Jun 2 2015

Triple Crown Dreams Dashed

You know the story. Since the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, Affirmed, there have been 13 horses prior to American Pharoah, in a position to win the Triple Crown after they won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.  From this point forward, we are going to give a pass to one of these 13 horses, I’ll Have Another, who was scratched from the 2012 Belmont Stakes.  How did the remaining twelve fair in the Belmont Stakes.  Their record: ZERO wins, 4 seconds, 4 thirds … and 4 off the board.  Given the fact all twelve were post-time favorites and their average win odds was 4-5, that’s not so good.  It’s a pretty safe bet that American Pharoah will be somewhere around that 4-5 mark when they load the gate on June 6.  Will he suffer the same fate of these dozen horses … highly regarded, heavily bet, and considered by many in the crowd to be destined for greatness?

In this article we’ll take a closer look at the disappointed dozen and see if we can find any common threads in their dashed dreams.  Later (in Part 2) we’ll compare these past Triple Crown candidates with our present day candidate American Pharoah.  Then you can decide for yourself whether or not he’s destined for greatness.

First, here is a chart of the disappointed dozen, complete with the results of all three legs of their Triple Crown quest.  For the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the odds and the number of lengths they won each race are listed.  For the Belmont Stakes, we show the odds, where they finished, and how many lengths they were beaten (in parenthesis).

Triple Crown Dreams Dashed2

As mentioned above, all twelve of these Triple Crown candidates went off as the favorite in the Belmont Stakes.  Also, with the exception of Charismatic (1999), they were also well bet in all of the Preakness races.  It’s interesting the two horses who came the closest to pulling off the Triple Crown, Silver Charm and Real Quiet were involved in very competitive Kentucky Derby and Preakness races.  Silver Charm winning by a head each race, and Real Quiet by 1/2 length and two lengths.

Now let’s look at a chart of the spoilers that vanquished these Triple Crown candidates.  Of particular interest is how the victors came into the Belmont Stakes.  We list their three prior races, where they finished, and the name/type of race.  The prior races are color coded to identify Wins (Dark Green) and 2nd place finishes (Light Green).

Triple Crown Spoilers2

A couple of interesting pieces of information pop off this chart.  The condition of the race track for eleven of the twelve Belmont Stakes was “fast,” meaning that weather played a role in only one of these upsets. Also, there is lots of green on this chart; in 26 of the 36 races prior to the Belmont stakes, the Triple Crown spoiler was 1st or 2nd.

Now with the Triple Crown candidates and spoilers defined, we’re going to consider each year’s Belmont Stakes individually.  First we’ll list the races and offer some common beliefs about factors that might have affected the outcome.

1979 – Coastal beats Spectacular Bid by 31/2 lengths.

You’ve no doubt heard about the safety pin excuse.  Maybe a more realistic explanation are the three successive sub-24 second quarters in the first 6 furlongs of the race, resulting in a 6f time of 1:111. His jockey Ronnie Franklin has been criticized for urging Spectacular Bid too much/too early on the backside and chasing a hopeless longshot on the lead.  After the Belmont Stakes, Franklin never rode The Bid in a race again.

In his only other attempt at 12 furlongs (11/2 miles), Spectacular Bid ran 6-furlongs in 1:131 and beat Coastal by 3-lengths. This should not diminish Coastal’s Belmont victory, having come into the Belmont Stakes in superb form, having won three consecutive races.

So what beat Spectacular Bid?  Fast pace, premature move, and Coastal was in rock solid form.

1981 – Summing beats Pleasant Colony by 13/4 lengths.

The normal running style for Pleasant Colony was that of a “closer.” Unfortunately for him, the 1981 Belmont Stakes had a very pedestrian pace of 1:141 for 6 furlongs, leaving him with too much work to do in the later stages of the race.

Summing fit the profile of a horse in excellent form, having won his two prior starts, both of them Stakes races. He also benefited from a stalking trip in the Belmont, where a decisive move mid-race put him in position to reach the finish line a neck ahead of Highland Blade, who like Pleasant Colony was making a late run, only better.

So what beat Pleasant Colony? Slow pace, 1-dimensional running style, and Summing in solid form.

1987 – Bet Twice beats Alysheba by 14 lengths.

Some say it was the absence of Lasix, which was banned in New York in 1987. Others say Chris McCarron didn’t give Alysheba a good ride. Maybe these two things combined explain why Alysheba was further back than normal in the early stages of the Belmont Stakes. At no time was Alysheba (or any other horse) a threat to Bet Twice in this race, who ran a career best effort in the Belmont Stakes. He proved it was no fluke by winning again in the Haskell, albeit by only a neck. Prior to the Belmont, Bet Twice was 2nd to Alysheba in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, losing by less than one length each time.

So what beat Alysheba? A horse (Bet Twice) in rock solid form, who was in the midst of a superb 4-race sequence. And possibly the absence of Lasix added to the margin of victory.

1989 – Easy Goer beats Sunday Silence by 8 lengths.

Sunday Silence prompted a quick pace, 1:111 for 6 furlongs, with Easy Goer right on his heels for the majority of the Belmont Stakes trip. The two had finished 1-2 in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, with only a nose separating them in the latter. Prior to the Belmont, Easy Goer had won the Wood Memorial. Also, in four previous races at Belmont Park, Easy Goer was 4-310, with his only loss by a nose in his maiden debut. When his career concluded, Easy Goer won 8 of 10 races at Belmont Park. Sunday Silence ran at Belmont Park only this one time in his entire career.

One final note, the Belmont Stakes was the only time Sunday Silence ran 12 furlongs. In addition to Easy Goer winning the Belmont Stakes at 12 furlongs, he also won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 12 furlongs later that year.

So what beat Sunday Silence? Plain and simple, a superbly talented horse (Easy Goer) with a home court advantage and possibly better suited to the unique distance.

 1997 – Touch Gold beats Silver Charm by ¾ of a length.

Never a horse to be far off the pace, Silver Charm chased the entry-mate (Wild Rush) of the eventual winner early in the race, put him away at the top of the stretch, then battled with rival Free House (3rd in Kentucky Derby, 2nd in Preakness) through the stretch, and after putting him away, was caught in the final strides by Touch Gold. He had proved his grit in the Derby and Preakness, with head victories in each, but the combination of tag-team dueling and a sneak attack from Chris McCarron parked outside of Free House in the lane were tough for Silver Charm to overcome.

Touch Gold did not start in the Kentucky Derby, and finished a fast closing 4th in the Preakness after stumbling badly at the start. His two races prior to the Preakness were solid wins, suggesting he was entering the Belmont Stakes in solid form.

So what beat Silver Charm? His natural tendency to get into a “scrap,” a trait that would help him win a memorable Dubai World Cup at a later point … and Touch Gold was likely approaching career top form for the Belmont Stakes.

1998 – Victory Gallop beats Real Quiet by a nose.

Kent Desormeaux has taken his beatings as the rider who made the most costly (a $5 million bonus was on the line) premature move in Triple Crown history. But how long was he supposed to wait? He was in 5th place after a slow 1:132 half mile, he didn’t take the lead until there were 2 ½ furlongs to the wire. It took a “perfect ride” by Gary Stevens, who split horses twice, to guide Victory Gallop to the narrowest of victories in this series of dashed dreams. It was the toughest of beats for everyone connected with Real Quiet.

Concerning Victory Gallop, he was 2nd in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Prior to those races he won the Arkansas Derby. For his career, he finished 1st or 2nd in 14 of 17 races. A study of his past performances reveals that Victory Gallop closed strongly at every distance up to and including the 12 furlongs of the Belmont Stakes.

So what beat Real Quiet? A quality horse, Victory Gallop, who came into the Belmont Stakes in supreme form, was given the “perfect ride,” and could handle any distance.

In Part 2 of this article we will continue with the remaining six members of the disappointed dozen.  We’ll compare American Pharoah to these prior Triple Crown candidates … and contrast prior Triple Crown spoilers with the field of challengers in the 2015 Belmont Stakes.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

3 comments on “Triple Crown Dreams Dashed

  1. Neal,

    So glad to read these “detailed summaries” of the Triple Crown tries. As always I am impressed by your analytics that help bring some perspective to each race. They are always grounded in the past history of each runner. To me any horse that wins two legs of the Triple Crown should be heralded regardless of the order.. (Afleet Alex for one.). Sadly the Triple Crown is always viewed prospectively instead of retrospectively. Does the U.S. Open in tennis suffer because Federer or Nadal haven’t already won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon? No. The same can be said for golf’s alleged Grand Slam. Racing should stress that owners and trainers don’t have to run their horse in every race just as every golfer or tennis player doesn’t have to try to play in every Grand Slam event, but if they do and have a successful effort they should be lauded. Each race should be given its due as a great stakes to win so it should always be expected owners and trainers will target particular Triple Crown races based on their horses breeding and readiness. I wonder how many bad trip results in the 20 horse Kentucky Derby may prompt a conscientious owner and trainer to think of a clean trip victory in the Preakness field of approximately 10 runners versus potential injury or wasted effort in the Derby? I look forward to more postings about the Triple Crown.

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