle.

Northern Dancer’s jockey Bill Hartack said that the Belmont’s distance was “too much for such a small horse” and that his “best distance was between a mile and 1 1/8 miles”. So with Northern Dancer, perhaps I’ll give the Gods a reprieve on this one.

I will not give them a pass on 1966 Derbyand Preakness winner Kauai King. Kauai King tired badly in the stretch in the Belmont Stakes and was beaten by Amberoid, a horse for whom Kauai King blew out of the water in, not only theDerby, but the Preakess as well. How does one who gets blown away in the first two legs, all of a sudden turn the tables? The answer might be….with a little help from the Triple Crown Gods perhaps?

In 1968, Forward Pass also pulled off the Derby-Preakness double but was upset in the Belmont Stakes by Stage Door Johnny. Stage Door Johnny was lightly raced and bred for the longer distances, but the part that stands out is he (Stage Door Johnny) only broke his maiden in the several weeks prior to running in theBelmont. So, basically Forward Pass gets beat by a horse that won just one race prior to the Belmont and, at the same time, was making his stakes debut? Kind of strange… isn’t it?

Perhaps one of the best horses to never win the Triple Crown, Majestic Prince in 1969 was another strange story. “The Prince” as he was called was a perfect 8 for 8 in his career heading into the Preakness. As he came down the stretch in the Preakness, he was battling Arts and Letters nip and tuck all the way. The Prince won the battle but lost the war as he finished a neck in front of Arts and Letters but came out of the race with a tendon injury in his right front leg.

Trainer Johnny Longden said that Majestic Prince had what was called a “check ligament” in the leg as a result of bearing out on one of the turns in the Preakness.

Longden said publicly the horse wouldn’t be able to run in the Belmont Stakes and would be sent back to California to be rested until the fall. Owner Frank McMahon, at that point, agreed with his trainer.

But something happened to McMahon in the week’s leading up the Belmont and he had a change of heart. He ordered Longden to enter (and run) the horse in the Belmont Stakes. Despite a well publicized shouting match between Longden and McMahon in the days leading up to the race, Majestic Prince was sent out to run in the Belmont Stakes. The Prince, obviously not himself, finished second, beaten by Arts and Letters by 5½ lengths and, of course, Majestic Prince never raced again.

Regular jockey Bill Hartack told reporters after the race: “The horse was hurting. We should never have run in (the Belmont).” I wonder if the Gods whispered in McMahon’s ear sometime between the Preakness and Belmont?

Just two years later the Gods, once again, unleashed their wrath. Canonero II, in 1971, was a total Cinderella story as he was purchased for $1,200 at the Keeneland yearling sales inKentucky and sent to Venezuela.

In his final race before the Kentucky Derby, he finished third in a handicap race in Caracas that had a $3,500 purse. He then turned around, shipped to the US and shocked the world in winning the Kentucky Derby. Although he paid just $19.40 to win he was part a “mutual field” because if he wasn’t, he would have gone off at over 100-1 in my opinion.

Canonero II’s Derby win turned out to be anything but a fluke. He won the Preakness by a length and a half and then took aim at the Belmont.

In front of a then record 81,036 fans, Canonero II, after taking the race lead, struggled across the finish line in 4th place. It was later discovered he was fighting a foot infection for the 4 or 5 days before the Belmont. Once again, to me, contracting a foot infection several days before the biggest race in a horse’s life is a little more that just bad luck.

In 1979, The Gods enjoyed one of their finest hours when they “double barreled” the great Spectacular Bid’s Triple Crown attempt. “The Bid,” as he was affectionately called, was the best horse this correspondent has ever seen run live. He won an eye popping 26 of 30 lifetime starts and won four year end championships in his career.

He won the Derby that year by almost three lengths and followed that up with a conclusive five length win in the Preakness. But the night before the Belmont Stakes in June of 1979, The Bid stepped on an open safety pin. The pin had become embedded in his hoof and by the time his handlers discovered it the morning of the Belmont Stakes it was too late. Trainer Buddy Delp called a vet in to drill out the pin in hopes that would cure the problem, but it didn’t work. (The injury would later lead to a massive infection).

Albeit, by race time The Bid didn’t seem lame at all but he clearly was not 100%. That, combined with one of the worst ride I’ve ever seen, (jockey Ronnie Franklin chased a 70-1 shot thru very fast early fractions) and when they turned for home, The Bid was finished. He would not change leads (due to the injury) and was tiring from chasing a hot early pace. Bid faded to third behind Coastal and Golden Act, horses he had dominated in Derby, Preakness and as far back as his two year old year as well…yes, the Gods at their very best. Come on? Stepping on a safety pin? No doubt they were out to get Bid that year.

I think the great Spectacular Bid, shown here winning the 1979 Kentucky Derby, was a shining example of the wrath the Triple Crown Gods hold

Two years after that, in1981, The Gods also made their presence felt loud and clear. Pleasant Colony, a good looking but lop-eared colt, held off a fast closing Woodchopper in the Derby and used a powerful stretch run to win the Preakness.

Trainer Johnny Campo, who was…well….let’s just say…. never at a loss for words, said the day before the Belmont Stakes “go ahead and bet your money, he’s going to win!”

Evidently the Gods don’t like arrogance because Pleasant Colony finished third to Summing.

Alysheba, dubbed “America’s Horse” later in his career, won the Derby and Preakness in 1987 but at the time, New York racing did not allow the anti-bleeding medication Lasix on race day which Alysheba needed in order to run his best. In the Belmont, he finished fourth as Bet Twice won by an astounding 14 lengths.

In 1989, Sunday Silence, a good looking, almost black colt with not exactly the best pair of hocks you would want to see, was the next to pull off the Derby-Preakness daily double.

Unfortunately for him in the Belmont Stakes that year, The Gods shined more on the powerhouse Easy Goer. Easy Goer recorded the second fastest Belmont Stakes in history, behind only the immortal Secretariat, and won by eight lengths while running on his home track and denied Sunday Silence the Triple Crown. The Gods never gave Sunday Silence a chance in that one as far as I’m concerned.

Want more proof? How about in 1997 when Silver Charm won the first two legs of the Triple Crown? By 1997, perhaps you are old enough to recall, as they came down the stretch in the Belmont Stakes Silver Charm, on the inside, was battling (and winning) Free House, on the outside, while Touch Gold literally snuck up on the outside of Free House to surge to the lead. By the time Silver Charm saw him and dug in again, it was too late. Touch Gold won by less than a length…it appeared to me as though the Gods “hid” Touch Gold from Silver Charm until it was too late. Regardless, it was a very strange defeat.

The Gods were unquestionably in full swing in the greatest horse race I’ve ever seen in the 1998 Belmont Stakes. Real Quiet, who won the Derby and Preakness that year, turned into theBelmont homestretch and began to open up on the field. He had as much as a 4 ½ length lead between the quarter pole and eighth pole and I thought he was home free. I though for sure I was witnessing my first live Triple Crown winner.

But it was not to be. Real Quiet’s arch rival Victory Gallop came from out of nowhere and was slowly but surely, inch by inch cutting the deficit. When they reached the wire track announcer Tom Durkin, who is the finest race caller I’ve ever heard, called it exactly right when he said “Its too close to call”!!!…..when the dust settled, the photo showed Victory Gallop the winner by half of a nostril. Once again readers, The Gods exist and they are ruthless. How would you like to lose the Triple Crown by a nose?

Real Quiet, shown here winning the 1998 Preakness Stakes, was the Triple Crown God's best work.

The next Triple Crown God’s victim was Charismatic in 2000. After surprising a lot of people by winning the Kentucky Derby at some 31-1 odds, he bounced back and won the Preakness (at 8-1) too.

Charismatic was made a 2-1 favorite in the “Test of Champions”, and for several seconds I thought he, too, was going to win the Triple Crown when he took the lead in the final furlong. However, his lead quickly disappeared when both eventual winner Lemon Drop Kid and second-place finisher Vision and Verse passed him. After passing the finish line jockey Chris Antley, sensing something was amiss, jumped off Charismatic and held up the colt’s left front leg and, in fact, the leg was broken in two places.

The late Chris Antley said later that he felt the break in the final furlong and actually eased Charismatic up to avoid any further injury. The horse underwent career-ending surgery the following morning and, although Antley’s story had a tragic end, (more on that another day) the big chestnut by Summer Squall spends his days happily breeding in Japan.

In 2002 War Emblem got good at the right time as he won the Derby and Preakness but when the gates opened in the Belmont Stakes that year, War Emblem slipped and almost fell flat on his face. Because of the bad start, he was never a factor at any point in the race.

The next year, the Gods, in my opinion seemed to do the right thing (for once). The gutsy gelding Funny Cide won the first two legs but was soundly beaten by Empire Maker in the Belmont. I always thought Empire Maker was the better horse, so this is one time where I actually agreed with the Triple Crown Gods plan.

Three years later, in 2004, Smarty Jones came in to the Belmont undefeated and before the race I, personally, felt as confident as ever before. Smarty Jones was very impressive in his Derby win and he followed that up by thoroughly thrashing his opponents in the Preakness.

The Gods were once again out in full force as Smarty Jones came into the Belmont with a huge bulls eye on his back.  He was forced to run hard early and although he turned for home with a substantial lead, he tired in mid-stretch and was caught in the closing yards by Birdstone in perhaps one of the biggest heartbreaking defeats I’ve ever witnessed.

It was after that race where I realized heartbreak appears to be the Triple Crowns God’s middle name

Speaking of heartbreaks, in 2006 Barbaro certainly looked like a Triple Crown winner in the making after winning the Florida Derby and then mowing them down in the Kentucky Derby as well.

But, as we all know, he took a bad step several yards out of the starting gate in the Preakness and shattered his right hind leg. That injury would not only cost him his career and the Triple Crown but several months later, cost him his life as well….just plain ruthless stuff.

Lastly, in 2008 Big Brown restored my faith as he was the most dominant Derby-Preakness winner I’ve seen in quite some time. I thought for sure on Belmont Stakes day we would see a (literally) crowning achievement.

Well, I did until I heard trainer Richard Dutrow several days earlier say he thought winning the Triple Crown was a “foregone conclusion” with his gorgeous and very well tempered bay colt.

Going back to Johnny Campo with Pleasant Colony, we know the Gods don’t like arrogance. Not only was Big Brown soundly defeated, but he officially recorded a DNF (Did not finish).

Did Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, rile up the Triple Crown Gods?

Once again I will repeat, I’ll Have Another is more than capable of winning the Triple Crown….but again, the real question is…..will the Triple Crown Gods allow him too? That, readers, is something we can’t handicap or account for.

Comments

  1. TimMcDonald says

    Real Quiet came the closest of any of the almost-winners. Barely a foot separates that horse from being merely good, to being an Immortal.

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