Betting Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing: One of Most Daunting Feats in Sports

Jay Pryce

Sunday, May 17, 2015 12:00 PM GMT

Whether you're a casual or an experienced sports gambler, note that modern day horse breeding and training strategies make American Pharoah's bid for the Triple Crown more demanding.

 

Dating back to 1919, only eleven horses have captured one of the most daunting feats in sports: the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.

 

Year

Horse

1919

Sir Barton

1930

Gallant Fox

1935

Omaha

1937

War Admiral

1941

Whirlaway

1943

Count Fleet

1946

Assault

1948

Citation

1973

Secretariat

1977

Seattle Slew

1978

Affirmed

 

After his dominating seven-length Preakness Stakes win over a sloppy Pimlico race track, American Pharoah attempts to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to capture the elusive honor. Below is a chart of the 13 horses eligible to win the Triple Crown since 1978, and their respective finishes:

 

Year

Horse

Belmont Finish

1979

Spectacular Bid

3

1981

Pleasant Colony

3

1987

Alysheba

4

1989

Sunday Silence

2

1997

Silver Charm

2

1998

Real Quiet

2

1999

Charismatic

3

2002

War Emblem

8

2003

Funny Cide

3

2004

Smarty Jones

2

2008

Big Brown

DNF

2012

I'll Have Another

Did Not Start

2014

California Chrome

4

 

 

Renowned as the “test of the champion,” the one-and-a-half-mile Belmont Stakes more than ever challenges the limits of the modern thoroughbred. It has been 36 years since crowning the last Triple Crown winner, far surpassing the 25-year drought making up the longest stretch prior between Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973). What is the cause for this failure?

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Causes for the 25-Year Drought
Two key factors possibly contribute to this dry spell, and in many ways go hand-in-hand with one another: modern thoroughbred training and breeding. One-and-a-half miles is the longest dirt race one will typically face at an American thoroughbred track, and difficult for any horse—yet alone, a young, developing three-year-old carrying 126 pounds—to win. Beginning primarily in the 1980s, many influential trainers with quarter horse backgrounds, like the legendary D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, advocated speed with shorter and lighter workout regimens to prep for and win races. Their success helped lead to smaller amounts of exercise per week industry wide, as the number of breezes dropped from two or more a week to one, and racing frequency decreased to on average every three weeks, as opposed to 10-14 days before. In a nutshell, American trainers shied away from training and racing for stamina, and placed a greater emphasis on speed and recovery. In the 1930s or 1940s, for example, it was not uncommon to see a horse breeze six or seven times between the Preakness and the Belmont, as opposed to the one or two we'll see American Pharoah run in the next few weeks. Like humans, horses need to be conditioned to run long distances, and training and racing methods over the last few decades have traced backwards since the heyday of Triple Crown winners.

Breeding strategies over the last four or five decades have favored speed over stamina as well. We talked about pedigree and the popular dosage index classification system in our Kentucky Derby preview, and explained how betting odds favored American Pharoah carries a 4.33 score which emphasizes a lot more quickness than distance in his bloodlines. For decades, one hoped to see a number below 3.0 which signified enough stamina to reach the classic distances making up the Triple Crown series. Although the recent spate of Derby winners is raising the limits of this mark, attesting to the prominence of speed in modern breeding practices through the generations, the Belmont winner, as the longest test of the Triple Crown, typically sees winners settling below the 3.0 mark. Since 1978, in fact, only four winners of the race have carried a dosage score of greater than 4.0 versus seven for the Derby and Preakness each. Keep in mind before placing your sports picks that over the last two decades, the winner often comes out of a sire who has won one of the top “classic” distance races: the Triple Crown series or Breeders Cup Classic. American Pharoah's sire Pioneerof the Nile failed to win one these gems, but his sire's, sire, Empire Maker, won the Belmont in 2003 to upset Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid.

Three wins, at classic distances, in a five week stretch is tough for the modern thoroughbred to complete. Fresh horses, typically who skip the Preakness, often show up to spoil the party. In fact, eight of our last thirteen Belmont winners did not run in five weeks or more leading up to the race. We do not know the field yet, but we can assume strong Derby contenders like Frosted, Materiality, or perhaps some new horse on the block, will challenge American Pharoah to finish first at the wire.