It’s been 35 years since the last horse, Affirmed, swept the three-race series – the longest gap in time between crowning champions since the it’s first horse, Sir Barton in 1919. Is the accomplishment now just history and destined to remain in the past as a prize for an era that is long gone in racing?
Columnist and industry expert Steven Crist wrote “As an exercise in logic, the Triple Crown is almost ridiculous: Three races in five weeks for unseasoned 3-year-old horses over different tracks and at distances that have fallen from favor in American Racing. The Triple Crown is racing’s greatest challenge, and its very illogic and difficulty are what keep it so special.”
The Triple Crown and its allure endure. It endures without adopting changes to the series that might make it more attainable. It remains the ultimate achievement of a champion. The 11 horses who have won the title are racing icons– nearly mythological in both their quests and their captures of the Crown. As far as I’m concerned, that is how it should be.
I grew up with paintings of Whirlaway and Citation hanging in my bedroom. I remember watching Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes by 31 inconceivable lengths and, as a horse-crazy teenager, I swooned at photos of jockey turned idol, Steve Cauthen, on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I could have never dreamt that I would spend 15 years of life working for the Triple Crown and working behind the scenes in every aspect of six near misses during Visa’s sponsorship from 1995-2005, and then another attempt by Big Brown in 2008.
Probably the most amazing part of my experience was to witness how destiny chose its subjects to elevate into the Triple Crown limelight. Nearly all of the horses who narrowly missed winning were unexpected. I vividly remember the talk of Triple Crown titles for Fusaichi Pegasus, Point Given and Barbaro. None could fulfill what was believed to have been their calling.
I’m often asked which, of near miss attempts, was my favorite. While I could write a novel about each one, and have been told I should, I guess I’d have to agree that you never forget your first; and my first was Silver Charm in 1997. Even at the time it was happening, it felt like the stars were in alignment: Visa was a new sponsor for the industry and was investing marketing dollars to promote the sport and the Triple Crown. The NTRA was newly-formed and was also executing their first rounds of “Go Baby Go” National television, radio and print campaigns. We were celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown victory with a traveling exhibit and team Secretariat was on tour. Silver Charm’s owners Bob and Beverly Lewis, were beloved. Handsome and articulate jockey Gary Stevens was in the irons. Popular California trainer Bob Baffert, with his beautiful young family in tow, was gregarious and affable with constant quotable one-liners filling the newspapers and airways. And then, of course, was this beautiful gray colt with a Triple Crown sounding name, Silver Charm.
The weeks in between Preakness and Belmont were magical. While I don’t think I slept more than two hours a night, everyone was working together and the pieces were all falling into place with ease. As the horses broke from the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes that Saturday in June, I was standing in the winner’s circle at the finish line with the Triple Crown trophy and a $5 million bonus check behind me at a presentation table. At the 16th pole, the title was just in reach. And then literally, before I could exhale another breath, it was over and Silver Charm had lost by less than stride. That’s what I call God’s time – it is less than a second – that moment that changes the destiny of the entire industry.
So will there ever be a 12th champion? As of yet, racing experts have not yet deemed a frontrunner for the Kentucky Derby, much less begun the musings of whether a horse in this year’s crop is Triple Crown worthy. And that’s just when I get the most optimistic. Life seems to love surprises, and I am forever hopeful that we will all get our new king when we are least expecting it. For more than three decades we have all been waiting for a new coronation. It’s time for destiny to cross this off a bucket list for many of us who want to see it happen in our lifetime, and to add fervor to a new generation of race fans who need the promise fulfilled that it can indeed be done.