A very unlikely Triple Crown streak

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Three horses swept the Triple Crown in the 1970s, but 34 years now have passed since Affirmed pulled off the feat in 1978. Fans wonder every year if they’ll again see another Triple Crown winner.

Surprisingly, particularly given recent trends in the sport, even more rare is an outcome not witnessed once in the “modern era” of the spring classics: No Triple Crown since 1926 has seen nine different horses hit the board in the race’s three jewels.

The unbroken “streak” suffered several close calls through the years, but remains intact despite the fact that horses today run less often and considering that far fewer connections enter their charges in all three races.

It is difficult-if not unfair-to compare the strength of a particular crop with that of an earlier era. Yet this is one Triple Crown streak that has remained intact since 1926, despite many changes to the series. The Triple Crown was not always the campaign as we know it today. At one time or other, all three races were run at distances other than their current length, and in some years, the races were not run at all.

In the earliest years, the Kentucky Derby was run at 1 1/2 miles.

Not until 1930 were all three races run at their current distance within the same campaign year.

Not until 1932 would the Preakness Stakes never again be contested before the Derby.

And the interval between races has been altered even more often than their distance.

Not until 1969 was that spacing fixed at two weeks between the first and second jewels, with the Belmont Stakes run three weeks after the Preakness, rather than in some years, four weeks between the Preakness and Belmont.

So while the so-called “modern era” of the Triple Crown might date from 1932, in some ways we can look back only to 1969. Sir Barton in 1919, of course, is the first horse considered to have swept the Triple Crown. Yet in 1919, the Preakness was still run prior to the Derby, and that year at a distance of only 1 1/8 miles. Old Hilltop’s signature race was lengthened to 1 3/16 miles in 1925, and the Belmont’s distance was increased from 1 3/8 miles to its current 1 1/2 miles in 1926.

Two horses-I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister-hit the board in the 2012 Kentucky Derby (finishing first and second, respectively) and were in the money again in Baltimore (completing the same exacta). In 2011, Animal Kingdom won the Derby then finished second in the Preakness to keep the streak intact. Again in 2010 only one horse-First Dude-kept the streak alive with a second in the Preakness and a third in the Belmont.

Other close calls through the years include 2006, when Bluegrass Cat was the only runner to hit the board twice, placing in both the Derby and Belmont.

In 1996, bettors cashed tickets on six different runners in the Derby and the Preakness. Skip Away beat Editor’s Note for the place in Baltimore, but the latter then found the winner’s circle at Belmont, with Skip Away in second.

When Swale hit the wire in the Belmont, the colt was the only runner to finish in the money twice, having also captured the top prize at Churchill in 1984. Likewise Gato Del Sol in 1982, who won the Derby and then placed in the Belmont.

Counterpoint won the Belmont after placing in the Preakness, as such the only horse to hit the board twice in 1951. And in 1929, a horse named African finished third in the Preakness in the first of that year’s three races, before placing in the Belmont.

While nine different runners did hit the board in 1926 however, it was not a campaign that featured all new shooters.

Thirteen different runners went to post in the Preakness May 10. Only five days later in Louisville, six of those 13 also were entered in the Derby. And five of the nine entries for the Belmont June 12, had run in one of the first two classics.

Johnny “Sit Still” Maiben piloted Display to victory in the 1926 Preakness. The Fair Play colt and Rock Man were the only two Preakness runners to compete in all three legs of the campaign. Rock Man finished tenth at Old Hilltop, but got up for show at Churchill. Display turned in his own tenth place finish in Louisville. H.P. Whitney’s colt Blondin placed at Baltimore, but could only edge out Display at Churchill.

Mars was the show horse in the Preakness, but the colt’s connections elected to skip the Derby five days later, before their runner crossed the wire a distant sixth in the Belmont the following month. Hall of Fame jockey Albert Johnson walked into the winner’s circle at Churchill aboard Col. E.R. Bradley’s Bubbling Over. The Idle Hour Farm colt did not run at Belmont, where Johnson won the year before. So he picked up the mount on Samuel Riddle’s colt Crusader, and again hit the wire first in New York on the new shooter. Crusader later was voted Horse of Year, having also notched wins that year in the Suburban, Dwyer and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

After capturing the Latonia and Louisiana Derbies and running eighth in the Preakness, Bagenbaggage finished second the following week in the Derby. Espino could manage only sixth at Churchill, but placed as well, in the last leg of the series. His owner, William Ziegler, would play giant killer nearly 20 years later on the same oval, denying Pensive the Triple Crown in 1944 with Bounding Home. The show horse in the 1926 Belmont was Joseph A. Widener’s Haste.

Clay S. Robinson is a freelance writer and head of the marketing and public relations firm The Byerley Group in Georgetown, Kentucky.