Beginner’s Guide to the Triple Crown

Photographers capture American Pharoah as he nears the finish of the 2015 Belmont Stakes, moments before he became the 12th Thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Triple Crown is one of the most celebrated achievements in sports. If you’re new to horse racing, you probably know that the Triple Crown exists, but you might not know its significance or some of the details about the historic series. You’re in luck: We’ve got a handy guide with everything you need to know.

What is the Triple Crown?

The Triple Crown is a series of three Thoroughbred races each spring, at different tracks and distances over the course of five weeks.

What are the races in the series?

The Triple Crown kicks off with the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on the first Saturday in May each year. It’s run at 1 ¼ miles at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. The second race in the series, often called the “second jewel” or “middle jewel” of the Triple Crown, is the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md., hosts the 1 3/16-mile event. The final leg of the series is the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, run at Belmont Park near New York City three weeks after the Preakness.

Seattle Slew winning the 1977 Belmont. (Bob Coglianese/Blood-Horse)

Have the races always been the same?

The Triple Crown has always consisted of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, but the order, spacing and distances of the races, as well as what track the races are run at, have varied. For example, sometimes the Preakness was run before the Derby, and Gallant Fox won all three races in a span of 29 days in 1930 (today’s races cover 35 days on the calendar). The distance of all three races has changed over time. The current order, spacing, distance, and tracks had been the same since 1969 until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, which forced the postponement of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness until September and October, respectively. Order was restored in 2021 as the races returned to their regular place on the calendar.

How long has the Triple Crown been in existence?

The three races have been around since 1875 (Kentucky Derby), 1873 (Preakness), and 1867 (Belmont), respectively, but the term Triple Crown wasn’t widely used until 1930 when it was won for the second time. The three races had risen to such prominence that the term was adopted to echo England’s Triple Crown, which included three of that country’s most important races.

What horses are eligible for the races?

The Triple Crown races are only open to 3-year-old Thoroughbreds, which means each horse only has one shot to win it in his or her lifetime. Either gender can compete, though filly (female) competitors in the races are rare, and a filly has never won the series. Each horse must be nominated, which includes a fee, before running. Usually that happens in late winter, but sometimes it is done just days before the race, in which case the fee increases greatly.

How many horses have tried to win the Triple Crown?

Many owners have dreams of winning the series and point their horses toward the Triple Crown races from the start of their careers. Every horse that runs in the Kentucky Derby (limited to 20 each year) has a shot at the Triple Crown. After the Derby just one horse has a chance at the triple, and that horse usually does continue to Pimlico to try for the second leg. Thirty-five of 143 Derby winners also won the Preakness and proceeded to Belmont Park with a shot at the Triple Crown.

How many horses have won the Triple Crown?

Thirteen: Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015), and Justify (2018).

Read more about all 13 Triple Crown winners here.

Why is the Triple Crown so hard to win?

Most top-tier racehorses run once a month or so at racetracks near their home base. The Triple Crown requires a horse to run three times in five weeks at three different tracks over three different distances, traversing the eastern half of the U.S. Not only that, other variables such as timing and strategy by the jockey, the weather, riding tactics of other jockeys in the race, and general bad luck could hamper a horse’s performance in a given race. A horse has only one shot at each of the three Triple Crown races and there are no do-overs; everything must go perfectly.

How much money does a horse earn for winning the Triple Crown?

A Triple Crown-winning horse earns the winner’s share of the purse for each of the three races. Currently, this is $1.86 million for the Derby, $900,000 for the Preakness, and $800,000 for the Belmont. Horses who win these races also greatly increase their value for their post-racing breeding career. However, there is currently no special bonus or monetary prize associated with sweeping the Triple Crown. The only award is a silver trophy – and having your horse’s name forever etched in the history books.

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