For more than three decades, the Triple Crown had seemingly become unreachable. After Affirmed became the third horse in the 1970s to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, there were 13 horses who won the first two legs but couldn’t finish off the Belmont. They lost narrowly like Real Quiet and Smarty Jones, ugly like Big Brown and War Emblem, and in the case of I’ll Have Another, couldn’t even answer the bell.
There were cries that the Triple Crown had become too demanding for the modern racehorse, who competes, on average, far less often than his heartier predecessors. Entrenched voices like those of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas suggested that the distances of the races should be shortened. Others believed more time needed to be provided between the races, the notion being that three races in five weeks at three different racetracks in three different states had become a Sisyphean endeavor for the 21st century American 3-year-old.
No more. Twice in the last four years, the Triple Crown has been swept, first by American Pharoah in 2015, and this year by Justify. The Triple Crown has been won in clusters – three times in the 1930s, four times in the 1940s, and three times in the 1970s – so perhaps a new era is dawning. Or not. But what these two colts have shown is that whether the next Triple Crown winner is three years away, or 37, no tinkering is needed. It remains a difficult, but achievable, feat.
American Pharoah had more chances to prove his worth. He was the champion 2-year-old male of his generation, and raced three times following the Triple Crown, including a dominating performance in his career finale in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Justify raced in the shadow of American Pharoah. Consider, for a moment, what the reaction would have been to Justify’s sweep of the Triple Crown if he were the first to win all three races in 40 years, rather than the second in just a few years. He is not unlike Seattle Slew, who in 1977 suffered by comparison to Secretariat and did not get his proper recognition until his courageous 4-year-old campaign.
Justify won’t get that opportunity as a 4-year-old, having been whisked off to stud when a windfall syndication package for his original owners proved far more attractive compared to the risk of bringing him back from a minor injury, either this past fall or next year. What is left is a racing career that lasted a mere six starts and ended 111 days after it began. He was here for a good time, not a long time.
What Justify did, though, was unprecedented – no horse had ever won the Triple Crown without starting at age 2. He was the first horse to win the Derby without a start at 2 since Apollo in 1882. Because he did not debut until Feb. 18, Justify was on an accelerated schedule to make the Derby, let alone compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown, yet he won every time. A horse of recent vintage who invites comparison is Curlin, who in 2007 made his debut on Feb. 3, was third in the Derby in his fourth career start, won the Preakness, and narrowly lost the Belmont in what, like Justify, was his sixth start. Even he – a two-time Horse of the Year – couldn’t do it.
With just six starts, Justify raced far fewer times than any of the 13 Triple Crown winners. He blazed through the firmament like a comet. Just what Justify’s legacy will be is debatable. Was he a horse for the ages, or a horse for this age?
“You’ll never see another horse like this,” Bob Baffert, who trained Justify, said the morning after the Preakness while admiring Justify in his Pimlico stall. Three weeks later, following the Belmont, Baffert said, “I wanted to see that horse, his name up there with those greats. If they’re great, they’re going to win the Triple Crown. It takes a great horse to win the Triple Crown.”
Baffert, who also trained American Pharoah, is setting standards that rank him among the sport’s all-time greats. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons – with Gallant Fox and Omaha in the 1930s – is the only other person to have trained two Triple Crown winners. Baffert has now won the Derby five times, second only to Ben Jones. He has won the Preakness seven times, equaling the mark set by R.W. Walden 130 years ago. And he now stands alone in Triple Crown race victories with 15. That’s a legacy.
This was a year when the legacy of numerous others in the sport – trainers, jockeys, owners, and executives – came into focus, owing to accomplishments that further burnished their résumé, or retirement, or passing that invited reflection.
Mike Smith, at age 52, became the oldest rider to sweep the Triple Crown. “Bob,” Smith said, referring to Baffert in a post-Belmont press conference, “has helped me achieve so many of my goals, but today, man, he made my dream come true.”
Steve Asmussen trained his 8,000th winner, jockeys Edgar Prado and Perry Ouzts rode their 7,000th, John Velazquez his 6,000th, Javier Castellano his 5,000th, Brazilian-based Jorge Ricardo became the winningest jockey of all time with victory No. 12,845, and Karl Broberg became only the third trainer to win more than 500 races in a single year. Gary Stevens was forced to retire – this time for good – after a Hall of Fame career that saw him ride 5,187 winners, including three in the Derby. Both Victor Espinoza and Corey Nakatani suffered significant injuries last summer that kept them on the sidelines through at least the end of the year.
Cot Campbell, for whom every modern-day partnership owes immense gratitude, died after making a remarkable, game-changing impact on the sport. Breeder John T.L. Jones Jr. died after leaving his mark with the horses he stood at stud – like Alleged and Nureyev – and the scores of people he mentored. Rick Violette Jr. was roundly saluted for his integrity as a trainer and being a forthright, tireless advocate for horsemen and backside employees. Fasig-Tipton executive Bill Graves and Churchill Downs vice president John Asher – both immensely popular and respected figures – like Violette also died all too soon, and the outpouring of emotion that followed was indicative of the high regard in which they were held.
The Breeders’ Cup returned to Churchill Downs in the fall, and it was eerie not to have Asher there. “It’s still hard to comprehend he’s gone,” said his co-worker and long-time friend, Churchill publicist Darren Rogers. “I keep thinking he’s going to walk in and go, ‘Surprise!’ ”
Asher would have delighted in the weekend’s racing, which included the filly Enable, a two-time winner of the Arc de Triomphe, becoming the first horse to win that race and the Turf in the same year, and Accelerate completing a brilliant campaign with a victory against an international field in the Classic. That win gave trainer John Sadler his first in the Breeders’ Cup and gave Accelerate his fourth in four starts this year at 1 1/4 miles. That résumé made Accelerate a viable Horse of the Year candidate in the same year as a Triple Crown winner.
Monomoy Girl, the Kentucky Oaks winner, finished off her brilliant campaign by defeating elders in the Distaff for her fifth Grade 1 victory of the year. Roy H in the Sprint and Stormy Liberal in the Turf Sprint both repeated their 2017 triumphs in those races, an unprecedented feat pulled off by trainer Peter Miller. Baffert threw down the gauntlet on the 2019 Derby by winning the Juvenile with the unbeaten Game Winner. Jaywalk looked like the early favorite for the Oaks with her dominating win in the Juvenile Fillies, and Newspaperofrecord looked like the second coming of Lady Eli with a breathtaking performance in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Irad Ortiz Jr., who rode Newspaperofrecord, headed into the final days of the year with a $750,000 lead over his brother Jose for purse earnings among jockeys.
Chad Brown – who led the nation’s trainers in earnings as 2018 neared its end – unveiled Newspaperofrecord at Saratoga, where Brown set a single-season mark for victories. It was a rainy summer at Saratoga, particularly for the Whitney, whose runners were delayed for an hour in the paddock before Diversify prevailed for the ailing Violette. Travers Day was a blockbuster, with an all-sources record handle topping $50 million, and a victory in the feature by Catholic Boy that made him a rare commodity these days, a Grade 1 winner on turf and dirt.
At Del Mar, Accelerate won the Pacific Classic, adding to his earlier victories in the Santa Anita Handicap and Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Del Mar, which played host to the Breeders’ Cup for the first time in 2017, had its highest non-Breeders’ Cup handle on this year’s Pacific Classic card. But the outside world reached the insular racing world on the penultimate day of the meet, when an irate customer shot a gun outside the admission gates and was taken down by a San Diego County Sheriff’s officer. Fortunately and remarkably, no one else was injured.
On the international front, trainer Wesley Ward won yet another race at Royal Ascot, this time with the filly Shang Shang Shang in the Group 2 Norfolk. Mind Your Biscuits returned to Dubai and made off with the Golden Shaheen for the second straight year, this time with a stunning rush from last to first following a dreadful start. Mendelssohn, based in Ireland, won the United Arab Emirates Derby on the World Cup card, then made six straight starts in the United States, including the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, traveling for every one.
And though she raced exclusively in Australia, Americans were captivated by the remarkable Winx, who ran her winning streak to 29 by capturing the prestigious Cox Plate for a record-setting fourth straight year. Such was her popularity here that she was voted the Vox Populi Award, founded by Secretariat’s owner, the late Penny Chenery.
Chenery was among a dozen people who went into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame as Pillars of the Turf. Campbell, in one of his last public appearances, also was inducted, along with Lucky Baldwin, August Belmont I, John Galbreath, Arthur Hancock Sr., Hal Price Headley, John Morrissey, Dr. Charles H. Strub, William Collins Whitney, Harry Payne Whitney, and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.
The lone contemporary inductee was the mare Heavenly Prize, and the historic review committee selected for enshrinement the 1870s racehorse Preakness – for whom the second leg of the Triple Crown is named – and William Lakeland, who trained such greats as Domino and Hamburg during the latter part of the 19th century.
A change in tax laws at the start of the year and a robust economy last fall helped fuel the Keeneland yearling sales, which saw 27 horses sell for $1 million or more, the most in a decade.
But potentially the most significant business development in the racing world came via the Supreme Court, which struck down the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) and thus paved the way for an exponential expansion of sports gambling, ideally, racing hopes, via its tracks. States like New Jersey, and tracks like Monmouth Park, were positioned to benefit quickly, while other states were left flat-footed.
By contrast, the situation in Michigan grew dire with the closure of Hazel Park on the eve of its race meet. And racing faced other headwinds, both immediate and potentially long-term, ranging from debates over use of the whip to the elimination of greyhound racing in Florida, a decision voters approved based on animal-rights concerns.
It was a particularly sorrowful year, as scores of prominent people and horses passed. In addition to Asher, Campbell, Graves, Jones, and Violette, racing lost Hall of Fame jockey Manny Ycaza as well as jockeys Jose Luis Flores, Ronnie Franklin, Cesar Gomez, Howard Grant, Les Hulet, Bill Nemeti, Larry Snyder, and Mike Ziegler; trainers Charlie Assimakopolous, Jerry Bozzo, John Dunlop, Ron Felix, Eddie Gaudet, Tom Howard, Forrest Kaelin, Joe King, Paul Kooba, Danny Perlsweig, William Perry, Joe Pierce Jr., Eddie Plesa Sr., John Scanlan, J. Willard Thompson, and Dana Whited; owner and trainer Myong Kwon Cho; owners and/or breeders David Beard, Tom Benson, Jerry Frankel, Stan Fulton, Olin B. Gentry, David Heerensperger, Ed Hudon, Caesar Kimmel, Susan Knoll, Bob Levy, Anita Madden, Michael Pageler, Cecil Peacock, Nancy Polk, Art Preston, Joseph Shields Jr., John Smicklas, and Warren Williamson, and trainer and breeder Ronnie Houghton.
Bob McNair, who had great success with Stonerside Farm before moving on to ownership of the National Football League’s Houston Texas, died, as did owners and horseplayers Dr. Robert McNamara, Joe Scardino, Bryan Wagner, and Helen Watts; executives John Brunetti and Robert Gunderson, racing official Michael Muzio, veterinarian Dr. Ed Fallon, jockey agents Harry “The Hat” Hacek, Mark North, and Lenny Pike.
Journalists Matt Graves, Bill Nack, Chuck Scaravilli, and Claude P. Williams passed, as did handicapper Jack Karlik, track announcer Terry Wallace, artists Fred Stone and Peter Williams, attorney Ned Bonnie, Santa Anita simulcast supervisor Lou Villasenor, former Breeders’ Cup executive Pam Blatz-Murff, New York Racing Association cameraman John Mazzie Jr., former NYRA publicist Shirley Day Smith, Churchill Downs stall superintendent Mike Hargrave, Turf Catering founder Larry Wolken, bloodstock agent Brian Morgan, exercise riders Odanis Acuna and Charlie Davis – who rode Secretariat – and Shantel Lanerie, the wife of jockey Corey Lanerie, who died less than two months after participating in the Survivors Parade on Kentucky Oaks Day.
Bobby Abu Dhabi, a stakes-winning sprinter, perished in a training accident that caused serious injuries to Espinoza. Other active, stakes-winning racehorses who died included Bullards Alley, Cedartown, Leavem in Malibu, Magic Mark, Mourinho, Send It In, Takaful, The Truth Or Else, Trigger Warning, and Untrapped.
Other prominent racehorses who died included Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Thunder Gulch, Breeders’ Cup winners Afleet Again and Dreaming of Anna, and Epsom Derby winner Dr Devious, as well as popular former runners A P Valentine, Catlaunch, Early Pioneer, Gygistar, Phantom On Tour, Private Zone, Regal Sanction, Russell Road, Say Florida Sandy, Tour of the Cat, Trempolino, and With Anticipation.
The stallions Bob and John, Champs Elysees, Elusive Quality, Encosta de Lago, Genuine Reward, Giant’s Causeway, Honour and Glory, I Want Revenge, Northern Afleet, and The Green Monkey died. So did the mares Hasili – the dam of Champs Elysees – Starry Dreamer, and Star of Goshen, the dam of Pioneerof the Nile, the sire of American Pharoah, who proved first this decade, and which Justify reconfirmed, that the Triple Crown, though elusive, remains attainable.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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