Justify will be heavily favored to become American thoroughbred racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner at Belmont Park on Saturday. While he will certainly be deserving of that favoritism, a brief history lesson reminds us that Derby and Preakness winners are anything but a sure thing at Big Sandy. There was a 25 year drought between Triple Crown winners from Citation’s sweep in 1948 and Secretariat’s coronation in 1973. After the 70’s graced us with 3 very deserving champions, another 37 years passed before the “horse of a lifetime”, American Pharoah, sealed the deal with his emphatic trilogy just 3 years ago. During that 37 year gap, 12 colts, roughly one every 3 years, won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but failed to find the winner’s circle in Elmont, NY. Seven others won some other combination of two of the three American classics during that time span. The point is that the most accomplished animal is far from guaranteed to win the 3rd leg of the Triple Crown. History suggests playing the favorite in the mile and a half trip around the big oval on Saturday is not a wise wager. The good news is that absent a handful of occasions, deciphering who is likely to play the role of spoiler is not an insurmountable task.
There’s no better place to start this history lesson than 1989, the year that featured an epic trilogy between Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence and Belmont winner Easy Goer. NBC Sports recently documented the rivalry in a film entitled Dark Horses. It has aired on the network off and on over the past few weeks and is an excellent recollection of the entire story surrounding the Hancock family. It is well worth the one hour watch and available On Demand through most television platforms. As far as spoilers go, Easy Goer was definitely the simplest one to choose. He was the runner-up in both of the first two legs of the series, and Belmont Park was his home track where he had already compiled a record of 3 wins from 4 starts. Additionally, he was bred with the 12 furlong distance in mind. All of those factors made him a completely logical choice to upend Sunday Silence’s Triple Crown bid.
Touch Gold made perfect sense as the second choice (as part of a Frank Stronach entry) in 1997. His 3yo season got started a tad late with a mid-March allowance victory at Santa Anita. He followed up with a win in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and a fourth place effort at Pimlico prior to his 3/4 length success against Silver Charm in the Belmont, the first of 3 unsuccessful Triple Crown attempts for Bob Baffert.
Victory Gallop won the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby in 1998 prior to 2nd place finishes in each of the first two Triple Crown races as he emerged as a plausible upset choice to Real Quiet in Baffert’s second attempt at the sweep. A far too early move from Kent Desormeaux played right into Victory Gallop’s closing prowess.
An injury, likely sustained in the stretch run, proved the ultimate demise of Charismatic in 1999. Lemon Drop Kid took home the white carnations at odds of 30/1, but he had shown a prior affinity for Belmont Park and his pedigree did suggest that the 12 furlong distance was well within his scope, so he was not entirely improbable despite the long odds.
I, for one, was never sold on War Emblem’s ability to see out the 12 panel distance but would’ve certainly needed the all button to find Sarava in 2002. A bad stumble at the break cost Baffert any shot in his third quest for the crown.
Empire Maker was always the best horse of the 2003 crop, and were it not for a foot issue in the Derby, he may well have been vying for history himself on the day he ended Funny Cide’s quest for Triple Crown glory.
Birdstone was 36/1 when he broke the hearts of the Chapmans and Smarty Jones in 2004, but there were several reasons to believe he had a shot. For one, Smarty Jones was a vulnerable favorite. His pedigree suggested obvious distance limitations and jockey Stewart Elliott was inexperienced at Belmont Park. The inexperience proved key when he was duped into an early speed duel that set the race up for an off-the-pace type like Birdstone. Birdstone won the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont as a 2yo and had legitimate excuses in his two starts prior to the Belmont. He had a horrible trip and was checked twice in a 5th place effort in the Lane’s End at Turfway, and he didn’t care for the sloppy track at Churchill Downs on Derby day. Draw a line through those two performances, and he seemed just as capable as anyone else of pulling the upset.
Without a doubt, the most improbable Triple Crown failure came in 2008. Big Brown was miles the best of an absolutely dreadful crop of 3yos. He won the Derby from post 20 as the only horse to do so in the history of the race. The Preakness was a mere jog in the park, with the son of Boundary finding the wire to the good of the field by 5 widening lengths, under wraps. He went to post in the Belmont as an undefeated 2/5 favorite, and who the hell knows what happened after that. It was a miserably steamy day and Big Brown lost his mind a bit in the paddock. He was rank from the early stages in the race and was eventually pulled up, somewhat inexplicably, by Kent Desormeaux approaching the quarter pole. Had Desormeaux simply let the horse run as opposed to trying to fight him and then pulling him up, who knows what would have happened. The rider’s decision not to finish, or ever really run, left 38/1 shot Da Tara, a mere maiden winner, in front all the way around the track.
California Chrome was extremely impressive winning the first two legs in 2014, but he was another whose pedigree included distance limitations. The late blooming Tonalist won the Peter Pan over the Belmont track in his prep and had a bloodline laced with stamina influences. At 9/1 he certainly seemed a candidate worthy of consideration to play the role of spoiler.
The 12 near misses between Affirmed and American Pharoah almost conditioned hardy gamblers to expect an upset in the Belmont. Anything can and often does happen. Any one of Justify’s nine opponents could play the role of Birdstone or Da Tara or Victory Gallop on Saturday (at least Justify is not being ridden by Kent Desormeaux). In fact, history says that it is far more likely that a horse not named Justify will emerge victorious in the Test of Champions. But, three years ago, a big brown grandson of Belmont winner Empire Maker, a colt whose morning breezes gave new meaning to “poetry in motion”, reminded us that winning the Triple Crown was indeed still possible. It just takes a superior animal, a true champion, a horse that breathes different air. Can this immense, shimmering, imposing son of Scat Daddy stand up to history and assume the throne? Or will Hofburg, Bravazo, or Vino Rosso provide a respite to Bob Baffert’s Triple Crown dominance?
I’ll do my best to answer those questions with an analysis of the stakes laden card at Belmont Park on Saturday in this same spot. You can also follow me on Twitter @chadlashbrook for more racing coverage.