The Triple Crown: How the Winners Stack Up
It’s one of the greatest achievements in the horseracing industry: the elusive, prized Triple Crown. Since the early 20th century, only twelve horses have ever successfully won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes to become a Triple Crown winning horse. Winners are considered to be models of ideal horses, whose ability to sprint shorter and longer distances makes them superior athletes. It is the combination of horse and rider that births Triple Crown victors, with only one jockey in history riding two winners. The training behind these powerful racehorses has also established several great racing stables, such as Calumet Farms and Belair Stud. Now with the end of the 37 year dry spell of Triple Crown winners, the world holds its breath for another great athlete this May.
The three races are held over a span of just over a month, culminating in the Belmont Stakes festival in June. Over the years, dozens of horses have successfully completed the lengths of the first two races, only to be defeated by the one and a half mile stretch of the Belmont. The stakes are high each year for the field of competitors, and the epic triumphs of these twelve great racers is celebrated by the world’s horseracing enthusiasts as hallmarks of champion athleticism and performance. Below we have profiled each of these great success stories, comparing their timed wins for each race to see which horses have the best times. The top five competitors are stacked against each other, demonstrating what would be an epic race if all of these horses could compete with one another.
The Kentucky Derby
Each year, more than a hundred thousand individuals attend the Kentucky Derby, kicking off the start of the racing trifecta, and each year the crowd hopes to watch the first successful bid of another Triple Crown winner. The first race, the Kentucky Derby, is a mile and ¼, or 10 furlongs. Known as the Run for the Roses, it is the race with the highest attendance in all of North America and began in 1875. Secretariat would have won in a Triple Crown winner face-off, followed by Affirmed, Whirlaway, Seattle Slew, American Pharoah.
The Preakness Stakes
After the Derby, the Preakness Stakes is the next test of a mile and 3/16, or nine and a half furlongs. The shortest of the three races is held at the Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore, Maryland. Known as the Run for the Black Eyed Susans, it began in 1873, but the current length was not finalized until 1925. Again, Secretariat would have taken the victory, with Seattle Slew and Affirmed tying, and Count Fleet and Omaha trailing behind.
The Belmont Stakes
Finally, the Belmont Stakes is the true Test of the Champion, as it is the longest race at one and a half miles (12 furlongs). Beginning in 1867, the Run for the Carnations is the oldest of the Triple Crown races. The current length was finalized in 1926 after several decades of alterations. The Belmont is known to be the downfall of Triple Crown hopefuls, as it requires both powerful sprinting capabilities and extreme endurance, and the distance has cost 23 horses Triple Crown Glory to date. When competing against one another, Secretariat would have bested American Pharoah by two seconds, followed by Affirmed and a tie between Count Fleet and Citation.
Read our profiles below about the historic Triple Crown victors and their journey toward triumph.
Sir Barton 1919
The first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton was a longshot when he entered the Kentucky Derby race. Despite the distances of the last two races being shorter than the lengths of the tracks for the other eleven winners, Sir Barton completed all three races in a month, while also competing in the Withers Stakes between the Preakness and Belmont races.
Gallant Fox 1930
It was after Gallant Fox’s successful completion of the three races that writer Charles Hatton coined the term “Triple Crown” to describe winners of the three esteemed races. As a three year old, he boasted nine victories in ten races. After retirement, he sires the next Triple Crown winner.
Sired by the 1930 winner Gallant Fox, Omaha had a rather dismal two year old season, winning just one of nine starts. However, his Kentucky Derby race was won by a length and a half on a muddy track. His Belmont Stakes win was also on a muddy track, where he beat the challenger Rosemont, who had bested him at the Withers Stakes, and Firethorn. He was buried in Omaha, Nebraska after his death at Ak-Sar-Ben Racetrack.
War Admiral 1937
The son of one of the greatest racing champions in history, Man O’War, War Admiral was the first colt run by owner Sam Riddle. Man O’War, despite wide consideration as the greatest racehorse of all time, was never granted the opportunity to compete for a Triple Crown because Riddle believed the distance of the Derby was too far for such a young horse. However, when he was convinced to make an attempt, War Admiral pulled through with an impressive Triple Crown victory, winning the Belmont by three lengths, despite a stumble at the start. He is infamous for his poor behavior at the starting gate, which is considered to be feist inherited from his father.
Whirlaway was the first of two horses on which jockey Eddie Arcaro won the Triple Crown. He had an impressive win at the Derby of eight lengths over his rival, Aslab, and set a track record that would hold for twenty years. After a dismal start at the Preakness, Whirlaway passed every horse on the track to take a five and a half length lead. He concluded the Belmont Stakes with a rather unimpressive time, but still managed to win Horse of the Year in 1941 and the following year in his four year old season.
Count Fleet 1943
While his owner initially was unimpressed with the colt, his jockey, the esteemed Johnny Longden, convinced Hertz to continue training Count Fleet. This led to an incredibly successful three year old season, and the racehorse easily won all three of the Triple Crown stretches, taking the Derby win by three lengths, the Preakness by eight, and the Belmont at an astounding 25 lengths. He held the record at the Belmont Stakes until Secretariat bested him by sixth lengths. He retired after his successful 16 wins out of 21 starts to sire.
Assault had a deformity in his right front foot from a sharp object he encountered as a foal, but despite this injury, his gallop was never impacted. He set the then-record at the Derby with a win of eight lengths, only to narrowly win the Preakness by a neck. He was not the favorite at the Belmont Stakes, and stumbled his start before closing a three length victory. His is the only Triple Crown winner hailing from Texas, and continued his racing career until he was seven due to infertility.
The second horse from Calumet Farm to win the Triple Crown, Citation started his career with Al Snider, who brought the horse to eight wins out of nine starts in his two year old season. However, after Snider’s death, Eddie Arcaro was brought back to ride Citation in his three year old season. While the duo lost their first race, Citation would not lose another for nearly two years. Citation would win the Derby by three and a half lengths and the Preakness by five and a half before matching Count Fleet’s record at the Belmont Stakes. Citation had an impressive post-Triple Crown career, finishing his career with 27 wins out of 29 starts.
While Secretariat is the horse that ended the 25 year drought between Triple Crown winners, his greatest accomplishment is setting the record times for all three races. He is hailed as the greatest racehorse in history alongside Man O’War, and his victory at the Belmont Stakes is considered one of the greatest races of all time. After a successful race at the Kentucky Derby where he managed to run each quarter mile faster than the last, he had a contested Preakness time that was officially changed from 1:54⅖ to 1:53. The last race at the Belmont set an unprecedented record, with Secretariat winning by 31 lengths.
Seattle Slew 1977
After his Triple Crown victory, Seattle Slew raced again at age four, beating 1978 winner Affirmed in two races. He is the only horse who won the Triple Crown without losing any prior races. He won the Derby by a 1¾ lengths and the Preakness by 1½ lengths before winning the Belmont Stakes by a full four. He retired to sire several champion horses.
Affirmed narrowly beat his rival Alydar in all three races, leaving Alydar as the only horse in history to place second in every race of the Triple Crown. The pair faced off at the Derby, where Alydar was the favorite, but was bested by a length and a half. With each race, the gap between the two grew smaller, from 1½ lengths at the Derby to a neck’s length at the Preakness, and only a head at the close of the Belmont.
American Pharoah 2015
The first horse to win the Triple Crown in 37 years, American Pharoah is also the first horse in history to win the Grand Slam, which is a Triple Crown victory accompanied by a Breeder’s Cup Classic win. At the Breeder’s Cup, he broke the track record. During his Triple Crown bid, his Belmont Stakes finish was the second fastest in Triple Crown history, and his last quarter mile was faster than the record holder, Secretariat.