In the 35 renewals of the Triple Crown series since Affirmed came home first in all three, 26 Kentucky Derby winners have competed in the Belmont Stakes. Only two have won – an astonishing statistic. Translated to baseball terminology, this would be an average of .077 and, from the little leagues to the majors, would put a batter on the bench, in many instances facing demotion.
In practically every aspect, thoroughbred horse breeding and racing is a gamble, an endeavor where probabilities are calculated, depended upon and then, in time, so often proven to simply be wrong. The likely becomes the unlikely and vice versa. Results make no sense. It is tempting to see it all as songwriter Dan Fogelberg did, “the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance.”
There is no better general example in racing of this notion than the Triple Crown series. Betting establishments exist where a price can be obtained on almost anything. One can only imagine the odds that might have been obtained in April 1979 – with Spectacular Bid towering over his opposition – that the next 35 racing seasons, including that one, would not produce a Triple Crown winner or, that only twice in the time frame would a horse achieve the Derby-Belmont double.
For 3-year-old thoroughbreds, the Derby – at the American classic distance of a mile and a quarter – provides the first major test of stamina, an exam that many fail. At a mile and a half, the Belmont may prove even more taxing depending on pace, but logic would compel the conclusion that a horse wearing the garland of roses after the Derby would have an awfully good chance to wear the carnations five weeks later in New York.
So why has it been so rare? There are a myriad of reasons, but the most prevalent seems to be pilot error, especially when a Triple Crown is at stake, as it is today.
Bill Hartack’s ride on Majestic Prince in the 1969 Belmont provides a good example. Trainer Johnny Longden, himself a Triple Crown winner aboard Count Fleet in ’43, didn’t want to run the Prince, but was overruled by the owner, the lure of the crown being irresistible. Majestic Prince was a tractable horse with a high turn of foot and could be placed in a race wherever his rider chose to put him.
Hartack rode him perfectly in the Derby and Preakness and needed to, as Arts and Letters was at the Prince’s throat latch at the end of both races. In the Belmont, no one wanted the lead and the pace was dreadfully slow – the half mile in :51, six furlongs in 1:16 and a fifth. A free-running Majestic Prince in front would surely have been a tough customer but, inexplicably, he was next to last in the early going despite the trotting horse pace. By the time Hartack set him down, Arts and Letters was away and gone.
Chris McCarron, a Hall of Famer like Longden and Hartack, would certainly like to be able to forget the two blind switches into which he rode Alysheba on the far turn of the ’87 Belmont. Bet Twice was at his best that day, winning by 14 lengths, so he might well have won anyway, but Alysheba lost all chance trying to navigate through the traffic on the bend.
More recently, a premature move proved costly when Kent Desormeaux aboard Real Quiet left the ’98 Belmont field far behind at the top of the stretch. But to do so at that point in the race took too much out of his mount, leaving him vulnerable to the late charge of the aptly named Victory Gallop.
Victor Espinoza will have the target on his back this year. He’ll get no breaks from the jockeys aboard California Chrome’s 10 rivals. In all probability he will need to provide the perfect ride to win, although the Californian, as reflected by the morning line price of 3-5, clearly appears to be the best horse. Racing is ready for Triple Crown winner number 12.
But 11 Derby-Preakness winners have failed to convert the Triple Crown. Those odds, and that batting average of .077, make the desired result a chancy prospect, indeed.