On Saturday, the winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom, will attempt to take another step on the road to horse racing immortality as he runs in the second leg of the Triple Crown at the 2011 Preakness Stakes. Should he win the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, he will be but one victory away from becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. If history is any guide, the task of Animal Kingdom is great and the odds are long.
Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed - anybody with more than a passing interest in thoroughbred horse racing can immediately recognize the names of those horses. They are the elite members of a select club known as Triple Crown Winners. Beginning in 1875, the first time that the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes were all run in the same year, only 11 horses have navigated all three races unblemished.
Since Affirmed's Triple Crown triumph in 1978, 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and then failed at the "Test of Champions", the Belmont Stakes. We are in the midst of a 32-year drought of Triple Crown winners, the longest in history and a drought that has caused some to say that the Triple Crown is too hard, that it needs to be changed, that a horse can't win it again in its present form. On the contrary, the results over the past 32-years suggest to me that horses can win all three races and that only bad racing luck, and other factors, have prevented it from happening.
Consider the following information: Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948, after which it took 25-years before Secretariat came along and restored order to the horse racing universe. During those 25-years, seven colts won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to fail at the Belmont. So, if anything, we've been much closer to a Triple Crown winner during this drought than we were during the 1948-1973 dry spell.
Personally, I'm fine with the Triple Crown remaining exactly as it is right now. The distances are fine. The timing is fine. The requirements to enter each race are fine. If you want to win the Triple Crown, you've got to earn it. There are no free passes. When we finally get another Triple Crown winner (and we will get one eventually), it shouldn't be due to making it easier, it should be the result of a horse navigating the three races in a similar fashion to those before.
There are many reasons why we haven't witnessed a Triple Crown winner in over 30 years. In some cases horses were denied due to their failure to navigate the first leg of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby. Point Given and Afleet Alex were clearly the best three-year-old colts in America in their respective years. Unfortunately, both colts ran far too close to suicidal fractions in the Derby and ended up coming up short in the Run for the Roses. They regained their form in the last two legs of the Triple Crown, but by then it was too late.
The stories of Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones were much more tragic. Each of those colts looked like winners in the final stages at Belmont Park, and each wound up second best.
Silver Charm lost the Belmont by 3/4 of a length after leading by a head at the top of the stretch. Real Quiet led by four entering the final furlongs, only to fall a nose short to Victory Gallop under the shadow of the wire. And Smarty Jones, the colt that had outrun his miler pedigree in the first two legs of the Triple Crown and appeared to be a lock to end the long drought, led by 3 1/2 lengths after a mile and a quarter at Belmont but couldn't hold off Birdstone in the final strides.
While other horses have also failed to end the drought during this time, the stories of Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones sting a bit more than all the others. Those colts looked and felt like winners but couldn't complete the trifecta.
Horse racing is a cruel and unforgiving sport. Rarely will you find a "sure thing" and ever rarer will you witness a horse that can win the Triple Crown.
Can Animal Kingdom End The Drought?
If recent history is any guidance, Animal Kingdom will find it extraordinarily difficult to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed. But while history is not on his side, his pedigree is something that gives many hopes that he could find his way into racing's elite club. Many Triple Crown failures have resulted from the failure of horses to successfully navigate the mile and a half "Test of Champions" that is the Belmont Stakes. Consider this: the Belmont Stakes is the only Grade 1 race in the United States run at a mile and a half on the dirt. The reason we don't see many horses in this country that race effectively at a mile and a half on dirt is because there is very little reason to breed horses with those characteristics. It is the rarest of races in this country.
Animal Kingdom, unlike many of his predecessors, has a family with significant stamina influences on both the top and bottom halves of his pedigree. His damsire, Acatenango (GER), won multiple Group 1 races in Europe at a mile and a half on turf and has produced offspring that excel at longer distances. So just based on pedigree, Animal Kingdom has the ingredients of a colt that should fare well at Belmont Park. But, of course, that's not enough. Animal Kingdom must win at Pimlico before his connections can even dream of Triple Crown glory.
The Preakness, like all of the Triple Crown races, will not be easy for Animal Kingdom to win. But despite the challenges that he faces, Animal Kingdom is at least on the right side of recent history. In the last 25 years, nine winners of the Kentucky Derby have rolled back to win the Preakness off of a two week rest, a solid 37.5% of all Derby winners during that time (Grindstone skipped the Preakness in 1996 due to injury). Additionally, Animal Kingdom proved his versatility when he won the Derby by closing into a historically slow early pace. That fact alone makes him an interesting prospect at Pimlico; if he can close like he did in the Derby, but with quicker fractions on the front end, will there be a horse that can deny him the top prize?
It would seem unlikely that the pace in the Preakness will unfold in the ridiculously slow manner that it did at Churchill Downs. But if the pace is quicker, will Animal Kingdom be able to take advantage? Derby favorite Dialed In will once again try to win by running from far back of the field, and Mucho Macho Man has been as consistent as any colt in America since the turn of the year. Both of those horses will test Animal Kingdom, perhaps more so than he was tested in the Derby. If he's able to navigate a clean trip around the track, and if he's maintained his phenomenal form from Churchill, Animal Kingdom should have a shot at taking the next step towards racing immortality.
For reference, the 11 colts to win the Derby/Preakness and fail at the Belmont since 1978 are:
1979 - Spectacular Bid
1981 - Pleasant Colony
1987 - Alysheba
1989 - Sunday Silence
1997 - Silver Charm
1998 - Real Quiet
1999 - Charismatic
2002 - War Emblem
2003 - Funny Cide
2004 - Smarty Jones
2008 - Big Brown
Additionally, the seven colts to win the Derby/Preakness but lose at the Belmont between the years 1948 and 1973 are:
1958 - Tim Tam
1961 - Carry Back
1964 - Northern Dancer
1966 - Kauai King
1968 - Forward Pass
1969 - Majestic Prince
1971 - Canonero II