Why a Triple Crown Winner Has Been So Elusive

Michael DempseyFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2013

Kentucky Derby winner Orb's Triple Crown bid ended in Baltimore
Kentucky Derby winner Orb's Triple Crown bid ended in BaltimoreRob Carr/Getty Images

Three decades and counting, horse racing fans have waited. A dozen times since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown, a horse has shown up at Belmont Park looking to win the Triple Crown, and they all exited New York without it.

The Triple Crown talk heated up after Orb’s impressive victory in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, sending him into the Preakness Stakes as the 3-5 betting favorite, but a heady gate-to-wire ride by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens aboard Oxbow extinguished Orb's bid for history.

Alas, we will have to wait at least another year.

After three Triple Crown winners in six years in the 1970s, why has there been a void for more than three decades?


The Durability and Pedigree of Thoroughbreds

The most common reason given for a lack of a Triple Crown winner is the theory that horses are not as durable as they were generations ago.

It is true that horses are bred more for speed than stamina, and they race less often than generations ago.

However, Dr. Dean W. Richardson, chief of large animal surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, does not agree that horses today are more fragile (via Liz Clarke of the Washington Post).

"There is a widely held belief that horses are less sound today than they were 30 to 50 years ago because horses back then raced more frequently and more horses had longer visible careers," Richardson said.

"“The problem I have with that interpretation is that I believe trainers actually are more tuned in to their horses’ problems today and are less inclined to race a horse with a known musculoskeletal lesion that increases risk of further injury."

Still, the fact remains that horses do race less today than their predecessors. When Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in 1973, it was his 13th career start. It was start No. 14 for Affirmed. Citation, the 1949 Triple Crown champion, won the Derby in his 17th start.

Two Triple Crown winners, Sir Barton (1919) and Count Fleet (1943), both won the Withers Stakes in between their wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. That would never happen today.

With horses bred more for speed, top-class horses rarely run in races longer than one-and-one-eighth miles, yet the Triple Crown races are all longer and contested in a five-week span. Most top horses only race once every five or six weeks. Last year's Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, only raced six times all year.


No Incentive for Derby Runners to Come Back for Preakness

Another reason it is so tough to sweep all three races is that there is no incentive for the horses that finish behind the winner in the Derby to wheel back in two weeks for the Preakness. It makes the Preakness easier to win, but then there are more fresh horses waiting to pull off the upset in the Belmont Stakes.

This year Orb did not have to face the Derby runner-up, third-place or fourth-place finisher, as they bypassed the Preakness.

That might explain why a dozen Derby winners were able to come back and win the Preakness, but none of them were able to seal the deal three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes.

We also do not see the rivalries develop as often as we did in previous decades, like in 1989, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer developed one of the greatest rivalries of all time.

Real Quiet and Victory Gallop ran one-two in all three Triple Crown races in 1998, producing the most excruciating near-miss in the history of the Triple Crown. Bob Baffert trainee Real Quiet swept the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, with the Elliott Walden-trained Victory Gallop finishing second in both races.

In the Belmont Stakes, Real Quiet, purchased for just $37,000, opened up a clear lead in the stretch under jockey Kent Desormeaux, and the first Triple Crown winner in two decades looked like a near certainty.

Victory Gallop and jockey Gary Stevens had other ideas, rallying strong late while Real Quiet started to shorten stride, and nailed the Derby and Preakness winner in the last jump. The margin of victory was a nose.

Except for the Derby winner, there is no real incentive for trainers to put their horses through a three-race grind in a five-week span. There are lucrative races later in the summer for three-year-olds, such as the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and the Travers at Saratoga. They can pick their spots and skip one of the Triple Crown races if they so choose.


It's Just a Different Game Now, Void of That Special Horse

If there is a Triple Crown winner in the near future, the gentleman who will likely describe the history is veteran race announcer Larry Collmus, who has a theory on why the Triple Crown has been so elusive.

"I think it's because racing has changed so much over the years," NBC's Collmus told Bleacher Report. "Horses are making fewer starts and spacing them apart more than they used to, while the Triple Crown has remained exactly the same. Those three races in a five-week span are unlike anything the modern-day horses have gone through before. That's what makes it so hard, and so special."

"Winning the Triple Crown takes a special horse, a special ride and a special training job," Bruno De Julio, one of the top Triple Crown workout specialists, horse owner and publisher of leading horse racing website Racing With Bruno, told Bleacher Report. "Like Yogi Berra used to say, 'The game is 60 percent physical and 75 percent mental.' Well, winning the Triple Crown is 75 percent horse and 80 percent racing luck."

Perhaps we have just not seen the second coming of Secretariat and Seattle Slew yet, a horse talented and lucky enough to sweep the three races.

Until we do, winning the Triple Crown will continue to be one of the most elusive feats in all of sports.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.