Horse Racing

affirmed belmont, affirmed alydar, 1978 belmont stakes
Associated Press
Affirmed pulls ahead of Alydar to win the Belmont Stakes, June 10, 1978.

The Triple Crown: The 33-Year Drought

May 23, 2011 12:00 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
With Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom falling short against Shackleford in the Preakness, horse racing has now gone 33 years without a Triple Crown winner.

History of the Triple Crown

Although each of the three races in the Triple Crown have been run since the 1870s, racing fans did not begin to think of the three races as a series until the 1920s. After Gallant Fox won all three races in 1930, racing writers noted that he joined Sir Barton as the only two horses to win the Triple Crown.

Six more horses joined this elite group over the next 18 years, but no horse won the Triple Crown again until Secretariat in 1973. He was followed quickly by Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. 

The following year, Spectacular Bid dominated the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and it appeared that having a Triple Crown winner would become almost an annual rite. But Spectacular Bid came up short, starting a Triple Crown drought that has lasted ever since.

It has now been 31 years since a horse won the Triple Crown, and there have been just three winners in 61 years. Since 1978, 18 horses have won two legs of the Triple Crown, including 11 who won the first two and came to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line.

Some encountered an unfavorable track condition; others suffered from a bad trip or a bad day. Several were left staggering by a heated internal duel and beaten by a longshot. Still others quite simply lost to a quality foe who, at least on one day, was simply the better horse.

1978: Affirmed—The Last Horse to Win the Triple Crown

Affirmed and Alydar had one of horse racing’s greatest rivalries, meeting eight times prior to the 1978 Belmont and almost always finishing first and second in a close race. Affirmed won the Derby by a little more than a length, and the Preakness by a neck, with Alydar closing quickly in each.

In the Belmont Stakes, Alydar engaged Affirmed with nearly a mile to go, and the two raced as a tandem to the wire. Alydar gained a brief, narrow lead with one-eighth of a mile to go, but Affirmed, under the ride of 18-year-old Steve Cauthen, prevailed by a head. Legendary trainer Woody Stephens told Sports Illustrated it was “probably the best horse race that’s ever been run.”

Alydar finally turned the tables on Affirmed—during their stud careers. While Affirmed had only modest success as a stallion, Alydar sired several champions, including Kentucky Derby winners Alysheba and Strike Gold, and Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer.

1979: Spectacular Bid

In 1979, Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness easily, despite an inexperienced jockey, Ronnie Franklin. Before the Belmont, it seemed likely that Bid would be the third straight Triple Crown winner and the fourth in seven years.

In the Belmont, Spectacular Bid entered the backstretch second behind 80-1 shot Gallant Best, and Franklin sent Spectacular Bid surging to the lead. Coastal, “one of those lightly raced colts that periodically come out of old-line barns to waste Belmont pretenders,” engaged him in the stretch and Bid had nothing left in the tank, according to Sports Illustrated.

After the race, most observers blamed Franklin for sending Bid too early, while trainer Buddy Delp claimed that Bid had stepped on a safety pin before the race.

1981: Pleasant Colony

In 1981, Pleasant Colony won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by narrow margins. But in the Belmont Stakes, Summing, who was well-bred for the distance but overlooked by his competitors, set a slow pace and opened up an insurmountable lead entering the stretch. Pleasant Colony put in his usual late run but finished third, less than two lengths behind.

1984: Swale

In 1984, Swale, son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes in dominant, wire-to-wire front-running performances. He was an inconsistent horse, however, and Pimlico’s lightning-fast track was not to his liking; the 8-10 favorite finished a disappointing seventh in the Preakness.

Eight days after the Belmont, the racing world was stunned when Swale suddenly dropped dead, for reasons never known, after a light workout at Belmont Park.

1987: Alysheba

In 1987, Alysheba prevailed in the Kentucky Derby despite being dropped to his knees in the homestretch by an erratic Bet Twice in front of him. He again ran down Bet Twice in the Preakness and seemed a sure bet in the Belmont.

However, Alysheba required the diuretic drug Lasix to perform at his best, and it was banned in New York at the time. The hot, muggy Belmont day ensured that Alysheba would not run his best, and Bet Twice won the race by nearly 15 lengths.

1988: Risen Star

In 1988, Risen Star, a son of Secretariat, ran away to devastating wins in the Preakness and Belmont, the latter by 15 lengths in fast time. Unfortunately, Risen Star had suffered a grueling trip in the Kentucky Derby and finished third to Winning Colors.

1989: Sunday Silence

In 1989, Sunday Silence won the Kentucky Derby over heavy favorite Easy Goer and beat him again in the Preakness by a nose. His Hall of Fame trainer, Charlie Whittingham, appeared ready to put a Triple Crown exclamation point on the end of his 40-year career.

In the Belmont Stakes, Le Voyageur, a regally bred foreign horse, set a strong pace. With a Triple Crown on the line, Sunday Silence’s jockey Pat Valenzuela was forced to attack the front runner entering the far turn; Easy Goer’s Pat Day was able to lay in wait and make a single explosive run entering the stretch. He pulled away to an easy victory in the second fastest time ever in the Belmont Stakes.

Many racing experts believe that Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were two of the best 3-year-olds of the past 30 years, and that either one of them would have won the Triple Crown in almost any other year.

1991: Hansel

In 1991, Hansel was favored to win the Kentucky Derby based on a track-record setting performance in the Jim Beam Stakes, followed by a third place finish in his next start. But he was listless throughout the Derby, which was won by Strike the Gold. 

Unable to explain the defeat, his trainer, Frank Brothers, decided to skip the Preakness with Hansel. But the horse rebounded in his training, and Brothers’ mentor, Jack Van Berg convinced him to run in the Preakness. Respecting his elder paid off for Brothers, as Hansel destroyed the Preakness field by seven lengths to give Jerry Bailey his first win in a Triple Crown race. Three weeks later, Hansel held off a wild late rush by Strike the Gold to win the Belmont Stakes by a head.

1994: Tabasco Cat

In the mid-1990s, Wayne Lukas won six Triple Crown races in a row, but with four different horses. In 1994, he won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes with Tabasco Cat, after rival Go for Gin had sailed through the slop to win the Kentucky Derby.

1995: Thunder Gulch

In 1995, Lukas’ Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, but his Timber Country won the Preakness, with Thunder Gulch finishing third.

1997: Silver Charm

After eight years without a Triple Crown candidate, Bob Baffert’s Silver Charm gave horse racing a much-needed publicity boost. He won the Kentucky Derby in a thrilling three-way fight with Free House and Captain Bodgit, and the Preakness by a fast-diminishing nose over Captain Bodgit.

With Captain Bodgit sidelined, Silver Charm outdueled Free House into the stretch of the Belmont Stakes, only to yield the lead in the final 50 yards to Touch Gold. Silver Charm had among the highest Beyer numbers of any horse to run in the Triple Crown in the past 15 years.

1998: Real Quiet

In 1998, Baffert was back with Real Quiet, who won the Derby and Preakness over Victory Gallop. In the Belmont Stakes, Real Quiet assumed a commanding lead into the stretch, but Victory Gallop unleashed a furious rally and caught Real Quiet near the finish line.

Tom Durkin had the call: “Here’s the wire … it’s too close to call! Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallop? A picture is worth a thousand words; this photo is worth five million dollars. Oh, no! History in the waiting, on hold ‘til we get that photo finish.” The photo showed that history had to wait at least another year, as Real Quiet was beaten by a nose.

1999: Charismatic

In 1999, Charismatic, owned by the same couple who owned Silver Charm, came from nowhere to win the Derby at 30-1, and impressively repeated in the Preakness. In the Belmont, he led with a furlong to go but got caught by winner Lemon Drop Kid. Immediately after the race, jockey Chris Antley jumped off the horse and held up his left front leg. The leg was broken in two spots, but Antley’s actions saved Charismatic’s life.

Tragically, Antley, whose triumph in the Kentucky Derby appeared to be the culmination of comeback from substance abuse, died 18 months later from a drug overdose.

2001: Point Given

In 2001, Point Given, as Kentucky Derby favorite, raced too close to the fastest pace ever and faded to fourth. He went on to easily win the Preakness and then to a stunning 12-length triumph in the Belmont Stakes, leaving his connections to ponder forever what went wrong in the Derby.

2002: War Emblem

In 2002, longshot War Emblem, who was purchased and turned over to Bob Baffert after winning in the Illinois Derby, won the Kentucky Derby wire-to-wire after setting an easy pace. He then barely held on to win the Preakness Stakes.

In the Belmont, he never looked right on the track, and went to his knees at the break, eliminating all chance of winning. His rider persevered and put the horse on the lead with a half-mile to go to give the crowd a very fleeting thrill, as War Emblem tired badly and finished eighth.

2003: Funny Cide

In 2003, Funny Cide used a ground-saving trip to beat rival Empire Maker in the Kentucky Derby and, with Empire Maker sitting out the Preakness, he destroyed the field. A horse from modest beginnings, owned by a group of old high school friends, he became “the people’s horse.”

On Belmont day, however, the skies opened up and produced a sloppy track that Funny Cide did not relish. Jose Santos could never get him to relax and nurse his speed, and Empire Maker overtook Funny Cide on the far turn and prevailed.

2004: Smarty Jones

In 2004, undefeated Smarty Jones won the Derby and the Preakness by 11 lengths. The popular horse “surged across demographic boundaries with a series of implausible stories—not just the ailing owner but also the hard-luck jockey, the journeyman trainer and the colt’s ghastly starting-gate accident last summer,” NBC Sports said.

But in the Belmont Stakes, the feel-good story had an unhappy ending. After a sensible first half mile, Smarty Jones engaged Purge, the front runner. But right as Smarty Jones passed Purge, he was engaged by Eddington, and then Rock Hard Ten. He ran a grueling three-quarter mile segment of the race more than a second faster than Secretariat had. Unlike Secretariat, Smarty Jones had nothing left for the stretch, and wilted when longshot Birdstone collared him a mere 70 yards from history.

2005: Afleet Alex

In the 2005 Kentucky Derby, Afleet Alex had a very troubled trip and was part of a long duel down the backstretch and into the far turn of the Kentucky Derby. He weakened in the final 1/16 and was overcome by 50-1 shot Giacomo.

In the Preakness, he proved he was the class of that year’s Triple Crown when he won despite being knocked to his knees by a drifting Scrappy T. In the Belmont, he sat chilly in third place until they entered the stretch, and then ran away with ease.

2008: Big Brown

Big Brown arrived at Churchill Downs unbeaten, but untested in three career races. Against a weak crop of 3-year-olds, he cruised to a 4 3/4-length victory in the Derby, and followed that with another dominating performance in the Preakness.

Though he suffered a quarter crack after the Preakness, his controversial trainer, Rick Dutrow, declared that Big Brown was a “foregone conclusion” to win the Belmont and end the 30-year Triple Crown drought. His chances were boosted the morning of the race when his main competitor, Japanese import Casino Drive, was scratched.

However, when the Belmont began, Big Brown looked rank early. Heading into the final turn, jockey Kent Desormeaux decided to ease him and the seemingly invincible horse finished dead last. “I had no horse,” said Desormeaux after the race.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines