A Brief History
On June 11, 1919, Sir Barton, a chestnut Thoroughbred race horse, won the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in America’s horse racing Triple Crown, the “Big Three” horse races held in the United States each year. Sir Barton’s victory made it a sweep, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes, making Sir Barton and his jockey, Johnny Loftus, the first man/horse team to win the fabled Triple Crown of horse racing. In the 99 years since then, there have been 12 more horses to win the coveted Triple Crown Trophy, the most recent being Justify (ridden by jockey Mike E. Smith) who won the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 2018 to complete his Triple Crown feat.
The term, “Triple Crown,” was not known to be used regarding the 3 big races until a reference in 1923, and then a well known reference made in 1930 by Charles Hatton, reporter for the Daily Racing Forum, made it a well known term. Hatton made his reference regarding Gallant Fox pulling off the Triple Crown in the 1930 season. In fact, 5 years later, in 1935, the son of Gallant Fox, Omaha, became the first son of a Triple Crown winner to also win the Triple Crown. Both those horses were trained by James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, the first trainer to have trained 2 Triple Crown winners.
What other horses have won the Triple Crown, you may ask? After Sir Barton in 1919, the next big winner was Gallant Fox in 1030 and then Omaha in 1935. A hot stretch of racing ensued with War Admiral winning in 1937, Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946 and Citation in 1948. A long dry spell followed, with no horse winning the Triple Crown until 1973 when Secretariat broke the 25 year drought. Seattle Slew pulled off the feat in 1977 and in 1978 Affirmed became the first horse to win the very next year after a previous Triple Crown winner. Then a 27 year stretch followed until American Pharaoh won the Big Three in 2015 and then Justify performing race track magic in 2018 (2 days ago). From 1978’s win by Affirmed until 2015’s win by American Pharaoh, 13 horses won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to come up short in the Belmont Stakes. In fact, 21 horses have won the first two races and failed in the third (Belmont), coming oh so close to making history.
So which Triple Crown winning 3 year old horse (each year only 3 year old horses are entered in the Triple Crown races) was the greatest? For my money I say without a doubt, Secretariat. Big Red was a magnificent horse, setting the track record at all of the Big Three Triple Crown race tracks and winning the Belmont Stakes by an incredible record breaking 31 lengths! Talk about domination! Secretariat’s 2:24 time at the 1973 Belmont Stakes is still the 1½ mile world record.
Although fillies (young female horses) are allowed to run in the Triple Crown races and have won individual races, no filly has ever won the Triple Crown, nor has a gelding, although both are permitted to compete in all three races today, although geldings were not permitted to run in the Belmont from 1919 until 1957. The only jockey ever to ride 2 horses to the Triple Crown Trophy was Eddie Arcaro, riding Whirlway and Citation. The youngest jockey to pull off a Triple Crown was Stevie Cauthen in 1978 (Affirmed) at the age of only 18 years! The oldest jockey to win a Triple Crown was this year’s (2018) jockey riding Justify, Mike Smith at the ripe old age of 52, a real accomplishment for any athlete over 50 years old.
What is the “Triple Crown Trophy” we have been referring to? That award is a trophy commissioned by the Thoroughbred Racing Association and crafted by the Cartier Jewelry Company. The Triple Crown Trophy made its debut in 1950, but previous winners were retroactively given the award. Citation, the 1948 winner, was given the first such trophy. (The three races also have individual trophies, with the Kentucky Derby trophy made of Gold and worth over $90,000.) The Triple Crown Trophy is a three sided vase representing the three big races, or “jewels,” of the Triple Crown.
Questions for students: How familiar are you with Kentucky Derby History? Do you have a favorite race horse? Do you think one of these horses is a greater Triple Crown Champion than Secretariat? If so, you are wrong! Seriously, if you do disagree with this author, please feel free to name your favorite horse and explain why that horse is the best.
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For more information, please see…
Carter, John. History of Horse Racing: First Past The Post: Champion Thoroughbreds, Owners, Trainers and Jockeys, Illustrated with 220 Drawings, Paintings and Photographs. Lorenz Books, 2013.
Drager and McNamara. The Most Glorious Crown: The Story of America’s Triple Crown Thoroughbreds from Sir Barton to American Pharaoh. Triumph Books, 2016.