The number now stands out in bold type, an unimaginable figure; one that lifelong horse racing fans never imagined possible.
For many, 1978 seems like another lifetime ago. Heck, I was four years old at the time when Affirmed won the Triple Crown, still another eight years away from going to my first horse race. For me, it seems ridiculous that we've gone this long without a Triple Crown winner. For the generations before me it must seem like a now hopeless achievement.
But with another season in the books, there is no escaping the figure. Thirty-three years. For those that waited 25 years to see the immortal Secretariat break the Triple Crown drought, that must now seem like a walk in the park now. For the rest us, the younger generation, we now sit and wait like suffering Chicago Cubs fans, wondering if we'll ever see one in our lifetime.
For now, about the only thing left to do is debate which horses should have won the Triple Crown--if not for bad luck, a less-than-ideal ride, or circumstances that were beyond their control. In the last 33 years, we've had 11 horses go to Belmont with a chance to make history. Seven more pulled off the Derby/Belmont or Preakness/Belmont double. Which of those 18 horses should have won?
I think most would agree that Spectacular Bid is at the top of that list. More recently, Afleet Alex was a colt who, if circumstances were different, would have pulled off the hat trick. At the bottom of this blog, I'll throw the question out there for vote. For the sake of brevity, I'll talk about only the last 15 years, picking the top five horses since 1997 that were robbed of Triple Crown mortality.
1997 Belmont--Silver Charm: Every time I watch this video I am more convinced there is one, simple reason that Silver Charm did not win the Triple Crown: Chris McCarron. His ride aboard Touch Gold was simply masterful; seizing the early lead while Gary Stevens and Silver Charm lost ground into the first turn, then allowing entrymate Wild Rush and Silver Charm to pass him down the backstretch before patiently waiting for his wide move entering the stretch. Another rider would not have had that patience, and if they hadn't, Silver Charm would be a Triple Crown winner.
1998 Belmont--Real Quiet: Easily the most exciting of the recent near-misses and easily Tom Durkin's best call ever. If Stevens shouldered any blame for 1997, he certainly redeemed himself with a brilliant ride aboard Victory Gallop to deny Real Quiet. Every time I watch the video I cannot believe that Real Quiet got caught. I'm sure Bob Baffert feels the same way. Did Desormeaux do all he could do? That's why these debates will live on forever.
2001 Kentucky Derby--Point Given: Stevens is again at the center of it all. In Point Given he was sitting on a beast, a horse that went on to annihilate his rivals in the Preakness and Belmont. But what happened in the Derby? In this writer's opinion, Stevens misjudged the quick pace in which Songandaprayer set blazing fractions of :22 1/5, :44 4/5, 1:09 1/5, and 1:35. Point Given had no business being that close and was swallowed in the stretch by Monarchos, who was masterfully ridden from off the pace by Jorge Chavez. Some say Point Given didn't handle the track, others think it just wasn't his day. Let the debate rage on.
2004 Belmont--Smarty Jones: Smarty Jones was so much the best of his class it was frightening. Practically the entire nation rooted for the little Pennsylvania-bred colt with small-time connections to break the Triple Crown drought and rounding the final turn it looked like he was going to do it. Many still blame Jerry Bailey (Eddington) and Alex Solis (Rock Hard Ten) for tag-teaming Smarty through the backstretch and softening him up for Birdstone to make his memorable rally. Again, this is just one man's opinion, but I think Stewart Elliott was just a tad too quick in the third quarter and let Smarty out a notch too soon. Whatever the reason for his defeat, I have never seen a group of people more heartbroken in my life when Birdstone rolled on by in deep stretch.
2005 Kentucky Derby--Afleet Alex: I'm still convinced that Afleet Alex was the best 3-year-old in the last 10 years and would have won the Triple Crown had it not been for one horse: Spanish Chestnut. He was sprinter that was somehow forced into the Derby and he did what he was in there to do: set a lively pace, possibly for Blue Grass winner Bandini, who was owned by the same connections. What he wound up doing was running one of the fastest three-quarters in Derby history, which set the race up for a dead-closer like Giacomo, while Afleet Alex was caught on the inside and dueled with Closing Argument in the stretch before passed late. His subsequent Preakness and Belmont wins were two of the most phenomenal I have ever seen in Triple Crown races.