Another year, and no Triple Crown. it’s getting to the point that I sort of wish they?d stop talking about it, because it feels like the second a Thoroughbred is dubbed ?our best shot for the Triple Crown in years? that horse immediately fails. Either he runs a bad race before the Kentucky Derby and doesn’t start, he gets hurt before the Derby or before The Preakness or The Belmont, or he just falls short, like Orb did this year.
Just like Smarty Jones, and Big Brown, and all the way back to Spectacular Bid. Hard to believe it’s been 35 years since Affirmed beat Alydar in all three races, just two years after Seattle Slew did it. And that was only four years after Secretariat broke a 25-year Triple Crown jinx.
The most common refrain is that ?they just aren?t breeding ?em like they used to,? and that seems an easy answer. But last month we toured Three Chimneys Farm, one of the big Thoroughbred farms in Kentucky, and those horses weren?t at all representative of ?the shabby state of the American Thoroughbred today,? as you so often hear. At the top end of the game, those horses (and the stallions We’ve previously seen at other top-class breeding farms) look pretty damn spectacular.
This time we met Triple Crown race winners, and a Horse of the Year, and pretty uniformly, they had lovely bone, good feet, and largely good temperaments. You looked at them, at their conformation, and you didn’t think, ?Yikes!? You thought, ?Wow!? They looked like they could excel at almost anything: pure dressage, show jumping, and most certainly eventing. I don’t pretend to know exactly what it takes to make a Triple Crown winner, but you certainly can’t put the blame on poor conformation. The top-class horses are lovely individuals.
So while it may be the breeding, I strongly suspect it may be far more complicated than that. Training practices have certainly changed since the ?70s, as has veterinary medicine, and some of it may not be all for the best. Training by needle is probably more common than we’d like to think, and the medical advances probably put individuals on the Triple Crown trail that would have been weeded out in decades past.
But that still doesn’t explain why it’s been 35 years since our last Triple Crown winner.
Which means that there is only one explanation: Magic.
No, really. OK, not Harry Potter-style magic, but for whatever reason, it’s clear to me that Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and all those that came before them were freaks, made by some kind of breeding magic. Freaks in the best, and most amazing and awe-inspiring, meaning of the term. Freaks meaning that they were truly extraordinary racehorses.? If horses like Orb, Kirlin, Animal Kingdom, Smarty Jones and Rachel Alexander were superstars, then it takes a truly exceptional super-freak to be able to put together consecutive victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Watch video of the past Triple Crown winners, and I challenge you not get choked up. And then get goose bumps. And then fight back the urge to scream and cheer as they thunder down the stretch. If that isn?t magic, I don’t know what is.
If you watch tapes of those last three Triple Crown winners, I think you’ll see a common thread that sets them above the horses who?ve won two of three since then. That thread is that in each of the three races, their freakishness made them able to run (and win with) a different type of race, even though prior to the Derby they?d all run in one certain style.
Secretariat provided the clearest example. He won the Derby with the race he?d run in all his previous starts: Launching an unstoppable kick from last place and gaining the lead in mid-stretch. He still holds the record for the fastest final quarter-mile ever in the Derby, the main reason he still holds the track and stakes record.
But in The Preakness, he flew from last place past his rivals going around the first turn, when jockey Ron Turcotte realized the slow pace would put him at a disadvantage. And form there he just ran the others off their feet.
And then in the Belmont, he broke promptly from the gate for the first time, gained the lead within a furlong, and made the others try to catch him. The rest was 31-length history, in stakes and track record time, records that have never been approached in the 40 years since.
Seattle Slew and Affirmed also ran out of what had been their comfort zones to win, but Orb, unfortunately, couldn?t do that. Joel Rosario had to urge him closer to the lead early in the backstretch, to keep from getting boxed in along the rail, and Orb couldn?t adjust. He spit out the bit, and then came on again very late in the race, although he may have just been passing tired horses.
Orb had looked like the real deal this year. Everybody said so. And watching his six-horse-wide run in the Derby, it wasn?t a stretch to think he was The One. But maybe just saying that killed the magic. Like a counter-spell.
I hope to see a Triple Crown winner in again my lifetime (Heather would too, because she was too young to remember the last three).? But maybe we all better polish up our wands, rub off our Sorcerer?s stones, put on our magic rings, and cross every finger and toe we have.
Because it just might take every bit of magic we can muster.