California Chrome Will Win His Era's First Triple Crown

By Keith Kohnhorst                                                

If California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) on June 7, he will be the first winner of what I see as the fourth era of the Triple Crown. One I am calling the Rough-and-Tumble Triple Crown. The four eras of the Triple Crown are as follows:

  • The Quaint Triple Crown Era from Sir Barton in 1919 to Citation in 1948
  • The Injury Triple Crown Era from Capot in 1949 to Riva Ridge in 1972
  • The Six Years of Greatness Triple Crown Era from Secretariat in 1973 to Seattle Slew in 1978
  • The Rough-and-Tumble Triple Crown Era from Spectacular Bid in 1979 to California Chrome in 2014.


Here is how I would define each of these periods in racing history.

The Quaint Triple Crown—Era 1

Eight horses won the Triple Crown in this era. Greats War Admiral (1937) and Citation (1948) won "real" Belmonts in 7-and 8-horse fields. And Assault (1946) was actually second choice when he won the Belmont against six other horses.

But only 14 horses challenged the other five Triple Crown Winners-fewer than three a race!  Here are some Triple Crown winners that won the Belmont in what were basically "walkovers."

1. Sir Barton (1919) Only beat 2 horses in the Belmont. Not a "race."

2. Gallant Fox (1930) Only beat 3 horses in the Belmont. Not a "race."

3. Whirlaway (1941) Only beat 3 horses in the Belmont. Not a "race."

4. Count Fleet (1943) Only beat 2 horses in the Belmont-the second choice was 28-1! Not a "race."


The Injury Triple Crown—Era 2

   No Triple Crown winners came out of this era. Seven horses did win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but they all lost in the Belmont. Several horses that had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes ran hurt in the Belmont—Tim Tam (1958) was injured in the Belmont, the great Majestic Prince (1969) was injured in the Preakness, and Canonero II (1971) had a pre-existing injury when he lost the third leg of the Triple Crown.


The Six Years of Greatness Triple Crown—Era 3

   The six years from 1973 to 1978 will never be duplicated as far as equine greatness. No horse had won the Triple Crown since 1948, but three great horses did in just six years. Secretariat's iconic 31-length triumph was a record-breaking tour de force. Affirmed's stirring Belmont victory was a thrilling match race against his great rival Alydar. And undefeated Seattle Slew fended off several challengers with his blazing speed to capture the Belmont. These three great horses deserve their own Six Years of Greatness Triple Crown Era.

   Purists rejoiced when Charismatic (1999) and War Emblem (2002), seeking to become Triple Crown winners, were denied in the Belmont, and thus are not spoken of in the same sentence as the greats—Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew. That's understandable and adds a further argument as to why there should be a Six Years of Greatness Triple Crown era.


The Rough-and-Tumble Triple Crown—Era 4

In the last 35 years, contemporary horses shooting for the Triple Crown have faced full fields, with the exception of Funny Cide, who lost in the slop in a six-horse field, and I'll Have Another, who scratched.

In fourth era, before California Chrome, 11 horses vied for the Triple Crown and all lost in fields with an average of over nine horses. Those were real "races." California Chrome will face at least that many.

The Rough-and-Tumble Triple Crown era begins in 1979. Spectacular Bid should have won easily and joined the Triple Crown greats of the 1970s. You can blame a safety pin or Ronnie Franklin's horrendous ride, but the race would have been a walkover in Triple Crown Era 1, with two or three other horses. Instead, Coastal, absent in Triple Crown races, pounced after a spectacular victory in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. III). This year, a fresh Tonalist will try and pull a "Coastal" against California Chrome.

In the Quaint Triple Crown, other horses got out of the way and let the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner shine in a barely contested Belmont. You may argue that the horses were more formidable back then, and they scared away the competition. However, Spectacular Bid, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown were all prohibitive 1-to-5 favorites, yet they failed to scare away the competition. Twenty-three opponents ran in those three races. In Era 4, many owners and trainers have no shame and run outmatched horses (Ria Antonia in the Preakness) just to be part of the Triple Crown hoopla.

Now, beginning with Spectacular Bid in 1979, trainers throw everything but the kitchen sink at a horse vying to become immortal. Let me explain. California Chrome has dominated this year's 3-year-old crop and should be a gifted a "quaint" walkover in the Belmont, but instead he's being ganged up on from all sides. Only Ride on Curlin ran against him in the first two grueling Triple Crown races. The other 10 or 11Belmont contenders are attacking from three different angles. First, fresh horses like Tonalist, Commissioner, Matuszak, and Matterhorn haven't even competed in a Triple Crown race. Second, horses like Social Inclusion and Kid Cruz ran in the Preakness but not the Derby. And third, horses like Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, Samraat, Medal Count, and Candy Boy ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness-7 out of the last 14 Belmont winners have come from this final category.

In summary, I predict we'll be celebrating the first Triple Crown winner of the Rough-and-Tumble Triple Crown Era, when California Chrome defeats 10 horses, many of them fresh, their connections champing at the bit to deny the story-book ending of Chrome's magical rags-to-riches triumph.

Keith Kohnhorst taught college English in the Silicon Valley for 16 years.  In 2013, he published "Tapped Out," a gambling book of short stories. His story about going with his father to watch Majestic Prince in the 1969 Santa Anita Derby won third place in the 2010 Thoroughbred Times Biennial Fiction Contest. He lives with his wife and two kids in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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