Chasing Triple Crown History Part IV
Chasing Triple Crown History Part IV: The attainment of the Triple Crown is a horse racing achievement that is equally illustrious and elusive. Only eleven horses in the long history of the races have been able to complete the trio, and there have been numerous near-misses in the meantime. However, the three races have not alway been considered to be some marvelous achievement, and it was many years after horses had already accomplished the task that it was recognized as such.
Secretariat – 1973
Few names in horse racing evoke as much reverence and as many memories as that of Secretariat. Arguably the greatest horse to ever race in America, Secretariat was royally bred to combine sprinting and staying speed through the matching of sire Bold Ruler and dam Somethingroyal, by Princequillo.
Born on the Chenery family farm in Virginia, Secretariat’s racing career fell under the watch of Helen “Penny” Tweedy upon the illness and eventual death of her father. She recruited Lucien Laurin to train the young red colt, and the two-year-old responded to his tutelage quite well.
Secretariat finished fourth in a rough first start as a juvenile, but he then took an allowance a few weeks later to break his maiden. It was in that race that he hooked up with jockey Ron Turcotte, and the pair would go on to win the Sanford, Hopeful, Belmont Futurity, Laurel Futurity, and the Garden Stakes. Because of his impressive two-year-old career, Secretariat was voted both Champion Two-Year-Old Colt and Horse of the Year, a rare feat.
The red colt emerged bigger and better than ever to take on the classics as a three-year-old. Connections were quite convinced that the colt would make history, syndicating Secretariat for an unheard of sum of $6,080,000. Fortunately for them, Secretariat would fulfill their visions of success.
Secretariat debuted as a three-year-old with an easy win in the Bay Shore Stakes, and he moved on from there to take the Gotham Stakes. In the Wood Memorial, the blazing red colt succumbed to an abscess in his mouth and finished third behind rivals Angle Light and Sham. After that shocking loss, Secretariat had quite a bit to prove in the Kentucky Derby to regain some of the lost confidence of his backers.
On the first Saturday in May in 1973, Secretariat and Angle Light were sent into the Derby as a single entry while Sham was shown favoritism at the betting windows. Secretariat left the gate slowly and settled at the back of the pack, but throughout the race he advanced upon the leaders. He caught Sham on the far turn, and the big red horse in the blue and white blinkers showed his true prowess in running off to a 2-1/2-length victory over Sham in the record time of 1:59.40.
In the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, the field dwindled to six. Secretariat rightly went off as the favorite and sat behind the leaders in fourth place until Turcotte thought the pace was a bit too slow. He urged his mount, and the colt responded with an easy run to win the Preakness by 2-1/2 lengths, yet again over Sham and in track record time.
Secretariat was not yet done setting records. In certainly the most memorable edition of the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat faced four challengers but may as well have been running on his own. This time, Secretariat immediately took the lead and was caught by Sham, but “Big Red” effortlessly moved away. He continued moving away until he was 31 lengths away from runner-up Twice a Prince at the finish line, finishing in the incredible time of 2:24, yet another record for Secretariat. After a twenty-five year drought, racing finally had its ninth Triple Crown winner in Secretariat.
Seattle Slew – 1977
The first of consecutive Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew was another eventual champion who did not impress at birth. By Bold Reasoning and out of My Charmer, by Poker, Seattle Slew was born with high hopes that were all but abandoned when he was born a plain, unimpressive brown colt.
Seattle Slew was thus sent to the auction as a yearling, and first-time owners Mickey and Karen Taylor claimed the colt for a modest $17,500. The Taylors sent him to Maryland to train under Billy Turner’s watch, and the colt responded with an undefeated two-year-old year.
In his debut in September of 1976, Seattle Slew broke from the gate last but met the finish line first, five lengths in front of his closest competitor. He then won a seven-furlong allowance by 3-1/2 lengths and convinced Turner that he was ready for stiffer competition.
Turner did not hesitate, and Seattle Slew rewarded his confidence with a 9-3/4-length win and the fastest mile ever run by a two-year-old in the Champagne Stakes. With only three victories, Seattle Slew cemented his place as the top Two-Year-Old Colt of the year.
The boring dark horse who had drawn forth no initial visions of greatness evoked increasing levels of excitement as the Kentucky Derby drew near. Seattle Slew prepped in Hialeah, taking an allowance race by nine lengths and the Hialeah Stakes by four lengths before making his final run in the Wood Memorial. Although critics doubted his ability to get the 1-1/8 miles of the Wood, “the Slew” claimed the race by 3-1/4 lengths.
Seattle Slew entered the Kentucky Derby with a perfect six-for-six record as the favorite at odds of 1/2. To the dismay of his connections, Seattle Slew seemed rather unhappy prior to the race, sweating profusely in the post parade and impatiently awaiting the load into the gate of the rest of the field. He then swerved to the right at the break, and when he finally left the gate, he was two or three lengths behind a wall of horses. Jockey Jean Cruguet, his regular rider, calmed the horse as he moved him up to the leader. For the Moment looked to challenged Seattle Slew for a moment, but he retreated, and the once ugly duckling charged to the front to win the roses by 1-3/4 lengths.
The Derby champion faced a host of new rivals in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later with only two members of that field taking him on again. This time, Seattle Slew went immediately to the lead and dominated so easily that he was hand-ridden under the finish line to a mere 1-1/2-length margin of victory.
On Belmont Day a few weeks later, Seattle Slew was wholly expected to win unless the 1-1/2 miles proved too much for him. Eight colts faced him with the hope that he would falter and they could snag the win over the muddy track. This time the 1/5 favorite, Seattle Slew again went to the lead to set a slow pace. The colt finished four lengths in front, and in winning the Belmont, Seattle Slew became the tenth Triple Crown winner and the first to win the trio of races undefeated.
Kentucky Derby Seattle Slew:
Affirmed – 1978
Affirmed would form half of a rivalry that would thrill racing fans during their careers on the track and that still elicits feelings of awe for the two horses.
Foaled on Louis and Patrice Wolfson’s Harbor View Farm to the Crafty Admiral mare Won’t Tell You, Affirmed was a son of Exclusive Native who immediately had his connections dreaming of success. A handsome chestnut garnished with a perfect blaze, it was clear from the start that Affirmed loved to run as he often led the other youngsters on jaunts around the farm.
Affirmed was sent to trainer Laz Barrera who was tasked with refining that runner’s spirit into something that would lay waste to fields on the racetrack. Barrera did his job quite well as Affirmed won his debut and then beat all-comers in the Youthful Stakes, including his rival Alydar.
Affirmed then met his most worthy opponent again in the Great American Stakes, but this time the tables were turned with Alydar defeating Affirmed and claiming widespread appellations as the best two-year-old in the East. The two then went their separate ways, and along the way, Affirmed picked up regular jockey Steve Cauthen. Affirmed and Alydar met again in the Hopeful, but this time Affirmed held on to win by half a length over Alydar. The two raced against each other two more times as juveniles with Alydar taking the Champagne and Affirmed claiming the Laurel Futurity.
Ultimately snagging the official honors of best Two-Year-Old Colt in America, Affirmed wintered in California and emerged as a three-year-old to take four prep races on the west coast. Meanwhile, Alydar was successfully preparing in Florida for the sophomore classics.
The nearly inseparable pair met in the Kentucky Derby, but Alydar held the advantage as the 6/5 favorite in the field of eleven. Affirmed broke ahead of the rest of the field to take an unchallenged lead, and Alydar sat lengths off of him. Down the homestretch, Alydar quickly closed the gap, but Affirmed held him off to win the Derby by 1-1/2 lengths.
In the Preakness, the race was run quite differently. The two chestnuts battled throughout the entire race, and Alydar was only a head behind Affirmed at the top of the stretch. The blazed chestnut had his foe’s measure though as Affirmed held off Alydar by a neck.
As the defining race of classic young horse’s careers, it only makes sense that the Belmont Stakes would be the perfect battleground for Alydar and Affirmed to have a final showdown in the Triple Crown races. The Belmont thus should have been touted as a match race because it came down to a struggle between the two sharp chestnuts. Affirmed and Alydar ran as one throughout the entire race and were only separated when Affirmed finally managed to get his head in front at the finish line. Few horses on the Triple Crown path had to battle a single rival so hard for their laurels, but Affirmed managed to do so, becoming the eleventh Triple Crown champion.
As the Kentucky Derby draws near, hope is yet again blooming that the next Triple Crown winner is set to emerge. It has been 37 years since Affirmed’s claim of the title, the longest drought in the history of the Triple Crown. Should the twelfth winner finally appear, horse racing will once again have a horse who captures the public’s attention and defines the standard of greatness.
Kentucky Derby Affirmed: