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A History of the Triple Crown

Updated on June 1, 2015
Secretariat leaps into his characteristic surge in the 1973 Preakness Stakes.
Secretariat leaps into his characteristic surge in the 1973 Preakness Stakes. | Source

Every year, three year-old Thoroughbreds vie for the honor of being included in the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. These three races together form the three races of American horse racing's Triple Crown, the highest honor any Thoroughbred can earn in the United States. As of 2015, it has not been won in 37 years, since Affirmed won in 1978. This honor is so difficult to achieve for two main reasons - the winner must win all three of these races,and the races are run in a close time proximity with the Kentucky Derby run on the first Saturday in May, the Preakness two weeks later, and the Belmont three weeks after that. This is a lot of hard racing, even for top racehorses. Additionally, the races are held at three different racetracks in three different states.

Affirmed, winner of the 1978 Triple Crown, and the last winner of the series.
Affirmed, winner of the 1978 Triple Crown, and the last winner of the series. | Source

The Triple Crown and the Kentucky Derby

So how did the Triple Crown come about? The term was first used in 1923 but is commonly attributed to writer, Charles Hatton, starting in the 1930's.

The Kentucky Derby has been run every year since 1875 and is known as "The Run for the Roses", for the rose winner's blanket awarded to the winning horses, as well as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" because it takes approximately 2 minutes for the horses to complete the 1.25 mile distance.

Since 1931, the order of the races has not changed. However, prior to 1931, the Preakness was run before the Kentucky Derby several times. Twice, in 1917 and 1922, the Derby and Preakness were held on the same day.

Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner in 1919.
Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner in 1919.

The Preakness and Belmont Stakes

The second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, also known as "The Run for the Black Eyed Susans" for the blanket of flowers placed on the winner, was first held in 1873 at Pimlico Racecourse in New Jersey. However, the race was not held from 1891 to 1893. Additionally, the Preakness has been held in New York as well, in 1890 in the Bronx and from 1894 to 1908 in Coney Island. In 1909, the race was moved back to New Jersey where it has been run every year since.

The Belmont Stakes is the Triple Crown's third leg and the longest of the three races at 1.5 miles. This race was first in 1868 at Jerome Park in the Bronx, making it the oldest of the three races. However, like the Preakness, there was a hiatus in the Belmont's running from 1911-1912 due to anti-gambling legislation in New York. In 1890, the race was moved to Morris Park before moving to the newly opened Belmont Park outside of Queens in 1905. The only other time period in which the Belmont was not run at Belmont Park was from 1963 to 1967 when it was run at Aqueduct Racetrack while Belmont was being renovated.

Seattle Slew, winner of the 1977 Triple Crown.
Seattle Slew, winner of the 1977 Triple Crown. | Source

The Triple Crown Trophy and Records

In 1950, the Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioned The Triple Crown Trophy. World-class artisans from Cartier created a work of art in the trophy. It is three-sided and contains specific information from each of the three races. The modern trophy is permanently awarded to the winner of the series. During the five week span from the Derby to the Belmont, the trophy travels to each of the racetracks for display. During the rest of the year, it is on display at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.

Only eleven horses have ever won the Triple Crown - Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978). Secretariat holds the race records for fastest time in all three races. Eddie Arcaro is the only jockey to win the Triple Crown twice, in 1941 and in 1948. Jim Fitzsimmons is the only trainer to win the series twice, in 1930 and 1935. Those two winners were also sire (Gallant Fox) and son (Omaha). This was also the first time the same owner and breeder won repeat Triple Crowns. Finally, in 1995, D. Wayne Lukas won the three races as trainer but with two different horses.

Seattle Slew's Triple Crown Trophy
Seattle Slew's Triple Crown Trophy


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