Why The Triple Crown Still Matters

It was 30 years ago this May that the great chestnut Secretariat flew past the noble Sham to win the 99th renewal of the Kentucky Derby in the record time of 1 minute and 59 seconds, the first day of the greatest five weeks any four-legged athlete would ever enjoy.

It was 25 years ago this May that Affirmed, ridden by 18-year-old wunderkind jockey Steve Cauthen, won the first of three gut-wrenching Triple Crown photo finishes against his gallant nemesis, Alydar, in a stirring rivalry that defines the rush of horse racing at its finest. The Derby victory landed Cauthen his third Sports Illustrated cover in 14 months, crowning a youthful campaign that earned him the magazine's epithet Athlete of the Year in 1977.

Come Saturday, when the field for the 129th Kentucky Derby goes to the post at 6:04 p.m. ET, all eyes will be on the heavily favored Empire Maker, the Bobby Frankel-trained colt who devastated the field in the Florida Derby and won the Wood Memorial with a seemingly effortless ride. (For politically minded hunch-players, the Rumsfeldian named colt offers a marked contrast to the likely second choice in the wagering-also trained by Frankel-the Louisiana Derby and Bluegrass Stakes champ Peace Rules.) Should Empire Maker's performance in the mile-and-a-quarter race evoke memories of the greats of three decades back or bring to mind the memorable first-Saturday-in-May flops of more recent vintage (Arazi, Point Given), he'll have a tough time staying in the headlines.

Today, running the dirt gantlet of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes-the three legs of racing's Triple Crown-is no easier trick (since Sir Barton won all three races in 1919, only 10 other horses have managed the feat), but it's hard to fathom the fawning media acclaim received by the three colts to do it in the '70s, Secretariat, Seattle Slew (in 1977) and Affirmed. Even the phrase "four-legged athlete" sounds like a nonstarter. Surely some of the mania surrounding Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book "Seabiscuit"-which has been made into a major motion picture set to be released this summer, with Tobey Maguire in the role of poetry-spouting jockey Red Pollard-has to do with Dr. Johnson's bon mot that it's not that the dog dances well but that the dog can dance at all. The film's trailer intones, "The dreams of a nation rode on a long shot," which can only attest to the dusky datedness of a knock-kneed animal capturing the nation's fickle imagination-and a sport that is rooted in our country's rural and agrarian past, a sport that seemingly has more to do with a time of automats and fedoras than with an era of smoke-free bars and bling-bling accessories. On the face of it, the sportswriter cliche of racing as an anachronism playing out its last lonely days in front of dwindling crowds seems apt. Has the Triple Crown become the quaint equivalent of Horn and Hardart stock options?

Not quite. Horse racing may never return to the levels of mass fancy it enjoyed during its turnstile-churning decades of the '30s, '40s and '50s, when only baseball and boxing could rival its popularity, but the Triple Crown still manages to ignite the curiosity of the most casual fan. Witness the remarkable contests of recent years, in which Triple Crown near-misses-horses winning the first two legs of the equine holy grail only to fall short in the marathon Belmont Stakes-captured, if oh so briefly, the public's imagination. In 1997, trainer Bob Baffert led his gray colt Silver Charm to the brink of racing immorality, only to be collared in the stretch run of Belmont's loping mile-and-a-half oval by Touch Gold, who ran as a relatively "fresh" horse by way of skipping the Derby. The following year was even more of a heartbreaker for Baffert, as Real Quiet opened up what looked like an insurmountable lead over rival Victory Gallop only to be nipped at the wire to the consternation of more than 80,000 Belmont patrons who thought they were there to see history being made. The following year, the improbable Charismatic saw his racing career and the dream of a Triple Crown come to an end in front of 87,000 spectators as he shattered his left foreleg in the shadow of the wire. And last year, to the obstreperous chagrin of a record 103,000 horseplayers, Baffert's War Emblem staggered home eighth, beaten 191/2 lengths by 70-1 longshot Sarava.

At least the last three of these failed recent contenders were thoroughbreds who, as $2 bettors have eternally muttered over ripped-up mutual tickets, "didn't figure." The nags-to-riches story is a big part of the charm of recent Triple Crowns. Real Quiet earned his way into the Derby off a cheap win at a cheap track in New Mexico. Charismatic, purchased as a weanling for $200,000, was so ill thought of by his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, that he had been offered for sale in a $62,500 claiming race in California months earlier. War Emblem plied his trade at hardtack venues like Sportsmans and Hawthorne in Chicago. But for three-year-old colts and fillies, this is the time of rapid maturation, in which a gangly-legged baby can overnight turn into a hulking one-ton fireball, which adds a note of unpredictability as a dark horse comes into his (and more rarely her) own in these late-spring months.

Still, three-year-old horses are a bag of fragile bones, which is one reason the Triple Crown is such a difficult achievement, perhaps the most difficult in sports. Just getting to the Derby, much less the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, takes a heavy toll on all those cannon bones and suspensory ligaments, and a glance back at the official charts from Triple Crown races past is a quick course in how many of these horses seemed to all but disappear after the series, infirmed, broken down, never able to make it back to the track. Other factors conspire to raise the fence even higher: year-round racing, liberal medication laws that keep unsound horses in the sport for longer careers, astronomical prices in the breeding industry (which ensure that horses with "black type"-a victory in the various graded stakes races, such as the traditional Derby prep races-are retired to a life of stud duty at younger and younger ages). These and other aspects of racing today contribute to removing the potential Secretariats, Seattle Slews and Affirmeds from the pack, making it even less likely that the thoroughbred with the perfectly calibrated doses of speed and stamina shows up in Louisville, Baltimore and New York.

And that seeming impossibility is what continues to fascinate us about the Triple Crown. I've been fortunate enough to attend the last 11 runnings of the Belmont Stakes. It was my impression that most in the crowd had not been on hand to see Affirmed hang on in the last, desperate strides in 1978 (although they had soaked in the replays of the stirring stretch duel offered generously on television in the days leading up to the race). There was a great desire on the part of the racegoers, it seemed to me, to see a transcendent moment in sports history materialize in front of them-a Bobby Thomson home run disappearing into the Polo Grounds bleachers, a Muhammad Ali clocking George Foreman in Zaire. Some were there to lay eyes on what might be a transcendent animal who could deliver what they had been promised and denied so many times over the last two and a half decades. Seduced and abandoned year in, year out, they still herded into the Long Island Rail Road cars out to placid old Belmont and endured dwindling beer supplies and interminable lines at the betting windows and bought $2 win tickets on Silver Charm and Charismatic and War Emblem, no doubt as that little token to prove to future generations that they saw one of sport's unachievables achieved. And I have no doubt that if Empire Maker, Peace Rules, Ten Most Wanted or any of the other Kentucky Derby hopefuls on the grounds at Churchill Downs manages to win both the Derby and the Preakness, he will be greeted by the same hopeful throngs. So does the Triple Crown still matter? You certainly can bet on it.