In the weeks between American Pharoah’s 2015 Kentucky Derby win and his dominant victory in the sloppy Preakness, and then during the lead-up to the Belmont Stakes, the hope in the hearts of many was similar: that this impressive three-year-old would finally break the thirty-seven year drought between Triple Crown champions. And on Saturday, American Pharoah did just that in spectacular fashion.
For those less directly connected to the Thoroughbred industry than those of us here in Kentucky, the world of horse racing can perhaps feel removed—a legacy sport of the landed gentry. Yet, in The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event, author James C. Nicholson describes how three special races have come to transcend the sport itself and define the pinnacle achievement of Thoroughbred racing.
At the heart of the series, of course, is the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Since 1920, the Triple Crown has become the yardstick by which outstanding three-year-old Thoroughbreds are measured.
In the realm of sport, the term Triple Crown had first been used to describe three English horse races: the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, and the St. Leger Stakes. American racetracks had attempted to establish racing series along the English model, but none achieved lasting national recognition. By 1930 the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, the Kentucky Derby, and the Belmont Stakes in New York had clearly risen above all other American races for three-year-olds. That year Gallant Fox captured all three events and was referred to by the New York Times as a “Triple Crown Hero.” Five years later, Gallant Fox’s son Omaha matched his father’s feat (and the pair remains the only father-son combo to win the American Triple Crown). Once the term entered the popular vocabulary of sports fans and journalists in the 1930s, Sir Barton was recognized after the fact as the first to accomplish the feat in 1919.
Churchill Downs had moved the Derby from its traditional place on the opening day card to the second Saturday of the meet in 1923 in order to avoid a conflict with the Preakness, which was held the week prior. This arrangement continued until 1932, when the Derby was moved to the first Saturday in May, where it has remained, with two exceptions, ever since. The Derby was popular before the Triple Crown was even recognized. It could have survived with or without the Triple Crown. However, the association with the most important series of races in the country certainly raised the prestige of each of the races, including the Derby.
Matt Winn [the human face of the Kentucky Derby for almost fifty years] recognized the potential for a national Triple Crown series consisting of the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont and was an early proponent of a bonus to be presented to the winner of all three races, but the racetracks that hosted the events failed to cooperate. In fact, at least as early as 1919 Winn had proposed a Triple Crown modeled after the English version but consisting of three races run exclusively in Kentucky: the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, the Latonia Derby near Cincinnati, and a third race to be created at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington. The Kentucky Triple Crown never came to fruition, but the Kentucky Derby was certainly a beneficiary of the increase in media attention paid to the American Triple Crown series beginning in the 1930s. That acknowledgment of the American Triple Crown gave the three races, including then Derby, a small connection to the history and prestige of the English version on which the American Triple Crown was based.
Prior to Saturday, many wondered whether we would ever see another Triple Crown champion. Now, with American Pharoah’s ascension into the ranks of Sir Barton, War Admiral, and Secretariat, we’ve been reminded that the Triple Crown is achievable but that it takes a truly special horse to deserve the title and those just don’t come around every year.