This past Friday, sports fans everywhere (and probably more than a few gambling addicts) had their hearts broken when it was announced that I’ll Have Another—winner of the both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness—would not be going for American horse racing’s Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. The champion horse had a nagging tendon injury, and his trainers and owner didn’t want to risk a life-threatening injury by racing him anyway. (Remember, a Derby champ is worth millions in stud fees. And, yeah, sure, they probably care about him, too.) This means that the historic Triple Crown drought would go on for at least one more year.
The last horse to win the Triple Crown? That was Affirmed in 1978. And the funny thing is, at the time, the hype of the Triple Crown had really settled down. Secretariat ended a 25-year TC drought in 1973, but then Seattle Slew won it again in 1977, followed by Affirmed the very next year.
Now, however, it’s been 34 years since the last Triple Crown winner, which is the longest Triple Crown drought ever.
However, there have been some other close calls over the last 34 years—11 to be precise—with a few horses missing the Triple Crown by just a nose. And it’s these 11 close calls are the subject of today’s list. So let’s get started.
In 1979 it looked like we were going to have our 4th Triple Crown winner in seven years and, yawn, the third in a row, as Spectacular Bid did, in fact, make a spectacular big. Unfortunately, legend has it that a safety pin got stuck in his hoof the night before the Belmont, causing the colt discomfort that led to a third place finish.
Thus began the 34-year drought.
11. Spectacular Bid (1979)
Big Brown won the first two legs of the TC and was the favorite in the Belmont. Unfortunately, he made history in a way nobody had hoped, becoming the first Triple Crown hopeful ever to finish dead last in the final leg.
Apparently something went wrong during the first part of the Belmont, as the jockey eased up on Big Brown as he made the turn coming down the home stretch. Needless to say, the 95,000 fans in attendance that day in Elmont, New York, were flabbergasted.
10. Big Brown (2008)
Big Brown had the worst Belmont finish by a horse with a shot at the Triple Crown. War Emblem had the second-worst.
He won the Derby after leading wire-to-wire. Then he won the Preakness by 3/4 a length. But at the Belmont he stumbled (literally) out of the gate, and his chance at immortality went out the window. End result: 8th place.
9. War Emblem (2002)
After winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Alysheba was looking good heading into the belmont. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. Bet Twice blew everyone away at the Belmont, winning by an astounding 14 lengths, while Alysheba finished a pedestrian 4th.
8. Alysheba (1987)
In 1989 we saw the best head-to-head rivalry during the current Triple Crown drought: Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer.
Easy Goer was the favorite at the Derby, but Sunday Silence pulled off the upset to win by 2.5 lengths. Then, at the Preakness, the two colts had a famous duel down the stretch, with Sunday Silence winning again—this time by a nose—setting up one more showdown at the Belmont Stakes.
Unfortunately, the rematch of the rematch proved anticlimactic, with Easy Goer winning by a rather boring 8 lengths.
7. Sunday Silence (1989)
This just might be the most controversial Triple Crown near miss ever.
In 2003, Empire Maker was the Kentucky Derby favorite, but Funny Cide won in a huge upset. Funny Cide then went on to win the Preakness by a whopping 9 lengths. The problem? Empire Maker didn't run the Preakness. His trainer, Bobby Frankel (who we can only assume is a huge d-bag) held him out so he could rest up for the Belmont...which he won. So in other words, Empire Maker's entourage was sour that they didn't win the TC, so they wanted to make sure Funny Cide didn't win, either.
Is that poor sportsmanship, or what?
6. Funny Cide (2003)
After winning the Derby and the Preakness, Pleasant Colony lost the Belmont to Summing by just 1.5 lengths. Of course, at the time it had been just three years since Affirmed won the TC, so nobody thought all that much of the loss. If they only knew...
5. Pleasant Colony (1981)
Charismatic was a long shot heading into the Derby, but he won at Churchill Downs. Then he won by a respectable 1.5 lengths at Pimlico, setting up a shot at the Triple Crown. Unfortunately, Charismatic broke a bone in his lower leg on the home stretch at Belmont. So he had to settle for a third place finish and the sudden end of his racing career.
4. Charismatic (1999)
Smarty won the Derby in 2004, then won the Preakness by a record-breaking 11.5 lengths. So he wasn't just the favorite heading into the Belmont; he was a sure thing. Then, as if following a script, Smarty Jones hit the final stretch of the final leg with a lead. Fans at home and in the grandstand were going nuts. They were going to see a Triple Crown winner! Then a little known horse named Birdstone caught Smarty and won the Belmont by a length.
Talk about deflated.
3. Smarty Jones (2004)
The late 90s saw three horses nearly end the Triple Crown drought in consecutive years, and the first of them was Silver Charm. This horse, like others on this list, held the lead on the final stretch at the Belmont. Then he was caught and passed by Touch of Gold, finishing second by just 3/4 a length.
See the thrilling finish for yourself:
2. Silver Charm (1997)
No horse has come closer to winning the Triple Crown of American horse racing since 1978 than Real Quiet.
After winning the first two legs, this horse was up by four whole lengths heading into the last quarter mile of the Belmont. He was free and clear, with the Triple Crown and immortality just a home stretch away. Then, all of a sudden, Victory Gallup made one fo the most incredible charges you'll ever see to catch Real Quiet and win the Belmont by a nose in a photo finish.
It was the closest finish ever in a race with the Triple Crown on the line—literally a heart-stopping finish.
Check it out for yourself: