History of the Triple Crown

Professional sports have many different versions of the Triple Crown, but none is as prestigious as the US Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. Since 1950, horses who win the top three races on the calendar – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes – have been awarded the Triple Crown Trophy. The award has also been given retroactively to the horses who accomplished the feat before 1950. It’s not easy; 12 horses in total have won the Triple Crown, with American Pharoah ending a 37-year drought in 2015.

As famous as the Triple Crown may be, not too many people are aware of the trophy’s existence. It’s the idea of winning all three races that has captivated racing fans for nearly 100 years. So many great names have come up short: Northern Dancer (1964), Spectacular Bid (1979) and California Chrome (2014) are among the 23 horses who won the Derby and the Preakness, but failed to win the Belmont. That difficulty level makes the Triple Crown all the more intriguing.

Fox Hunt

If only the Triple Crown had been around when amazing horses like Hanover and Salvator were dominating the end of the 19th Century. The term Triple Crown has been traced to 1923, four years after Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three races. There were times back then when the Preakness was run before the Kentucky Derby, or even on the same day.

The Triple Crown concept started gaining steam in 1930, thanks to the efforts of Daily Racing Form writer Charles Hatton. Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown that year, starting with the Preakness, then the Derby two weeks later and the Belmont another three weeks after that. The current schedule was established the following year, with the Derby two weeks before the Preakness.

Big Red

The 1930’s are still widely considered the Golden Age of thoroughbred racing. Omaha (1935) and War Admiral (1937) won the Triple Crown during that decade, but the 1940’s would bear even more fruit: Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and the legendary Citation (1948) all claimed the Triple Crown, with jockey Eddie Arcaro riding both Whirlaway and Citation to victory.

Horse racing entered a fallow period after that, until the boom years of the 1970’s. Secretariat, arguably the greatest horse of all time, helped rekindle interest by winning the Triple Crown and setting records in all three races – records that still stand today. Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) would go on to win the Triple Crown in back-to-back years. Steve Cauthen, Affirmed’s jockey, made the cover of TIME Magazine for his efforts.

And then there was American Pharoah. It’s a minor miracle that he won the Triple Crown; the 1 1/2 mile Belmont is much longer than what North American horses are used to these days.