In the United States, the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, commonly known as the Triple Crown, is a title awarded to a three-year-old Thoroughbred horse who wins the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. The three races were inaugurated in different years, the last being the Kentucky Derby in 1875. These races are now run annually in May and early June of each year. The Triple Crown Trophy, commissioned in 1950 but awarded to all previous winners as well as those after 1950, is awarded to a Triple Crown winner.
- Other notable achievements
- Gaps between wins
- Unsuccessful bids
- Sponsorship and broadcasting
- Individual race winners
The first winner of all three Triple Crown races was Sir Barton in 1919. Some journalists began using the term Triple Crown to refer to the three races as early as 1923, but it was not until Gallant Fox won the three events in 1930 that Charles Hatton of the Daily Racing Form put the term into common use.
Only twelve horses have won the Triple Crown: Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), and American Pharoah (2015).
James E. "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons was the only trainer to win the Triple Crown more than once; he trained both Gallant Fox and his son Omaha for the Belair Stud breeding farm. Gallant Fox and Omaha are the only father-son duo to win the Triple Crown. Belair Stud and Calumet Farm are tied as the owners with the most Triple Crown victories with two apiece. Calumet Farms won with Whirlaway and Citation. Eddie Arcaro rode both of Calumet Farms' Triple Crown champions and is the only jockey to win more than one Triple Crown.
Secretariat holds the stakes record time for each of the three races. His time of 2:24 for 1 1⁄2 miles in the 1973 Belmont Stakes also set a world record that still stands.
The Triple Crown series technically became possible with the inauguration of the Kentucky Derby in 1875. The Belmont Stakes was first run in 1867 and the Preakness in 1873. Daily Racing Form writer Charles Hatton is commonly credited with originating the term to reference these races in 1930, although they were referred to by that name at least as early as 1923. Since 1931, the order of Triple Crown races has been the Kentucky Derby first, followed by the Preakness Stakes, and then the Belmont Stakes. Prior to 1931, the Preakness Stakes was run before the Kentucky Derby eleven times. On May 12, 1917, and May 13, 1922, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes were run on the same day.
Each Triple Crown race is open to both colts and fillies. Though fillies have won each of the individual Triple Crown races, none have won the Triple Crown itself. There have been attempts to develop a "Filly Triple Crown" or a "Triple Tiara" for fillies only, but no set series of three races consistently remained in the public eye, and at least four different configurations of races were used. Two fillies won the series of the Kentucky Oaks, the Pimlico Oaks (now the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes), and the Coaching Club American Oaks, in 1949 and 1952, but the racing press did not designate either accomplishment as a "triple crown." In 1961, the New York Racing Association created a filly triple crown of in-state races only, but the races changed over the years. Eight fillies won the NYRA Triple Tiara between 1968 and 1993.
Gelded colts may run in any of the three races today, but they were prohibited from entering the Belmont between 1919 and 1957. Geldings have won each of the individual races, but like fillies, no gelding has ever won the Triple Crown. The closest was Funny Cide, who won the Derby and the Preakness in 2003.
All the races are held on dirt tracks, rather than the turf commonly used for important races in Europe.
At completion of the 2015 season, the three Triple Crown races have attracted 4,180 entrants. Of these, 289 horses have won a single leg of the Triple Crown, 52 horses have won two of the races (23 the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, 18 the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, and 11 the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes), and 12 horses have won all three races. Pillory won both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 1922, a year when it was impossible to win the Triple Crown because the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes were run on the same day.
10 of the 12 winners have been "homebreds", owned at the time of their win by their breeders.
Jim Fitzsimmons is the only trainer to have two horses win the Triple Crown, training the sire/son combination of 1930 winner Gallant Fox and 1935 winner Omaha. This also marked the first time that an owner and the first time that a breeder, Belair Stud holding both duties, had a repeat win of the Triple Crown. Calumet Farm is the only other owner with two Triple Crown horses, 1941 winner Whirlaway and 1948 winner Citation. Eddie Arcaro is the only jockey to ride two horses to the Triple Crown, both for Calumet, Whirlaway and Citation. Those two horses' trainers, Ben Jones and Jimmy Jones, were father and son.
All 12 horses, and most owners, trainers, and jockeys were born in the United States. The exceptions were jockey Johnny Longden, born in England and raised in Canada; French-born jockey Jean Cruguet; trainer Laz Barrera, from Cuba; and jockey Victor Espinoza, from Mexico. Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin and jockey, Ron Turcotte were both Canadians. Owner Fannie Hertz was married to John D. Hertz, who was born in Slovakia; owner Ahmed Zayat was born in Egypt. Jockey Willie Saunders is considered a Canadian jockey because he grew up and established his career there, but was born in Montana. The horse Sir Barton was foaled in the United States but had a Canadian owner, J. K. L. Ross, at the time of his Triple Crown win.
Secretariat holds the stakes record for each of the Triple Crown races, the Kentucky Derby (1:59 2/5), the Preakness Stakes (1:53), and the Belmont Stakes (2:24).
At 18, Steve Cauthen became the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown, riding Affirmed in 1978. At 43, Victor Espinoza became the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown, riding American Pharoah in 2015.
Other notable achievements
Only one horse, Alydar, has placed (finished second) in all three races. He was defeated by Affirmed in all three races in 1978 by a combined margin of two lengths. His trainer John Vietch is the only trainer to have done this with one horse. In 1995, D. Wayne Lukas became the first and only major figure (owner, jockey, or trainer) to win all three Triple Crown races with different horses, Thunder Gulch in the Derby and Belmont, Timber Country in the Preakness. Lukas also is the only trainer to have won six straight Triple Crown races, adding his 1995 wins, having won the 1994 Preakness and Belmont with Tabasco Cat and the 1996 Derby with Grindstone.
Like Vietch, only with two different horses, Bob Baffert also had second-place finishes in all three legs of the Triple Crown, both owned by Ahmed Zayat: in 2012, Bodemeister finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness stakes to I'll Have Another, then Paynter was entered and finished second to Union Rags. Baffert and Zayat teamed up again for the 2015 Triple Crown victory of American Pharoah.
Gallant Fox is the only Triple Crown winner to sire another U.S. Triple Crown winner, Omaha. Affirmed sired Peteski, winner of the 1993 Canadian Triple Crown.
Whirlaway, in addition to winning the 1941 Triple Crown, also won the Travers Stakes that year, becoming the first and only horse to date to accomplish that feat.
American Pharoah, in addition to winning the 2015 Triple Crown, also won the Breeders' Cup Classic that year. As the Breeders' Cup was not established until 1984, American Pharoah was the first to sweep all four races, a feat that came to be known as the Grand Slam.
Gaps between wins
After the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, in 1919, there was not another winner until Gallant Fox in 1930, a gap of 11 years. Between 1930 and 1948, seven horses won the Triple Crown, with five years being the longest gap between winners. However, following the 1948 win of Citation, there was a considerable gap of 25 years before Secretariat ended the drought of Triple Crown champions in 1973. Between 1973 and 1978, there were three Triple Crown winners.
The longest drought in Triple Crown history began in 1979 with Spectacular Bid's failed Triple Crown attempt at the Belmont Stakes, and lasted until American Pharoah won in 2015. Starting in 1979, thirteen horses won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but not the Belmont. Of those, Real Quiet came the closest to winning the Triple Crown, losing the Belmont Stakes by a nose in 1998. Charismatic led the Belmont Stakes in the final furlong in 1999, but fractured his left front leg in the final stretch and fell back to third. The seven most recent horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but either lost or withdrew from the Belmont Stakes were War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, Big Brown in 2008, I'll Have Another in 2012, and California Chrome in 2014.
In the 1979-2015 period, horses who contested all three races, losing the Kentucky Derby but winning the Preakness and the Belmont were Risen Star in 1988, Hansel in 1991, Tabasco Cat in 1994, Point Given in 2001, and Afleet Alex in 2005. In 1984, Swale and in 1995, Thunder Gulch ran all three races, winning the Derby and the Belmont, but not the Preakness.
The 37-year gap between the Triple Crown wins of Affirmed and American Pharoah drew criticism of the system. As far back as 1986, reporters noted that horses who were fresh for the Belmont had an advantage. In 2003, Gary Stevens stated in an interview with Charlie Rose that he did not believe there would be another Triple Crown winner because of the tendency for owners to put fresh horses in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn was particularly critical of the Triple Crown system in post-Belmont remarks in 2014; he considered the system to be unfair, arguing that there would never be another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime unless only horses that competed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness competed at the Belmont. By 2014, six of the previous eight Belmont winners had not competed in either of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Additionally, from 2006 to 2014, the Belmont winner was a horse who had not competed in the Preakness. American Pharoah was the first Belmont winner since Afleet Alex in 2005 to have run all three Triple Crown races.
Since all three races were inaugurated, as of 2016, 23 horses have won the Derby and Preakness but not the Belmont:
Sponsorship and broadcasting
Originally, the three races largely organized their own nominations procedure, marketing and television broadcast rights. In 1985, Triple Crown Productions was created when the owner of Spend a Buck chose not to run in the other two Triple Crown races because of a financial incentive offered to any Kentucky Derby winner who could win a set of competing races in New Jersey. The organizers of the three races realized that they needed to work together.
Efforts to unify the sponsorship and marketing of all three Triple Crown races began in 1987 when ABC Sports negotiated a deal with Chrysler to pay $5 million to any horse that swept all three races, and $1 million each year there was no Triple Crown sweep to the horse with the highest combined Triple Crown finish. This sponsorship lasted until 1993. The end of the $1 million participation bonus was linked to the breakdown of Prairie Bayou at the Belmont Stakes that year and the uncomfortable situation that arose when the Kentucky Derby winner, Sea Hero, was given the bonus following a seventh-place finish.
In 1995, Visa USA took over the sponsorship with a 10-year contract, naming the series the Visa Triple Crown and offering only the $5 million bonus to a horse that could sweep the Triple Crown. Along with sponsorship by VISA, NBC Sports paid $51.5 million for broadcast rights to all three races, with the revenue split giving 50% of the total to Churchill Downs and 25% each to Pimlico and to the New York Racing Association (NYRA).
The Visa deal—and the cooperative effort—ended after 2005. The NYRA felt that they did not get a fair share of the revenue, particularly when the Belmont had the highest ratings of all three races in the years where a Triple Crown was on the line. From 2001 through 2013, average viewership for the Belmont was 7 million when the Triple Crown was not at stake, whereas viewership averaged 13 million when it was. With the contract term ending, the NYRA went to ESPN on ABC for the 2006 Belmont, while the broadcasts of the Derby and Preakness remained with NBC. Visa chose to remain as a sponsor of only Kentucky Derby for the next five years. As a result of the divided broadcast, Triple Crown Productions was unable to obtain a new sponsor.
In February 2011, ABC/ESPN dropped out of the negotiations to renew broadcast rights to the Belmont Stakes. NBC obtained the contract through 2015, once again uniting all three races on the same network. In 2014, NBC extended their contract for the Kentucky Derby through 2025. As of August 2015, NBC obtained a broadcast contract for the Belmont through 2020 and the Preakness through 2022.