As the Thoroughbred Racing world prepares for its signature event at Churchill Downs this weekend, industry officials continue to look for ways to expand the national interest in a sport that relies on a small, but loyal fan base. Whichever horse emerges as the winner of Saturdays annual renewal of the Kentucky Derby will not only instantly become America’s most famous four-legged athlete, but will revive hopes for the sports first triple-crown champion since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.
Saturday’s 140th “Run for the Roses” will feature 20 of the world’s fastest three year-old thoroughbreds racing around the famed Louisville mile and a quarter oval in what has been dubbed the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” The winner’s owner will receive the victor’s share of a minimum $2 million purse and capture the attention of race fans and the general public alike, at least for two weeks before being tested again in leg two of the mythical “Triple Crown” in the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico Race Track in Maryland.
Should Saturday’s winner capture the Preakness, they must then go on to win the grueling mile and a half Belmont Stakes in New York on June 7th. It is an accomplishment many consider to be one of the most difficult feats in all of sports and one that has been achieved only 11 times in the sports history, starting with Sir Barton in 1919 and last achieved by the aforementioned Affirmed in 1978, which was the only time a Triple Crown winner occurred in back to back years, with Seattle Slew doing so in 1977.
There have been a number of close calls since Affirmed’s historic run,who thrice outlasted highly regarded Alydar in one of the greatest rivalries of the 20th century, but the 36 year drought leaves many experts wondering if the nature of the sport in the modern era will prevent the public from ever again hailing a champion of all equine champions. This will do little to dampen renewed hopes that this year’s Kentucky Derby winner will use Saturday’s victory as a spring-board to Triple Crown glory.
Since Affirmed’s historic run, there have been twelve horses to captured the first two jewels of the crown, only to be denied their place on the “Iron Throne” of racing by failing to capture the Belmont. In 2012, I’ll Have Another breezed through the Derby and Preakness, only to be scratched due to injury, provoking endless speculation of what might have been. Racing fans will forever debate the thoroughbred’s ability to maneuver the mile and a half Belmont track. Including I’ll Have Another, there have been five horses this century who have headed into the Belmont with a chance to break the decades long string.
Big Brown is the most recent horse to run at Belmont with the first two notches secured on his belt. The dominant Kentucky Derby and Preakness victor dashed the hopes of fans seeking to see a Triple Crown in their lifetime, when jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled the horse up near the stretch in the 2008 Elmira, NY renewal. The toll of the series appeared two much for the giant equine and his defeat appeared a foregone conclusion even before Desormeaux acted to avoid injury to the horse.
The early years of the 21st century produced three consecutive close calls for racing fans; beginning with the Bob Baffert trained War Emblem in 2002. The slick speedster took advantage of slow paces to sneak victories in the first two legs, but was exposed as a one-dimensional racer who was unable to handle the long distance of the Belmont. In 2003 improbable would-be champion Funny Cide captured the hearts of even casual fans as the New York state-bred became the first gelding to win the Kentucky Derby since 1929, but likewise was found wanting at the Belmont.
Race fans were certain 2003’s Smarty Jones would accomplish the feat and he was unquestionably one of the most dominant horses of his generation. Starting from humble beginnings racing at the in-auspicious Philadelphia Park (since renamed Parx Racing and Casino) with connections far from members of the industries elite, Smarty Jones began his mythical run undefeated, in fact having the unique distinction of possessing the fastest recorded times for the day in each of his official training runs in his career. After dominant performances in capturing both the Derby and Preakness, he had fans on their feet as he charged down the stretch at Belmont apparently unstoppable. Unfortunately for Smarty Jones and a worldwide audience, the mile and a half stretch proved too much and the diminutive Birdstone caught him just before the wire, breaking the hearts of millions and forever relegating Smarty Jones to a footnote in history, rather than his rightful place among the gods of equine racing.
While he did not even win the Kentucky Derby, many racing experts consider 2001’s Point Given to be the greatest racehorse of this century. The son of Thunder Gulch had the distinction of being the first thoroughbred to win both the Preakness and Belmont after failing at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May (a feat since matched by Afleet Alex in 2005). Coming into Churchill Downs as the prohibitive favorite, he captured the imaginations of numerous sportswriters everywhere who assured an anxious public that the Triple Crown drought was to be snapped, only to see those hopes dashed as Point Given experienced positioning trouble throughout, compromised by a ridiculously fast early pace. He was never able to find his stride and drifted to a weak finish. Trainer Bob Baffert was determined to prove his Churchill showing was a fluke, bringing the horse back for the next two legs which shattered any doubts as to Point Given’s greatness. His dominant performance in the Belmont was rivaled only by that of the legendary Secretariat, who captured the Triple Crown in 1973. Point Given also went on later that summer to win both the Haskell at Monmouth and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Racetrack, finishing his career with wins in four consecutive $1 million+ races.
Horse racing is a sport built on speculation, with fans and bettors engaged in handicapping horse’s chances in a given race, but for those who own and train these equine marvels, theirs is a business of speculation as well. The incredible risks of laying down hundreds of thousands, if not millions on an un-tested young foal, and the enormous fortunate to be had when a champion retires and moves on to the breeding stables has produced a change in the way that top-level thoroughbreds are handled. Many argue that because of the nature of the business, todays competitors simply don’t have the experience and stamina needed to win three very unique races in the span of six Saturdays. Those realities aside, this will hardly dampen the spirit of millions of racing fans, who will hope that the sports next Triple Crown champion will begin his quest at this weekend’s 140th renewal of the Kentucky Derby.
By Paul M Winters