When New York Racing Association officials announced earlier this week that this year's Belmont Stakes would be run before the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/8 miles, many racing fans reacted with outrage. How, they asked, could this year's Belmont-Derby-Preakness series constitute a “Triple Crown”? Could someone confirm whether a winner of all three races at the unconventional schedule/distances would indeed be considered a Triple Crown winner?
This raises the question of who officially decides what constitutes the Triple Crown. If racing had a centralized governing body or national league, of course, that would presumably be one of its responsibilities. In lieu of that, we are left to look at history of the series.
The concept of the American Triple Crown was first invented sometime in the 1920s or 1930s by a turf writer. Daily Racing Form scribe Charles Hatton is widely credited with the first use of the phrase, used to describe Gallant Fox's sweep of the three races after the fact.
(Avid readers about racing are advised to take a deep dive into Hatton's body of work, which spanned 1930 until his death in 1975—it was sprinkled with exquisite description, a heap of literary and mythological references, and numerous two-dollar words.)
Others say the New York Times was actually the originator of the phrase as far back as 1923, when Hatton would have been in his teens, describing a horse who had just won the Preakness and was headed to contest the Kentucky Derby. No matter who was actually the first, most people do agree the phrase wasn't coined until poor Sir Barton, the first winner of all three races in 1919, had been retired for some number of years.
As we've studied before here on the Paulick Report, the three races were not always held in the modern order or with the modern spacing in between them. Gallant Fox actually won the Preakness first, followed by the Derby and the Belmont. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed all had 35 days to compete in the three races, but Assault did it in 28, and Citation had 42.
The three races were not always held at their current distances, either, although it is true that the Belmont has been 1 1/2 miles for many decades now. It began in 1867 (at Jerome Park) as 1 5/8 miles, and was 1 1/4 miles for several years in the late 1890s/early 1900s, even as short as 1 1/8 miles in 1893 and 1894, and 1 3/8 miles up until 1925—which means that indeed, the very earliest Triple Crown winner in history did not compete in “The Test of the Champion” at 1 1/2 miles.
But that isn't changing some people's minds about the validity of this year's races.
“Everyone's still referring to it as the Triple Crown, but we have definitely had some people suggest it needs that asterisk beside it if one horse were to win all three,” said Chris Goodlett, director of curatorial and educational affairs at the Kentucky Derby Museum.
The Kentucky Derby Museum was, for some time, home to the traditional triangular bowl bestowed upon the recognized Triple Crown winner. The same three-sided piece sat on display for several years, awaiting a new winner in the drought between 1978 and 2015. Churchill representatives would transport it to New York each time the winner of the first two races was contesting the third, only to bring it back again until American Pharoah finally pulled off the hat trick. Now, the Museum is a temporary home of the redesigned trophy, which is about three feet high.
That doesn't mean Churchill is the sole entity awarding the trophy, however.
“That one is called a perpetual trophy, so that trophy is a trophy that rotates between the tracks and is usually on permanent display somewhere,” said Goodlett. “It's actually currently on display at the museum, as Churchill has it right now. The idea for that perpetual trophy is for it to move around; we actually got it from NYRA.
“They use the perpetual trophy in the celebration, but that doesn't go to the winning owner, it stays with the tracks.”
A smaller version of the perpetual trophy was awarded to WinStar Farm as the owner of Justify in 2018.
There wasn't a Triple Crown trophy at all until 1950 – only six horses have received a trophy specifically acknowledging the achievement of having won all three races. (After the Thoroughbred Racing Associations commissioned a trophy design, Citation was retroactively awarded the original three-sided trophy design for his accomplishment in 1948.)
In the mid-1980s, when the racing business was riding high, there was actually a concern that owners were not sufficiently interested in competing for that piece of hardware. In 1985, Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck skipped the Preakness to pursue a $2-million bonus offered by Garden State Park to a winner of the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes, Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby. The following year, Triple Crown Productions was formed by Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course, and the New York Racing Association.
“It was really a desire to take advantage commercially of the name Triple Crown,” said then-NYRA president Gerald McKeon in 1990. “All three of us felt it hadn't been exploited like it could be.”
In the earliest news clippings about the group, Triple Crown Productions anticipates it will put up a $5-million bonus on offer to either the next Triple Crown winner or the horse with the best finishing positions in all three races; that later evolved to be a $5-million bonus for the winner of all three and a $1 million consolation to the best performer in all three races in the late 1980s. Some form of Triple Crown bonus continued to be on offer into the mid-2000s under various corporate sponsorships. The company also secured television rights for all three races, established the filly Triple Crown series, and handles nominations for the series.
Although racing isn't particularly known for being an arena in which multiple entities can get along, the three racetracks still coordinate with each other when it comes to the big questions – like whether this year's series will be a Triple Crown.
“Yes, the Triple Crown will be honored,” said Darren Rogers, senior director of communication and media services for Churchill Downs. “The traditional order that we're used to has been in place since 1931, so this will be different, but this is also a very unique year and circumstance that we're all dealing with. Everyone is trying to get their race position where it fits for each host track.”
Actually, Rogers points out, there was a time in the 1800s before the establishment of the series when the Belmont and Preakness were run on the same card at Morris Park.
“I always find that humorous, that they were on the exact same card,” he said.
Rogers points out that while there are some major changes to the series for 2020, the basic elements of challenge are still there. If anything, it may be more difficult for a horse to keep in top condition to win not just the three races but possibly an additional start in between the June Belmont and September Derby.
“We still have three races over three different distances and three different tracks, albeit it's no longer five weeks,” he said. “I would say it's quite an accomplishment for any horse to win one of those races in a singular event, let alone all three and we'll properly recognize that.”
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