The 11 Winners of Horse Racing’s Triple Crown
American Pharaoh has taken the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby titles, so all that’s left to join the ranks of Triple Crown-winning horses is a win at the Belmont in New York. Should American Pharaoh be able to defeat the field there, he will join 11 other curiously named fellas in the annals of horseracing history.
However, knocking down the first two races doesn’t necessarily mean the Triple Crown is yours to lose. In fact, since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978, 13 horses before American Pharaoh have entered the Belmont Stakes as a candidate to win the Triple Crown. And none have succeeded.
In horse-racing parlance, there’s a common phrase used about a horse “breaking too early.” It means that horse is fast out of the gate, but isn’t able to sustain that energy or speed later on in the race. That could serve as a metaphor for the bevy of horses which, after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, just don’t have enough left in their tank to train for and win the Belmont.
We’ll see if we’ve got another winner in American Pharaoh on Saturday, June 6th, or if the horse is just going to join the ranks of the also-rans that seem to be a dime a dozen when compared to the actual Triple Crown winners.
The Triple Crown begun to exist in 1875 with the Kentucky Derby, but it wasn’t until 1919 that a horse was able to take down all three races in a season. And it wasn’t until 1930 that a name was given to the feat. Until then, I guess people just referred to Sir Barton as “really fast,” or “a good racehorse. Sir Barton’s grandsire (granddad) was 1893 English Triple Crown winner Isinglass.
11. Sir Barton – 1919
Gallant Fox didn’t just win the Triple Crown in 1930. Gallant Fox won nine of ten races. However, the Gallant Fox won only 11 of its 17 races overall, so it enjoyed a pretty clear spike early on in its career. But I guess if you achieve the Triple Crown, the rest of your horse-life will probably pale in comparison. Gallant Fox was the favorite for the first two races, but knocked off Withers Sticks to get the third.
10. Gallant Fox – 1930
After taking down the Triple Crown as a three year-old (as all runners are), Omaha came across some success in Europe as a mature four year-old in 1936. But in between, Omaha raced against four year-olds following the Triple Crown win and got smoked by Discovery at the Brooklyn Handicap by sixth lengths. If you’re going to lose, it’s best to do it really early in your career, or right after you win the Triple F*ckin’ Crown.
9. Omaha – 1935
First off, War Admiral has the best name in the pack. But that’s not a high bar to clear, because horse names are always universally stupid. War Admiral won “Horse of the Year” which is (A) a really funny name for a contest, and (A) interesting because he beat out Seabiscuit, his nephew, to get the title. War Admiral had a surprisingly long streak of greatness, which amounted to winning 21 out of 26 starts.
8. War Admiral – 1937
Whirlaway was able to take the Triple Crown award by overcoming a pretty glaring shortcoming. Whirlaway would drift towards the middle of the track during races, an issue that could result in crashes in the worst case, and the horse running extra distances by weaving in and out over the length of the race. Whirlaway, before the Kentucky Derby, wore full blinders with only the left-hand side partially cut so that he would drift back. It worked, and served as the first of three high profile wins that year.
7. Whirlaway – 1941
Some interesting non-racing facts about Count Fleet: He was known owned by the wife of John D. Hertz, who was the founder of Hertz Rent-a-Car. Hertz wasn’t crazy about the horse, and was primed to sell Count Fleet before the horse’s jockey intervened and convinced Hertz to stay the course. I hope that Mr. Hertz gave that jockey a bonus a couple years later when both the horse and its rider won the Triple Crown. That’s probably a good sign that he made the right call by keeping the horse. And the jockey.
6. Count Fleet – 1943
The runner-up for best horse name, Assault was born and bred in Texas. That’s an anomaly in horse-racing, and he’s to date the only horse hailing from the state to win the Triple Crown. Way to bust up the Kentucky monopoly, guys. When Assault was a colt, it trotted with a limp thanks to a deformed right hoof. However, any abnormality in form disappeared when the horse ran at a full gallop. So if you want to find the inspirational story on this list, I guess Assault is as good a choice as any.
5. Assault – 1946
Not only was Citation the first $1 million lifetime winner, but it was also one of only three horses to win 16 consecutive major stakes races, along with Zenyatta and Cigar. The horse’s name was actually used by the Cessna aircraft company for its line of business aircraft. If you hear of a Cessna Citation, you’re hearing about a namesake of this horse. I feel like everyone back during this time named things after horses. At the end of its third year, Citation had run twenty races and won nineteen. I’m guessing that’s worth naming a plane after.
4. Citation – 1948
This one’s pretty famous. Secretariat was ESPN’s 35th best athlete of the 20th century, despite being a damn horse. Secretariat’s hubbub was largely due to being the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, by far the longest stretch since the three races co-existed. By the time the Belmont Stakes had come around, only four other horses ran against Secretariat, and they had been totally written off by gamblers. The result? Secretariat was 1-10 favorite, offering bettors a 10% return on their investment. And that turned out to be a pretty good bet.
3. Secretariat – 1973
Seattle Slew became the tenth horse to win the Triple Crown, yet the first and only horse to win it while undefeated. Seattle Slew was known as a “speed horse,” which, as you could guess, is a good thing for a race horse to be called. Actually, a speed horse is one that immediately takes the lead. Fortunately for Seattle Slew, it never gave it up later, either.
2. Seattle Slew - 1977
Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown winner, died in 2001. And Affirmed wouldn’t be known nearly as well without its rivalry against Alydar, which it faced and barely beat in all three Triple Crown races. The two horses faced off 10 times with Affirmed taking seven of them, and all when it REALLY mattered. Affirmed’s trainer once said, "Affirmed is greater than Secretariat, or any Triple Crown winner, because only Affirmed had to face Alydar."On a humorous note, the year following the Triple Crown, Affirmed was American Champion Older Male Horse, which is a pretty awesome name for a horse award.