- Crown Perfection Has Eluded Many a Great
By Steve Byk
The aftermath of the 2006 Triple Crown has produced a flood of debate. Heated exchanges among pundits, industry types and fans alike have poured over the difficulty of sweeping the Classics, the toll it takes on our three year olds and the merits of the trio's scheduling and distances.
While that segment of racegoer that rarely sees the equine for the tote seems unconcerned with the coronation of a potential Crown winner for the first time in nearly three decades, a greater majority of punting observers and growing legions of neophyte fans annually seem rabidly anxious for the arrival of a new Secretariat or Seattle Slew.
But before recent incantations to the racing gods in the form of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and even Barbaro, came a parade of immortals that saw their best intentions dashed in Louisville, Baltimore or New York for reasons that in many instances remain unfathomable. Fan and critic alike have been miffed during the present quarter century plus dearth of a Crown sweeper in a manner similar to those that patiently waited from 1948 to 1973: the gap between immortals Citation and Secretariat and their dominance in the troika of tests that so perfectly evaluate the brilliance, integrity and courage of sophomore colts and the occasional filly. History has shown that the wait is always worth it.
Though many feel the Triple Crown is an overly difficult assignment for horses that are yet to fully mature, the actual results of the races say otherwise. Since Sir Barton's triple in 1919, at a time when no one even recognized the effort as a unique accomplishment, 51 horses have won two of the three events, an outrageous 60%. 28 times horses have arrived at Elmont for the Test of the Champion towing Derby and Preakness titles, with the special 11 successful in their tries at the demanding Belmont distance of 12 furlongs. That means that horses trying for a Triple Crown have won it 39% of the time that the opportunity has developed... In other words, about as often as favorites win races at every track from Finger Lakes to Beulah Park year in and year out. Why would we expect otherwise?
Although laurels at Churchill and Pimlico are considered Triple Crown prerequisites, winning any two of the three Classics constitutes a "near miss." With a Derby victory an especially monumental task, it is at the Downs, not Belmont, where many of the most qualified second year runners have failed. An examination of the list of "near Crowns" fully yields a who's who of Hall of Fame runners that could have nearly doubled the number of champions that time has canonized as Triple Crown winners.
1931 -- TWENTY GRAND
Loss -- Preakness
Cause -- Bad trip
A year after legendary turf scribe Charles Hatton coined the term "Triple Crown" as a moniker for the spring exploits of Gallant Fox, Payne Whitney's bay son of St. Germans was foiled in his attempt at a Crown in the Preakness, run that year before the Derby. Part of one of the centuries best crops of three year olds, the homebred colt had made a name for himself at two when he bested heralded EQUIPOISE in an unforgettable Junior Championship stretch duel at Aqueduct and again weeks later in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill.
But at Old Hilltop, Twenty Grand endured a brutal trip, bumped on the first turn by Soll Gills and later checking behind stablemate Surf Board. Once clear, Charlie Kurtsinger came flying home with the Hall of Famer only to fall a length and a half short of MATE at the wire. A week later in the Derby, the pair turned the table on Mate as the odds-on favorite, establishing a new track record of 2:01.4, a shattering of Old Rosebud's previous mark of 2:03.2 (1914). By the time the Crown Trail moved to New York, only two colts, JAMESTOWN and SUN MEADOW could be dragged out to Belmont to face the season's eventual Horse of the Year. His smashing win by 10 lengths did little however to etch Twenty Grand's name into the memories of race fans. In another cruel twist, Twenty Grand proved sterile when tried in the shed, guaranteeing his anonymity to further generations of the race-going public.
1940 -- BIMELECH
Loss -- Derby
Cause -- Trainer error (over-raced)
Certainly no "near miss" Crown candidate was better bred than Col. Bradley's bay colt, the last foal sired by Idle Hour Farm's transcendent Black Toney and nursed by none other than La Troienne. The full brother to 1935 Champion filly Black Helen, Bimelech was a foregone conclusion in the months leading up to the Derby, installed as a 3-1 winter book favorite. Perfect in six starts at two, Bimelech did not begin his sophomore campaign until late April when he showed up at Keeneland to swipe the Blue Grass. After the race, Idle Hour manager Olin Gentry was advised by famed Calumet conditioner Ben Jones that Bimelech was a certain Derby winner if his next start would be the first Saturday in May. But trainer Bill Hurley, arrogantly proclaiming Bimelech "an iron horse", started the juvenile champ five days later in the Derby Trial which he won over the good Gallahadion. Three days later, in his third start in eight days, Gallahadion upset Bimelech (2-5) by 1.5 lengths, denying Bradley a fifth Derby winner. Preakness and Belmont wins followed, as did a brilliant stud career, but the lost opportunity of becoming the fourth Triple Crown winner forever dogs the Hall of Famer.
1953 -- NATIVE DANCER
Loss -- Derby
Cause -- Bad trip
Made an equine celebrity through the burgeoning vehicle of television and a juvenile campaign of nine perfect starts, the "Grey Ghost" entered his second year as the "People's Choice" for Derby heroics. But in a career that will likely never be equaled, the first Saturday in May would provide for Native Dancer, an inerasable blemish against 21 other perfect performances. Arriving in Kentucky off prep wins in the Gotham and Wood that stretched his career mark to 11 for 11, Bill Winfrey's charge went off as part of a 2-3 favored entry. For jockey Eric Guerin, the instructions were simple: Stay out of trouble. But entering the first turn, Native Dancer was jostled and knocked off stride by longshot Money Broker and Guerin had to check the big gray to avoid incident. While Native Dancer was able to settle on the backstretch and improve position, Guerin still had a lot of ground to make up on pacesetter Dark Star when finally clear in the stretch. Alas at the wire, Native Dancer fell a head short of the leader to the heartbreak of millions.
Though denied Derby laurels, Native Dancer quickly and methodically stamped out another 10 race win streak that left him with a 21-1-0 mark in 22 career starts. His post-race career was equally stellar and guaranteed that his name will never disappear from the track. His son Raise A Native, and the sire line that bears his name, continues to impact the Classics with an unprecedented string of Derby, Preakness and Belmont wins like none in history. And as the broodmare sire of Northern Dancer, his blood has been passed on to nearly every horse that enters The Jockey Club register.
1967 -- DAMASCUS
Loss -- Derby
Cause -- Atmosphere
In a sophomore season as brilliant as nearly any that preceded it, the bay son of Sword Dancer won a race that will never be forgotten but lost the one that would have ensured his place among the five greatest to ever don a saddle. On a hot and humid day, Damascus was done in by the Derby scene as trainer Frank Whitely's charge was a bundle of nerves from the moment the rose run hubbub began that Saturday morning. He agitatedly paced his stall non-stop as the noise and commotion built, and by the time Willie Shoemaker climbed aboard, he had perhaps half the horse he was accustomed to riding. That half a horse was still good enough for third behind the mercurial Proud Clarion, but at Old Hilltop, Elmont and most of his remaining career starts, no one, including Buckpasser and Dr. Fager, could stop him.
In a "Horse of the Year" campaign that eclipsed Nashua's 1955 single season earnings mark, Damascus eased the pain of the Derby frustration in a race widely regarded as the greatest of the century. That season's Woodward brought together the dual Classic winner, 4-year old Buckpasser and the brilliant Dr. Fager. Not before or since has a race featured three such highly regarded immortals, and the day belonged emphatically to Damascus. Though short-changed in his Triple Crown quest, few will argue Damascus' credentials among the game's all time best. And as if his exploits on the track were not enough to guarantee a place in history, Damascus followed up his running with an important and enduring stud career.
1974 -- LITTLE CURRENT
Loss -- Derby
Cause -- Bad trip (field size?)
Winning the Kentucky Derby is a difficult task in any year for an off the pace runner, but in 1974 this late charging Darby Dan colt was given the impossible assignment of passing 22 other rose run rivals, the largest field in the history of the Classic. Squeezed at the start and 17th after a half, jockey Bobby Ussery tried everything he could to move Current towards the front, but kept finding one wall of horses after another. Meanwhile, Angel Cordero was successfully picking off challengers on Cannonade, eventually steering the Woody Stephens' bay wide and clear of trouble. By the time Ussery found daylight Cordero and Cannonade were combing their hair for winner's circle photos. Little Current finished fifth at 22-1 that afternoon, seven lengths back. But two and five weeks later, he demolished Preakness and Belmont fields by that same seven length margin. After 1974, Churchill officials decided to limit the Derby field to 20. That was of little consolation to Current or Ussery... Little Current did get some posthumous Derby satisfaction in 2003 on the coat tails of Funny Cide, permanently entering the annals as the sire of the gelding's second dam, Belle of Killarney.
1979 -- SPECTACULAR BID
Loss -- Belmont
Cause -- Injury, Jockey error
It was 25 years ago, and whether you blame the wayward safety pin in the stall or young jockey Ronnie Franklin's anxious ride, nothing can dim the belief of many that Bud Delp's all-time great son of Bold Bidder is the most deserving champion thoroughbred to have been denied Triple Crown glory. After some modest starts at 2, Bid began to terrorize opponents stringing together wins in record or near-record time. From sprints through classic routes, the gray's impeccable timing, speed and versatility carried him and the frequently meddlesome Franklin through a sophomore skein of victories in the Hutcheson, Flamingo, Florida Derby, Blue Grass, Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Standing on the cusp of immortality, and on the heels of Seattle Slew and Affirmed, Spectacular Bid seemed certain to become the third straight Crown winner. Adding in Secretariat's exploits of six years earlier, The Bid would be the fourth Crown-wearer of the 70's making an appropriate bookend to the majesty of Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation during the 40's. But Bid stepped on a safety pin, likely loose in his stall from leg wrappings, the morning of the race. Though he appeared correct to Delp, who had considered scratching, Spectacular Bid was doomed in his quest when
Franklin chased a hopeless longshot early and then struggled home third. The pin had not only derailed his Crown try, but threatened his life when a severe infection resulted. Bid subsequently recovered by the fall, and lost only once more in his career, again at Belmont that year in a legendary running of the Gold Cup against 4 year old Affirmed.
1995 -- THUNDER GULCH
Loss -- Preakness
Cause -- Post
Bad luck can play a starring role among the sundry ways to be denied Triple Crown immortality, but no black cat has sharper claws than the one that wreaks havoc at the post position draw. When Michael Tabor's red son of Gulch drew the 16 in the Derby, surely anyone who was hoping for the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Florida Derby winner at more than 20-1 had to concerned. But the toy cannon of a colt could not have been given a better ride by Gary Stevens, stalking the leaders outside until the start of the turn for home before pouncing on leader Talkin Man with an eighth to go and drawing off.
Two weeks later, Lukas and Stevens watched in Charm City as "TGulch" again drew wide, this time 11th of 11. Pimlico is a course that is highly unforgiving to pace-pressers or frontrunners starting from the outside, with a first turn that can carry runners straight out of contention in a route. Stevens was wide all the way around the Baltimore oval and while able to get the Derby winner as close as a length by the wire, Thunder Gulch still finished third behind stablemate Timber Country and local shocker Oliver's Twist. The frustrating result turned maddening three weeks later when the sire
of Point Given, who was to experience his own post draw nightmares six years later, easily bested a weak Belmont field to become another dual Classic winner "might have been."
2001 -- POINT GIVEN
Loss -- Derby
Cause -- Trainer error (2 preps), injury, post
If ever a horse was "built" for Triple Crown heroics, it was this sterling son of Thunder Gulch. Trained by Baffert, ridden by Stevens, and nearly perfect in every measure that evaluates the quality of the game's greats, Point Given arrived in Louisville with high expectations that for once appeared fully justified. If not for bad racing luck in the BC Juvenile (a neck loss to Macho Uno at Churchill the previous fall) and a miracle rail trip for A.P. Valentine in the Champagne, the grand chestnut colt would have arrived for the Derby with a record of 5-1-0 in six starts. But Baffert had given Point just two starts leading up to the Derby after his winter break, and a sore pastern, a fact never revealed to the public until well after the fact, was slowing Prince Salman's star. Handed the burden of the 17 post and confronted by a brutally hard-scraped Downs oval, Point Given delivered a half-hearted effort fifth behind Monarchos that left Stevens, Baffert and the racing world stunned and one of the world's wealthiest men, in tears.
In a season that reminded many of the travails of Damascus 34 years earlier, at Pimlico and Belmont nothing would deter Point Given. Resounding Preakness and Belmont victories followed the Derby debacle and a Haskell-Travers double punctuated his Horse of the Year campaign. The Haskell victory, coming off a break, on a sore hoof, with little preparation and on a track that played against his style, Point Given demonstrated his greatness. And though retired early when his barking dog was slow to heal, Point Given will be remembered as the best of his generation whose lone "off day" came on the first Saturday in May.
These Calumet stablemates were so good that Eddie Arcaro chose Coaltown over Citation when Ben Jones gave him the option. Citation went on to the Triple Crown. Coaltown was second in the Derby and had a marvelous career, but who knows what might have been had he not been born the same year as his barn pal.
The two knocked heads in races that captivated the nation, but as a prelude, Swaps knocked Nashua off in the Derby before returning to the West Coast. Nashua went on to grab Preakness and Belmont laurels, but either may have been good enough for a Crown sweep had they not been members of the same crop.
What else need be said? Had Alydar not had the poor judgment to be born the same year, a probable Triple Crown winner...
1989: Sunday Silence/Easy Goer
We will forever be in the camp that says the Phipps legend was the better of the two despite the 1-3 record in head-to-head meetings.
1998: Victory Gallop/Real Quiet
From the Sunday Silence/Easy Goer model comes this pair of rivals. While Baffert still seems bitter about Gallop catching Kent Desormeaux and Quiet at the Belmont wire, we say that Elliott Walden's son of Cryptoclearance was by far the better of the two.
Four horses encountered injuries that damaged or destroyed their Crown aspirations... BURGOO KING (1932) and BOLD VENTURE (1936) both swept the Derby and Preakness but were forced to sit out the Belmont. Both were excellent candidates... While most remember the drama attached to CHARISMATIC and his bid in 1999, many forget TIM TAM'S identical experience in 1958. Both broke down before the wire in the Belmont, but managed to finish third in courageous career-ending efforts. Charles Hatton said the 1959 American Racing Manual that Tim Tam would have won... No one is 100% convinced that Charismatic would have bested Lemon Drop Kid...