Try to imagine how tough it is to win a Triple Crown race. Then try to imagine winning two of the three legs. Then try to imagine winning two of the three legs with two different horses. In the past half century you can count on one hand the number of times that has been accomplished.
This year we have a rarity – two trainers with an opportunity to join that club. Bill Mott, having already won the Kentucky Derby with Country House, has an opportunity to add the Belmont Stakes with the possible favorite, Tacitus. Mark Casse, not only has a good chance to win two legs of the Triple Crown with Preakness winner War of Will, he also has a shot to win two legs with two different horses – War of Will and the stretch-running Sir Winston, runnerup in the Peter Pan Stakes.
Although it doesn’t show it in the record books, the only three trainers to accomplish this feat are either in the Hall of Fame or a certainty to be in the Hall of Fame.
Todd Pletcher did it in 2017 with Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit. D. Wayne Lukas pulled it off twice, in 1995 with Derby winner Thunder Gulch and Preakness winner Timber Country and again in ’96 with Derby winner Grindstone and Belmont winner Editor’s Note.
The record books show that John Jacobs accomplished it in 1970 with Preakness winner Personality and Belmont winner High Echelon. But a good deal of the credit has to go to Jacobs’ father, the legendary Hirsch Jacobs, who died in February of that year. It didn’t take long to see that John was a chip off the old block, meaning he ran his horses often instead of working them, something his father always adhered to. As Hirsch Jacobs always said, “They don’t pay off in the morning.”
Hirsch died several days after Personality won a seven-furlong allowance race at Hialeah by 3 1/2 lengths. Five days after he died, Personality finished fourth in the Everglades Stakes under John’s name, followed by fourth-place finishes in the Flamingo, Bay Shore, and Gotham Stakes. Back then, the Gotham and Wood Memorial were run two weeks apart. In a move his father would have been proud of, rather than wait the two weeks, John ran Personality the following Saturday, winning a seven-furlong allowance race by five lengths, then came back a week later to win the Wood Memorial.
With Hirsch still training, High Echelon ran 19 times as a 2-year-old, his career debut coming on March 19 and his first 16 starts coming in sprints, including a head victory in the Belmont Futurity, one of only three wins at 2. He showed little as a 3-year-old until he closed from 17th to finish third in the Kentucky Derby and rallied from 11th to finish fourth in the Preakness behind Personality, who was coming off a dismal eighth-place finish at Churchill Downs. When Personality had to be withdrawn from the Belmont, his stablemate took charge, sloshing through the slop to win by three-quarters of a length. That was as auspicious a debut by a young trainer as anyone can remember. But it was Hirsch who built the foundation in both horses.
A quarter of a century passed before that feat was duplicated by Wayne Lukas, who pulled off a one-three finish in the Kentucky Derby with 24-1 Thunder Gulch and 3-1 Timber Country and a one-three finish in the Preakness in reverse order, with Timber Country bet down to 3-2 and Thunder Gulch next at 7-2. Like with Personality, Timber Country was forced to miss the Belmont and his stablemate stepped up, winning as the 3-2 favorite.
Lukas amazingly pulled it off again the very next year, winning the Kentucky Derby with Grindstone, who was retired after the race with a knee injury, and the Belmont with Editor’s Note, who had finished third in the Preakness. What was truly remarkable was Lukas’ unprecedented feat winning six consecutive Triple Crown races (starting with Tabasco Cat’s scores in the ’94 Preakness and Belmont) and then making it seven of eight with Editor’s Note’s victory.
But times had changed between Jacobs and Lukas, who began the concept of the mega stable, running three horses in the ’95 Derby and five horses in the ’96 Derby. Racing had not seen that kind of domination in numbers since the 1920s and‘30s when James Rowe Sr., trainer of Regret, ran four horses in the 1923 Derby, finishing 6th, 7th, 19th, and 20th, and H.J. Thompson, trainer for Col. E.R. Bradley, ran entries in the Derby eight times.
We had to wait another 21 years after Lukas for the feat to be duplicated, as another mega stable trainer Todd Pletcher captured the Derby with 9-2 favorite Always Dreaming, and when he was shelved following a disappointing effort in the Preakness, Pletcher went to his back-up team, winning the Belmont with 5-1 Tapwrit, who had finished a well-beaten sixth in the Kentucky Derby, having previously captured the Tampa Bay Derby. Neither Always Dreaming nor Tapwrit won another race after their Derby and Belmont triumphs.
Now, just two years later, we have Hall of Famer Bill Mott and future Hall of Famer Mark Casse going into the Belmont with excellent shots to add their name to this exclusive list of trainers, a list that does not include legendary trainers such as Ben and Jimmy Jones, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Max Hirsch, Woody Stephens, and Bob Baffert. The last named came relatively close in 2001 when he finished third, beaten a nose for second, with Congaree and then won the Preakness and Belmont with Point Given. In 2015, Baffert swept the Triple Crown with American Pharoah, but also finished third in the Kentucky Derby with Dortmund, who was beaten three lengths.
So far, this year’s Triple Crown has been filled with unwanted distractions, such as a controversial and first-time ever disqualification of the Derby winner, another sloppy Derby, rough trips, a law suit, a loose horse in the Preakness, and a key scratch of the Derby favorite. Looking for something positive and historic, a victory by Tacitus or Sir Winston would fit that bill, especially for fans of the popular Mott and Casse, as would a repeat score by War of Will, who would join a pretty exclusive group himself.
One thing is for certain already, this year’s Triple Crown, although the antithesis of 2015 and 2018, will not be forgotten anytime soon. Let’s hope the Belmont makes it for the right reason.