Triple Crown hopes


To many, it’s just a measurement.

To me, it’s so much more.

It’s one step away from making history.

Make that one race.

Horse race.

California Chrome on Saturday joined the ranks of the two-thirds club by winning the Preakness Stakes two weeks after clinching the Kentucky Derby and could become only the 12th horse to achieve Triple Crown immortality with a victory in the grueling mile-and-a-half long Belmont Stakes on June 7. He is the 23rd horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown and the 14th to do it since 1978, the year rivals Affirmed and Alydar finished a thrilling one-two in all three races.

I won’t delve into California Chrome’s much-publicized background. Those who care — I do! I do! — already know the details. His is a great story, too, but I’m not going to go there because I don’t want to jinx him in any way.

There. I said it.

What I will jabber about is how horse-racing fans have been waiting a L-O-N-G time for that elusive 12th Triple Crown winner.

Thirty-six years, to be exact.

This is the longest drought in Triple Crown history. The second is the 25-year gap between Citation, who did it in 1948, and Secretariat in 1973.

I was just 7 years old when Affirmed defeated the ever-tenacious Alydar by less than two horse lengths in all three races combined to win the Triple Crown. I don’t remember any of it since I was so little, but I can just hear the iconic, spine-tingling words made famous by announcer Dave Johnson: And DOWN the stretch they come!

Alydar is the only horse ever to finish second in each race, and I’m sure Affirmed’s camp breathed a collective sigh of relief when he held on to win the Belmont by a head over a most worthy opponent who pushed him to his absolute limits.

Isn’t imagination a wonderful thing?

I gleaned as much information as I could about the Triple Crown and its storied history growing up, religiously spending most of my summer vacations at the public library in my hometown of Huntsville, Ala., from morning until evening.

I’ve always thought that knowledge might come in handy someday.

No time like the present, I suppose.

What I want — what I hope — is for people to get as giddy as me in anticipation of the upcoming Belmont, which tests the endurance of true champions. Moreover, I want people to view horses through eyes that see more than mere mammals on which to place bets in hopes of winning large sums of money. Sure, that’d be a sweet bonus. But then, I’m not the gambling sort.

I’ve simply loved horses ever since reading the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley as a 12-year-old.

Among the Farley books I read was a partly fictionalized account of the racehorse, Man o’ War, who sired 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

Man o’ War — who won 20 of 21 races, with his lone upset to a horse named, ironically enough, Upset — could have easily been a Triple Crown champion himself had his owner, Samuel D. Riddle, allowed him to run in the Kentucky Derby. Riddle reasoned that the mile-and-a-quarter Derby was too taxing on 3-year-olds not quite fully developed in the physical sense, although it remains a mystery as to why he budged from his firm stance to allow War Admiral to race in the Derby 17 years later en route to Triple Crown glory.

As it was, Man o’ War won the 1920 Preakness and Belmont in cakewalks. Furthermore, he finished his brilliant career with a seven-length victory over Sir Barton — the very first Triple Crown winner in 1919 — in the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup that same year.

Funny, isn’t it, how so many horses share the same bloodlines? If you happen to do any research on pedigrees, you will find some interesting parallels among the 11 Triple Crown champs.

Which leads me to the only father-son duo to win the Triple Crown — Gallant Fox (1930), the second horse to do it, and his offspring, Omaha, who matched his feat in 1935.

And then there was the all-over-the-place Whirlaway, whose race-day antics often drove trainer Ben Jones bonkers because he had a habit of bolting for the outside rail. But the Calumet Farms colt, complete with an unconventional one-eyed blinker, corrected his erroneous ways to clinch the trio of races in 1941.

Citation, another Calumet Farms product, won in 1948 with Eddie Arcaro aboard after original jockey Al Snider drowned while fishing in the Florida Keys. Arcaro also rode Whirlaway in 1941, and is the only jockey to win more than one Triple Crown.

Count Fleet — an ill-tempered horse with a chip on his shoulder (yes, horses have shoulders) whose owner twice offered him up for sale before jockey Johnny Longden convinced John D. Hertz (uh huh, as in the rental car company) to keep him — pretty much jogged (well, IF horses could do that, so I guess I’ll have to settle for loped) his way to the Triple Crown title against underwhelming competition in 1943. Longden likened riding the horse with attitude nobody but him really wanted to driving a Cadillac, believe it or not.

Bold Venture — who won the Derby and Preakness but did not start in the Belmont in 1936 — sired Texas-born Assault, who got the job done in 1946. Assault was maligned by illness and injury throughout his life, permanently deforming his right hoof stemming from an accident that left him with a permanent limp, but that didn’t slow him from winning the trifecta.

And, of course, who hasn’t heard of Secretariat? Nicknamed “Big Red” like Man o’ War — arguably the greatest racehorse of all time — Secretariat’s records in each of the three races still stand to this day. His 31-length margin of victory in the Belmont broke Count Fleet’s long-standing record of 25. He retired as a 3-year-old just like Man o’ War, although Secretariat proved to be a real dud at stud. Unlike Man o’ War.

Remember what I said earlier about researching pedigrees? Seattle Slew, the 1977 winner, just so happens to be the great-great grandfather of — drumroll — California Chrome.

How very apt.

Here’s hoping the horse who doesn’t like getting dirt kicked up in his face is the one leaving the others to eat HIS dust. Here’s hoping he has enough stamina to outlast the field. And here’s hoping that no one ever stops believing in the magic that is the Triple Crown.


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