Making the Grade: One Final Test in Belmont


California Chrome (above winning the Preakness) will go to the Belmont Stakes with a shot at the Triple Crown. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)

When California Chrome crossed the finish line to win the Preakness Stakes on May 17, the Lucky Pulpit colt became the 13th 3-year-old since 1978 to leave Pimlico Race Course with the first two jewels of Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown and only the Belmont Stakes standing in the path of racing history. 

Each of the previous 12 Kentucky Derby-Preakness winners since Affirmed's Triple Crown sweep in 1978 has failed to complete the elusive triple - beginning with Spectacular Bid's third-place finish to Coastal in 1979 right through I'll Have Another's shocking retirement during Belmont Stakes week two years ago.

But might racing history have a different fate in store for California Chrome? 

Forty-one years ago Hall of Famer Secretariat blazed to a 31-length romp in the Belmont in world-record time, ending a 24-year drought between Triple Crown winners. Wouldn't it be fitting if another flashy chestnut colt who has become a fan favorite put an end to the longest drought (36 years) in the history of the Triple Crown.


Year   Horse Owner Jockey Trainer
1978 Affirmed Harbor View Farm Steve Cauthen Laz Barrera
1977 Seattle Slew Karen Taylor Jean Cruguet Billy Turner
1973 Secretariat Meadow Stable Ron Turcotte Lucien Lauren
1948 Citation Calumet Farm Eddie Arcaro Jimmy Jones
1946 Assault King Ranch Warren Meehrtens Max Hirsch
1943 Count Fleet Mrs. John D. Hertz   John Longden Don Cameron
1941 Whirlaway Calumet Farm Eddie Arcaro Ben Jones
1937 War Admiral Samuel Riddle Charlie Kurtsinger George Conway
1935 Omaha Belair Stud William Saunders James Fitzsimmons
1930 Gallant Fox Belair Stud Earle Sands James Fitzsimmons
1919 Sir Barton J.K.L. Ross John Loftus H. Guy Bedwell

There is no doubt that the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes on a taxing surface known as "Big Sandy" is a huge final hurdle to achieve Triple Crown glory. In recent years, this has been especially true as top Derby runners often skip the Preakness to rest up for the Belmont to take on a dual classic winner attampting to win for the third time in five weeks.

A few other interesting tiidbits about Triple Crown winners:

Seven of the 11 previous winners - like California Chrome - were sent off as the favorite in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Citation, Count Fleet, Whirlaway, War Admiral, and Gallant Fox all were overwhelming Preakness favorites - ranging from 1-to-10 for Citation in the 1948 Preakness to 1.15-to-1 for Whirlaway in the 1941 Preakness.

It's not surprising, though, that a Kentucky Derby winner would be sent off as the favorite in the Preakness (although Gallant Fox actually won the Preakness as the even-money favorite BEFORE winning the Derby as the favorite). But that does tell you that Triple Crown winners are almost always very highly regarded before the Triple Crown races begin.

Of the other four Triple Crown winners, Affirmed was sent off in the Kentucky Derby as the 9-5 second choice behind familiar rival Alydar and the 1-to-2 favorite in the Preakness; Assault was the fourth betting choice at 8.20-to-1 in the Derby and the 7-to-5 favorite in the Preakness; Omaha was the 4-to-1 second choice in the Derby and the even-money (0.95-1) favorite a week later in the Preakness; and Sir Barton was sent off as the second betting choice in the 1919 Derby but as the pacemaker for his more highly regarded stablemate Billy Kelly as part of a coupled entry. Sir Barton was favored in the Preakness, four days after his Derby win.

What is most surprising is that two Triple Crown winners were NOT favored in the Belmont Stakes. Gallant Fox was the second choice behind his familiar rival Whichone in the 1930 Belmont and he defeated him by three lengths. Assault was the second betting choice behind Lord Boswell with the former winning by three lengths and the latter a well-beaten fifth.

Calumet Farm and Belair Stud both sent out a pair of homebred Triple Crown winners. Belair father-son homebreds Gallant Fox and Omaha completed Triple Crown sweeps five years apart in 1930 and 1935, respectively. Calumet won the Triple Crown as owner-breeder in 1941 with Whirlaway and in 1948 with Citation.

Jockey Eddie Arcaro owns the distinction of being the only jockey to ride two Triple Crown winners for each of the three classics - Whirlaway and Citation - and James E. "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons is the only trainer to (officially) condition a pair of Triple Crown winners in Omaha and Gallant Fox. I say officially because the father-son tandem of Ben A. Jones and H. A. "Jimmy" Jones trained Citation after the elder conditioned Whirlaway to a 1941 Triple Crown sweep.

Since the inaugural Kentucky Derby in 1875 (the Belmont was first held in 1867 and the Preakness first held in 1873), there were eight instances in which it was impossible to have a Triple Crown winner. In 1890, the Belmont and the Preakness were held on the same day, while in 1917 and 1922 the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness were held on the same day. The Preakness was not run between 1891 and 1893. The Belmont was canceled in 1911 and 1912 after New York State passed anti-gambling laws that failed to exempt horse racing. 


Year   Triple Crown hopeful    Belmont finish   Winner
2014 California Chrome 4th Tonalist
2008 Big Brown DNF Da’ Tara
2004 Smarty Jones 2nd Birdstone
2003 Funny Cide 3rd Empire Maker
2002 War Emblem 8th Sarava
1999 Charismatic 3rd Lemon Drop Kid
1998 Real Quiet 2nd Victory Gallop
1997 Silver Charm 2nd Touch Gold
1989 Sunday Silence 2nd Easy Goer
1987 Alysheba 4th Bet Twice
1981 Pleasant Colony 3rd Summing
1979 Spectacular Bid 3rd Coastal
1971 Canonero II 4th Pass Catcher
1969 Majestic Prince 2nd Arts and Letters
1968 #Forward Pass 2nd Stage Door Johnny
1966 Kauai King 4th Amberoid
1964 Northern Dancer 3rd Quadrangle
1961 Carry Back 7th Sherluck
1958 Tim Tam 2nd Cavan
1944 Pensive 2nd Bounding Home
1936 Bold Venture did not start Granville
1932 Burgoo King did not start Faireno

#Won Kentucky Derby via disqualification

Note: I'll Have Another was not included because he was retired before the Belmont Stakes. 

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