Since Affirmed swept the Triple Crown in 1978, there have been a total of 13 horses who have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Of those, 12 failed in the Belmont Stakes and one was scratched the day before the Belmont with an injury.
Several of those horses would have been worthy of the accolades that accompany a Triple Crown winner, most notably Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, and perhaps a few others like Smarty Jones and Big Brown had they continued on with their careers successfully. But none of the 13 horses fit the complete profile of a Triple Crown winner, at least in three major categories.
American Pharoah is the first Derby and Preakness winner since Affirmed that fits all three categories, although Spectacular Bid definitely should have been a Triple Crown winner.
The naming of champions didn’t begin until the late 1930s, and since then, six of the seven Triple Crown winners – Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Citation, Count Fleet, and Whirlaway all were 2-year-old champions (either in the Daily Racing Form or Turf and Sport Digest polls), as, of course, was American Pharoah, who is the first juvenile champion since Spectacular Bid 36 years ago to attempt a Triple Crown sweep.
In the second category, Triple Crown winners Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Citation, Count Fleet, War Admiral, and Gallant Fox all won the Belmont Stakes wire to wire. Even the late-running Whirlaway was sent to the lead very early in the race. As everyone is well aware, American Pharoah certainly fits that profile as well, with his ability to outrun any horse for the lead if he so desires.
And in the third category, six of the nine Triple Crown-winning trainers had won the Belmont Stakes before winning the Triple Crown – Lucien Lauren (Secretariat and before him Riva Ridge and Amberoid)), Laz Barrera (Affirmed and before him Bold Forbes)), Ben and Jimmy Jones (Citation and before him Whirlaway), Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (Omaha and before him Gallant Fox and three others), Max Hirsch (Assault and before him Vito), and George Conway (War Admiral and before him Crusader). Of course, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and the Jones Boys both had previously won it with Triple Crown winners. As we are all aware, Bob Baffert has already won the Belmont Stakes with Point Given and was narrowly beaten on two other occasions.
There is actually a fourth category that would need an asterisk for now. Eight of the 11 Triple Crown winners were ridden by jockeys who are in the Hall of Fame. Victor Espinoza was on the ballot this year, and although he did not get in, there is little doubt he will be elected next year, especially with the success of American Pharoah. In short, he is a slam dunk to be elected in the very near future.
So, American Pharoah fits all four of those categories. Now, no one is saying those are the four definitive categories, but all are important, in that they profile a Triple Crown winner as having the class and foundation of a champion at 2; the speed, class, and versatility to take control of the Belmont Stakes and gallop their opponents into the ground; having a trainer who has proven he knows how to win the “Test of the Champion,” which as we know is unlike any other race run in this country, and having a world class jockey who ranks among the greatest in the history of the sport.
While there are never any guarantees in this game, especially in the Triple Crown, and even more so in the Belmont Stakes, American Pharoah at least has eliminated a number of major question marks and shows he belongs in that exclusive club of elite superstars known as Triple Crown winners whose members have a great deal in common, including the four mentioned above.