Training For The Triple Crown: An Historical Perspective

by | 05.25.2015 | 9:16am
American Pharoah in his final breeze for the Kentucky Derby

Bob Baffert, trainer of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah, was scheduled to fly to Louisville, Ky., on Monday night to check in on the Zayat Stables' homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile as he gears up to run for the Triple Crown in the June 6 Belmont Stakes. Jockey Martin Garcia, who is typically aboard the colt for his timed workouts, is also expected to be on hand at Churchill Downs by Tuesday morning.

No specific plans were announced, but if the Hall of Fame conditioner follows his own playbook he will send American Pharoah out for a brisk five- or six-furlong breeze on Tuesday or Wednesday morning, with Garcia up, then come back with a second, slightly easier timed workout five or six days later, on Monday, June 1. He is scheduled to fly to New York on June 2.

Tuesday would be 10 days after the Preakness. When Baffert prepared Silver Charm and War Emblem for their Triple Crown bids, they each worked 11 days after the race. Real Quiet, his other Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, worked 12 days after the Triple Crown's middle jewel. All three worked twice at Churchill Downs before the Belmont.

That's one more workout than trainer Art Sherman put into California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, prior to the Belmont. The chestnut California-bred colt worked just once – breezing four furlongs in :47 3/5 on May 31, two weeks after the Preakness – to prepare for the so-called Test of the Champion on June 7.

Two years earlier, when Doug O'Neill brought J. Paul Reddam's  I'll Have Another to Belmont Park after stretch-running victories in the Derby and Preakness, the trainer said the Flower Alley colt would jog and gallop up to the Belmont without a single timed workout – something never attempted before. We never had a chance to determine how that training schedule worked out as I'll Have Another was scratched due to a tendon injury the day before the race and was retired to stud.

The following is an updated version of an article originally published in 2012, examining the different ways Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners trained up to the final leg of the Triple Crown. The article would not have been possible without the assistance of the staff at the Keeneland library, which maintains valuable information on the history of Thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Some trainers have said the one- to two-mile gallops often given to modern-day horses are just as important as breezes or timed workouts used to be. I don't know if they're right or wrong. You'd have to ask the horse.

I do know contemporary runners face the starter fewer times per year and have shorter careers than horses from the not too distant past, much less those from the 1930s and '40s.

I doubt, for example, that we'll ever see another horse like Calumet Farm's Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner who as  a 3-year-old raced four times in February and three times in April – including the Derby Trial Stakes on April 27 – before capturing the Kentucky Derby on May 1. He won the Preakness two weeks later, but instead of simply working his way toward the June 12 Belmont, the son of Bull Lea was sent by trainer Jimmy Jones to Garden State Park where he won the Jersey Stakes on May 29 by 11 lengths.

“People thought I was crazy,” Jones later said. But he wasn't finished with Citation's Belmont preparations.

One week after the Jersey Stakes, on June 5, Citation worked an easy half-mile at Belmont Park in :48 flat. On June 8 he breezed a mile in 1:40. Then, on the morning of June 11, one day before the Belmont, Jones had Citation breeze six furlongs, going the distance in a quick 1:12 3/5. He won the Belmont by eight lengths in wire-to-wire fashion.

Citation raced and won nine more times that season, ending the year with 19 wins from 20 starts.

Triple Crown winner Citation won 19 of 20 starts as a 3-year-old in 1948

Triple Crown winner Citation won 19 of 20 starts as a 3-year-old in 1948

 

Sir Barton is listed as the first Triple Crown winner, but the series wasn't recognized until 1930, when Gallant Fox, a son of Sir Gallahad III, was victorious for Belair Stud and trainer James Fitzsimmons. He won the Preakness on May 9, the Derby on May 17 (their order was reversed then) and the Belmont on June 7. On June 3, the colt worked nine furlongs in 1:49 3/5 (which nearly equalled an American record), then breezed a half-mile June 6, the day before the race, covering the distance in :46 3/5 under jockey Earl Sande. Gallant Fox won the Belmont by three lengths.

Omaha, a son of Gallant Fox, came along next, winning the 1935 Triple Crown for the same connections as his sire. The May 4 Derby and May 11 Preakness were just a week apart, and there was nearly a month until the June 8 Belmont. So Fitzsimmons ran Omaha in the one-mile Withers on May 25 as a prep (he finished second), then blew him out five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 at Aqueduct on June 7 before shipping over to Belmont Park. He won the final leg of the Triple Crown by a length and a half.

War Admiral was not a champion at two, winning just half of his six starts, but Man o' War's best racing son won all eight of his starts as a 3-year-old in 1937, including the Triple Crown. After the May 8 Derby and May 15 Preakness, trainer George Conway had three weeks to prepare Sam Riddle's colt for the Belmont.

On May 19, just four days after beating Pompoon by a head at Pimlico, War Admiral breezed a mile and three-eighths in 2:22. Seven days later he worked a mile and a half in 2:34 3/5, and on June 2, three days before the race, he worked another mile and a half, this time just a shade quicker, in 2:34 2/5. He set a new track of 2:28 3/5 winning the Belmont by three lengths.

Whirlaway, a difficult colt for Calumet Farm trainer Ben Jones to condition because of his quirkiness, raced 16 times at two, winning seven. He raced 20 times at three, winning 13 starts including eight stakes, the 1941 Triple Crown races among them. The Kentucky Derby fell on May 3 and the Preakness May 10. With the Belmont on June 7, Jones had plenty of time to get the son of Blenheim II ready for the Test of the Champion.

In a 10-day stretch from May 26 to June 4, Whirlaway breezed four times: four furlongs in :48 3/5 on May 26; four furlongs on a sloppy track in :51 on May 29; nine furlongs in 1:52 1/5 on May 30; and 10 furlongs in 2:02 2/5 on June 4. Whirlaway was plenty fit as he captured the Triple Crown's final leg by 2 ½ lengths.

Two years later, Count Fleet won the 1943 Triple Crown for trainer G.D. Cameron and Mrs. John D. Hertz. After victories in the May 1 Derby and May 8 Preakness, Cameron ran the son of Reigh Count in the Withers on May 22 as a prep for the June 5 Belmont, where all but two opponents were scared away.

After the Withers, Count Fleet breezed four times in nine days: 10 furlongs in 2:07 4/5 on a muddy track May 27; three furlongs in :34 4/5 on May 31; 10 furlongs in 2:04 on June 1; and three furlongs in :35 on June 4. He won the Belmont by 25 lengths in 2:28 1/5.

King Ranch's Assault won the 1946 Triple Crown and trainer Max Hirsch wasn't afraid to send him out for serious exercise as the Belmont approached.  That year's Derby fell on May 4, the Preakness was May 11, and the Belmont June 1. Assault, a son of Bold Venture, worked four times in eight days leading up to the Belmont: a mile in 1:44 3/5 on May 22; 10 furlongs in 2:05 3/5 on May 25; four furlongs in :52 on a sloppy track on May 28; and a mile and a half in 2:32 3/5 on a good track May 29. He won the Belmont by three lengths under a confident ride from Willie Mehrtens.

There was a 25-year gap between Citation's Triple Crown and the tour de force by Secretariat in 1973. Multiple Eclipse Award-winning author William Nack documents Secretariat's career with great detail in his book, “Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, Making of a Champion.”

Here is the short version of how Lucien Laurin trained the Bold Ruler colt in the three weeks between the May 19 Preakness and June 9 Belmont: six furlongs in 1:12 1/5 on a sloppy track May 27; one mile in 1:34 4/5 on June 1; four furlongs in :46 3/5 on June 6.

Secretariat won the Belmont “like a tremendous machine,” drawing off by 31 lengths and setting a track record that stands to this day: 12 furlongs in 2:24.

Secretariat breezed three times following the Preakness, including a :46 3/5 blowout three days before his epic 31-length Belmont victory

Secretariat breezed three times following the Preakness, including a :46 3/5 blowout three days before his epic 31-length Belmont victory

 

Seattle Slew ran his unbeaten string to nine races after winning the 1977 Triple Crown for trainer Billy Turner. Twelve days after taking the Preakness, the Bold Reasoning colt worked a mile in 1:38 2/5. Five days later he went six furlongs in 1:11 3/5. Turner then blew him out three furlongs in :35 4/5 one day before the race.

Affirmed, 1978 Triple Crown winner, only worked twice in the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. Patrice Wolfson, who owned the horse with husband Lou in the name of Harbor View Farm, recalled recently that Affirmed “started to lighten up before the Belmont. He was not at his peak, so Laz (trainer Barrera) had to train him very carefully – to do a little bit but not too much.”

In fact, the flashy son of Exclusive Native had a very similar workout schedule to Seattle Slew. Like Slew, Affirmed worked one mile 12 days after winning the Preakness, getting the distance in 1:40 1/5 on June 1. Six days later he went an easy five furlongs in 1:01. His mile and a half battle with Alydar was one of the greatest Belmont duels in history.

Since Affirmed's triumph, we've had 12 horses try and fail to win the Belmont and complete a Triple Crown sweep (in addition to I'll Have Another, who was withdrawn due to injury on the eve of the race). Here's what they did in the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont (workouts are at Belmont Park unless otherwise noted):

Spectacular Bid, 1979, after the May 19 Preakness: six furlongs in 1:14 on May 27 at Pimlico; seven furlongs in 1:26 at Pimlico; one mile in 1:39 on a sloppy track at Belmont on June 4; three furlongs in :34 1/5 at Belmont. Third in Belmont Stakes June 9.

Pleasant Colony, 1981, after the May 16 Preakness: five furlongs in :59 4/5 on May 24; one mile in 1:39 2/5 on May 30;  four furlongs in :46 1/5 on June 3. Third in Belmont on June 6.

Alysheba, 1987, after the May 16 Preakness: one mile in 1:41 3/5 on May 25; one mile in 1:44 on May 31. Fourth in Belmont on June 6.

Sunday Silence, 1989, after the May 20 Preakness: three furlongs in 37 2/5 on May 26; one mile in 1:39 3/5 on May 31; three furlongs in :37 on June 6. Second in Belmont on June 10.

Charlie Whittingham worked Sunday Silence one mile in between this Preakness victory over Easy Goer and the Belmont Stakes

Charlie Whittingham worked Sunday Silence one mile in between this Preakness victory over Easy Goer and the Belmont Stakes

 

Silver Charm, 1997, after May 17 Preakness: six furlongs at Churchill Downs in 1:14 4/5 on May 28; five furlongs at Churchill Downs in 1:01 on June 3. Second in Belmont on June 7.

Real Quiet, 1998, after May 16 Preakness: five furlongs at Churchill Downs in :59 4/5 on May 28; five furlongs at Churchill Downs in 1:01 on June 2. Second in Belmont on June 6.

Charismatic, 1999, after May 15 Preakness: six furlongs in 1:16 2/5 at Churchill Downs on May 25; five furlongs at Churchill Downs in 1:00 2/5 on June 1. Third in Belmont on June 5.

War Emblem, 2002, after May 18 Preakness: five furlongs at Churchill Downs in 1:00 3/5 on May 29; five furlongs at Churchill Downs in 1:01 on June 4. Eighth in Belmont on June 8.

Funny Cide, 2003, after May 17 Preakness: five furlongs on muddy track in :59 2/5 on May 28; five furlongs in :57 4/5 on June 3. Third in Belmont on June 7.

Smarty Jones, 2004, after May 15 Preakness: seven furlongs in 1:29 1/5 at Philadelphia Park on May 28. Second in Belmont on June 5.

Big Brown, 2008, after May 17 Preakness: five furlongs in 1:00 on June 3. Pulled up in Belmont on June 7.

California Chrome, 2014, after May7 Preakness: four furlongs in :47 3/5 at Belmont Park on May 31. Fourth in the Belmont.

California Chrome had just one timed workout between the Preakness and Belmont

California Chrome had just one timed workout between the Preakness and Belmont

 

Seattle Slew's trainer Billy Turner said horses are individuals and you have to adjust training philosophy to that horse. But looking at how the 11 Triple Crown winners and the 12 near-misses since 1979 were trained, it's difficult to come to any other conclusion but that the conditioning regimen for horses today is lighter than it's ever been.

It's a different era today when it comes to training horses for the Triple Crown.

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