Why I Hope We Never See Another Triple Crown Winner

Could a long drought of horses who can’t win three grueling races in five weeks actually be the best thing that ever happened to horse racing?

Let me start by saying this: I love thoroughbred horse racing. I was raised on it, I am repeatedly wooed back to it every year, and I respect the individuals who make a living in it, even if I also believe there are things that need fixing. This is not a rant against the industry. In fact, it’s in praise of it.

Above all, I love the horses who make racing so spectacular, and their best interest is my interest. So when California Chrome suffered his heartbreaking defeat on Saturday, I couldn’t help but ask myself if there is a chrome lining to all this. Could the 36 (now 37) year drought actually be a good thing?

I pulled up the Daily Racing Form and started running some numbers. I compared Derby winners, Triple Crown winners, Belmont spoilers, decade to decade – All in the name of trying to determine what made for streaks of winners, and streaks of near misses. Of all of them, one statistic really stood out to me: Race Frequency.

Statistics Table

Let’s start with the race record of every Triple Crown winner and count the number of starts leading up to the Kentucky Derby, then calculate what percentage of those starts were 2 weeks or less apart from another race start. The answer varies widely, the low end starting at 25% (Assault) and the highest at 82% (Omaha). But without exception, every single Triple Crown winner had experience running in races 2 weeks apart or less before running the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont.

I then ran the numbers for the past 15 years’ “near misses”: Horses who won the Derby and Preakness, but lost the Belmont (including California Chrome). I was shocked to see that only 2 of the 7 near misses had ever raced twice in two weeks or less before the Derby. One was Smarty Jones, who only had one such start out of six races (putting his percentage at a lowly 17%). But the second horse really knocked me for a loop:

Charismatic.

Of his 14 starts leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Charismatic raced in 5 races that were less than two weeks apart. As racing fans might remember, the stunning chestnut colt faded in the final furlong of the Belmont and was ultimately pulled up at the finish by jockey Chris Antley, who said he felt the colt’s leg break and likely saved Charistmatic’s life by dismounting and holding the hoof off the track until vets arrived.

Was Charismatic’s tightly timed racing record a contributor to his injury? There is absolutely no way to verify or dispel the idea one way or the other, and it likely wasn’t just one thing, but many factors that lead to that kind of injury. But his percentage of tight starts before the Derby (40%) certainly stands out among the near-miss peers of his generation.

In the days following this year’s Derby run, I recalled Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman speaking to the rest period and the short stints between races. “It always bothers me coming back in two weeks, like I think it does most trainers,” Sherman said to Pimlico.com. “It takes a horse a good 10 days to bounce out of a race good.” Even with three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, there’s no question that rest is a critical factor when preparing for the longest of the three races.

The statistics appear to back Sherman up that trainers have changed their tune about race frequency, and this trend has permeated to the whole industry, not just the top horses. According to a study at Albany Law School, on a given day in Saratoga New York in 2003, the median rest period between races for all horses with 1 or more previous starts was 29 days. In contrast, the median rest period in 1973 at the same track and same meet was only 11 days.

Ultimately, the facts show where the industry has pushed itself. Trainers and owners aren’t racing horses every weekend or every other weekend as much as they did 30, 50, or 100 years ago. Without further study, it’s hard to say if that’s impacting injury statistics, but instinctively, it feels like it’s in the best interest of the horse to limit how frequently he/she has to go all out. What this shift DOES mean is that it probably leaves a Triple Crown contender in this day and age a little unprepared for the task of racing three epic races against the best horses in the world in just over a month.

Will the Triple Crown change its format to match industry trends? Probably not. But if limiting race frequency proves to be in the best interest of the horse, and that ultimately means never seeing another Triple Crown winner in our lifetimes, that might be a sacrifice worth making.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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13 thoughts on “Why I Hope We Never See Another Triple Crown Winner

  1. Lori Stewart says:

    Affirmed was not inluded on the Triple Crown winners’ chart….would be nice to see his statistics also.

  2. Lorraine Jackson says:

    Lori- you are quite right, I somehow copied over his information while creating the table. It is now updated to include Affirmed’s statistics. Good catch! ~Lorraine

  3. Jessica Pickering says:

    You also did not include Zennyatta in the near misses. She was first,in the Derby, and Preakness. Then second in the Belmont.

  4. Lorraine Jackson says:

    Hi Jessica, Thanks for your comment. Zenyatta was not a contender in any leg of the Triple Crown. She only raced twice at the very end (Nov/Dec) of her 3 year old year.

    But she is certainly a marvelous mare, and her owners, the Mosses, have been very outspoken about the need for longer rest times and reserving their horses to only run against a stacked field on rare occasion (something they were often criticized for, but to which they paid no attention.) Zenyatta’s highest profile races were arguably her two Breeders Cup Classic races in 2009 and 2010.

  5. Anne Garrett says:

    PLEASE check your facts jessica pickering ….

  6. Hello Lorraine,

    I enjoyed reading your analysis. You may enjoy analyzing the near miss of Real Quiet in 1998. Though one year outside of your cut off, he only missed by a nose to be a relatively recent triple crown winner. His racing record may fit into one of your trends.

  7. Chele Gibson says:

    Unfortunately common sense is often ignored in the horse industry….(sigh)

  8. Emily says:

    Not trying to nitpick, but Count Fleet had 17 starts before the Derby. Assault had 10. Citation had 16. Secretariat had 12. I don’t know where you got your numbers from.
    http://static.drf.com/PPs/triple-crown-winners/CountFleet.pdf
    http://static.drf.com/PPs/triple-crown-winners/Assault.pdf
    http://static.drf.com/PPs/triple-crown-winners/Citation.pdf
    http://static.drf.com/PPs/triple-crown-winners/Secretariat.pdf

  9. Lindsay says:

    I really enjoyed the statistics you came up with! I’ve been researching and trying to find out why there hasn’t been a triple crown winner in 36 now will be 37 years. I think what you have come up with, frequency of races, is one of the main reasons why there has been no recent triple crown winners. I actually think it’s not in the horses best interest to have more rest I between races.. There are too many studies that show hard exercise is good for horses bones. Do you think you can find statistics of breakdowns/injuries in the 70’s compared to today?

  10. fuzz says:

    Exercise and a full race every two weeks are two different things. Those studies looked at tough but controlled exercise regimens and (for at least one study) daily turn-out versus limited exercise and limited turnout. They were not, if I recall correctly, comparing young horses who raced hard and frequently versus young horses who didn’t.

    Between one Triple Crown winner every few years and thousands of horses who are useful into their twenties because of sound husbandry, I’ll take the thousands. I think we’d have better sport all around if we let them mature another year or two before something like the Triple Crown. We have had 20 year old horses compete at the Olympics – when’s the last time you heard of a 20 year old race horse?

  11. Lenka says:

    Lindsay – where did you get your “many studies” from? Horses bones do not fully develop until they are at least 4 years old. That is why we see so many injuries and deaths on the track…

  12. Izzy says:

    The Charismatic story is soo sad. The jockey was depressed but ran until his knee gave way to win another Kentucky Derby. He was three strides away from the wire in first place but he chose the horse over winning the triple crown.

  13. Karen Bastin says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts and research on this subject Lorraine. So many people have thoughts and ideas surrounding the subject “The Triple Crown” and the time lapse between TC winners. All very interesting and informative. Some articulate their ideas a little better than others though. Reading the comments here certainly proves that. I think there are many factors why.
    Letta’s response in terms of “horses bones do not mature until the age of 4 is very true. Horses bones do not really fuse until they are between the age of 4 to 5 years old. Not only their bones but mentally as well. They are truly babies at the age of 2. Considering all thoroughbreds have their birthdays on January 1st and most are born between April to June, they are closer to 2 years old when running the triple crown. The amount of money offered for these races at early age of the horses entice the owners to contribute to the problem as well. Most not realizing that thoroughbreds would last in the sport much longer if they began their racing career closer to 4-5 years of age rather than two. Owners in general do not know much about the horse, only the potential profit they hope to make for their investment.
    It’s a tough go all the way around for horses. Inbreeding contributes to the loss of bone density, breeding mares every year rather than possibly every 2 years, also has a bearing in this. And on and on. Instead of breeding for quality in lieu of quantity also leads to the thousands of thoroughbreds that are slaughtered for meat every year.
    Greed is a terrible thing.
    I am being long winded here. Thanks for reading. Again your research is most interesting and more food for thought. And lastly, I found your article from “Hangin with Haskin’. Your mother posted a link to this site and I am glad I followed it. Keep researching Lorraine. It keeps the subject alive and these lovely majestic horses surely deserve that.

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