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Best of the Triple Crown

Date: 4/02/2020

Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing

Across the world, horse racing is a popular sport. It's also one of the world's first bet-upon sports, stretching back to the year 4500 BC when nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe first domesticated horses. Not only does horse racing showcase the beauty and power of horses, but also shows the close relationship that mankind shares with this creature.

In the United States, horse racing was introduced by European settlers as far back as 1665. However, it wasn't until the American Stud Book began in 1868 that thoroughbred racing began. Shortly after in 1894, the American Jockey Club formed, elevating American horse racing to international regulatory standards.

The formation of the Triple Crown saw American horse racing catapulted to an elite level across the world. The Belmont Stakes, begun in 1867, was the first American thoroughbred race that would form the future Triple Crown. Next, the Preakness Stakes, formed in 1873, constituted the second race of the Triple Crown, while the highly renowned Kentucky Derby followed two years later in 1875. Together, these three thoroughbred races constitute the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, known simply as the Triple Crown, a title is offered to a horse that wins all three races in a single year at age three.

That doesn't mean other American races aren't worthwhile. Smaller tracks like Will Rogers Downs, located on the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, attracts punters during its thoroughbred season, which runs from March until May every year. Sure, it's no Kentucky Derby, and a thoroughbred Triple Crown winner like Justify hasn't taken to the track, but other horses like Tiago's Song and Phat and Fast have strong odds at Will Rogers Downs and have fans excited for this upcoming season.

Ranging from Will Rogers Downs to the Pegasus World Cup, which was the world's wealthiest horse race in 2017 and 2018, horse races in the United States continue to bring people together. However, no thoroughbreds tend to hold the American public captive quite like Triple Crown stars. Secretariat, Triple Crown recipient in 1973, remains a legend, while American Pharaoh and Justify, recipients in 2015 and 2018 respectively, have also garnered particular attention.

Secretariat

Considered as one of the greatest thoroughbred horses to have ever raced, Secretariat came to fame in the early 1970s. Ranked behind only the late 1920s legend Man o'War as the greatest racehorse in the 20th century, Secretariat was also known by the moniker ‘Big Red'. At age two, Secretariat placed fourth in his maiden race, but went on to place well as the year progressed, taking five stakes victories and propelling himself into the public eye when he was named the 1972 Horse of the Year.

In 1973, at age three, Secretariat was ready to make a run for the Triple Crown. However, winning the Triple Crown wasn't the only impressive act of the thoroughbred's third year. Secretariat didn't just win at the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, and Kentucky Derby—he set records for all three races. His time for the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles remains the track's record, and same goes for the Belmont Stakes' 1 1/2 mile race.

However, these weren't the only records set by this chestnut brown thoroughbred. Secretariat won a total of nine stakes and lost only three during his 1973 run, and these feats earned him a second Horse of the Year award. Following his retirement in 1974, Secretariat's awe-inspiring legacy continues today through his descendants, many of whom went on to become notable racehorses just like him.

American Pharaoh

Between 1978 and 2015, the United States waited to see which thoroughbred would achieve the great honor of the Triple Crown. However, this wait would last a long 37 years.

In 2015, American Pharaoh became the 12th Triple Crown recipient and ended this drought, though some also consider American Pharaoh to be the first recipient of the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred Racing. The Grand Slam of Thoroughbred Racing is an informal title that refers to a horse who wins not only the Triple Crown races, but also the Breeders' Cup Classic, another major race that takes place annually in the US. (Though some sources site the Travers Stakes as the fourth race required to win a Grand Slam.)

Like Secretariat, American Pharaoh had a prodigious start as a two-year-old when his career began. Though he placed fifth in his first race, American Pharaoh went on to win two other races by leads that were strong enough to win the American Champion Two-Year-Old Male Horse in 2014. Like Secretariat, American Pharaoh was retired after his breakout, unforgettable 2015 year.

Justify

Descended from Secretariat, Justify is a thoroughbred responsible for reigniting horse racing in the public eye across the United States. Justify is only the most recent winner of the Triple Crown (2018), but his legacy also became controversial after two disputes in his premier year.

Unlike every other Triple Crown recipient, Justify didn't enter the public eye as a two-year-old. Instead, he raced for the first time in February of the same year he took the Triple Crown. Despite the fact that Justify broke slowly at the start of the Santa Anita Derby, he was able to clinch the win to advance to the Kentucky Derby. And not only did he advance to the Kentucky Derby, but he was ranked as one of the favorites for the race despite having never competed in a stakes race before Santa Anita.

Unfortunately, in 2019, urine analysis revealed that Justify had five times the legal amount of scopolamine in his system for this race, which is considered a performance-enhancing drug. This would have meant that Justify's advancement from the Santa Anita Derby to the Kentucky Derby would have been illegitimate, as would the thoroughbred's right to the Triple Crown.

However, after investigation by the California Horse Racing Board, it was concluded that the high levels could have been from the horse consuming jimson weed. Horses stabled with Justify at the time also showed high levels of scopolamine, indicating it was likely to be an accidental ingestion.

Later, allegations that another jockey may have colluded with Justify's trainer, Bob Baffert, to help the horse win by driving other horses away from Justify during the race which gave him more space to pull ahead. However, these allegations remained speculation from competitors and were never formalized.

Justify's career was cut short by an injury that required him to be retired on July 25, 2018. Unfortunately, this injury barred him from competing for a Grand Slam by winning the Travers Stakes, though he is still remembered and celebrated as an unexpected breakout champion of the 21st century.

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