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Rich Strike’s owner will hold him out of the Preakness after his stunning victory at the Kentucky Derby, prematurely ending the colt’s improbable quest to secure horse racing’s rarest and grandest prize.
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By Melissa Hoppert
In 1919, Sir Barton became the first of 13 horses to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, capturing what would become known as the Triple Crown, horse racing’s most cherished and elusive prize.
Before the Kentucky Derby is run each spring, every trainer, owner, jockey and bettor dreams of a Triple Crown winner.
Racing fans who see a Derby winner at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., hope and believe that they are witnessing greatness. Occasionally, the Derby winner prevails at the Preakness two weeks later, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and the thrill of possibility lingers until the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in New York. And on rare occasions, history is made.
What is the Triple Crown?
The Kentucky Derby (first run in 1875), the Preakness Stakes (1873) and the Belmont Stakes (1867) make up the Triple Crown series for 3-year-old thoroughbreds. Although the term for sweeping all three races was said to have been in use as early as the 1920s, Charles Hatton of The Daily Racing Form is commonly credited with popularizing it in the 1930s.
While the Triple Crown has always required winning the same three races, the order, spacing, distances and tracks of those races have varied. From 1969 to 2019, everything was consistent. In 2020, however, the pandemic caused the Belmont to be run first, in June, followed by the Derby in September and the Preakness in October. The races returned to their regular spots on the calendar in 2021.
What’s the difference between the races?
The Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, is held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, where the hat-wearing faithful sip mint juleps under the iconic Twin Spires. As many as 20 horses who have earned qualifying points in a series of prep races can compete in the mile-and-a-quarter race, which is often referred to as “the most exciting two minutes in sports” as it can sometimes feel more like a stampede than a horse race. While a blanket of roses is reserved for the winner, a $3 million purse will be split among the top five finishers, with $1.86 million going to the victors.
If the Derby is the epitome of refined Southern charm, the Preakness Stakes, with its raucous infield and infamous races atop portable toilets, is its rowdy cousin. The Preakness is held two weeks after the Derby, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, where black-eyed Susans count as both the decorations for the victor and the name of a popular drink for the revelers. At a mile and three-sixteenths, the race is not quite as long as the Derby and has a maximum field of 14, but winning it after capturing the Derby is no easy feat, considering the relatively short layoff between races.
While several Derby contestants inevitably skip the Preakness in favor of the Belmont or one of the marquee summer races, most years, the Derby victor will have to contend with what horseplayers refer to as new shooters — horses who sat out the Derby to focus on the Preakness, the $1.5 million crown jewel of the track known as Old Hilltop. One such horse this year is Early Voting, the lightly raced second-place finisher in the Wood Memorial. His trainer, Chad Brown, made the tough call to hold him out of the Derby despite qualifying for the race. “When you swing hard at the Derby and you miss, you have to deal with the aftermath when you’re the trainer, and sometimes it’s not pretty,” Brown said. “Part of my job is not just training racehorses but managing risk.”
While the Derby requires a bit of racing luck and the Preakness calls for durability, the mile-and-a-half Belmont, held three weeks later at Belmont Park in New York, is nicknamed the Test of the Champion for a reason: It requires the perfect mix of speed, stamina and grit. The main track, the longest in North America, is nicknamed Big Sandy and looks more like a highway than a place for thoroughbreds.
The song ushering the horses onto the track for the $1.5 million race is Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and a blanket of white carnations greets the winner, Triple Crown hero or not.
Which horses have won the Triple Crown?
The 13 Triple Crown winners are Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018).
And while 11 fillies have won a Triple Crown race, none has won more than one.
In 1973, Secretariat broke a 25-year Triple Crown drought in emphatic fashion, stamping himself as one of the greatest racehorses ever, winning the Belmont by 31 lengths and prompting the track announcer, Chic Anderson, to exclaim, “He’s moving like a tremendous machine!”
When Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, he was the third horse to do so in six years, and it seemed that securing the biggest prize in the sport was no longer so demanding. But after that, the next 13 horses who won the Derby and the Preakness ran headfirst into heartbreak at the Belmont.
Then in 2015, American Pharoah pulled away from his rivals in the homestretch at Belmont Park and, just like that, 37 years of agony gave way to ecstasy. A mere three years later, Justify repeated the feat, making Bob Baffert the second trainer to earn two Triple Crowns, along with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox and Omaha).
Will there be a Triple Crown this year?
The simple answer: no. The owner of the Kentucky Derby champion Rich Strike announced that his colt will skip the Preakness Stakes on May 21 and point toward the Belmont Stakes on June 11 instead.
Rich Strike, the 80-1 shot ridden by Sonny Leon and trained by Eric Reed — certainly not household names in horse racing, let alone the sport’s biggest stage — mounted a furious and improbable rally to capture the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7. He was not even in the field until another horse was scratched the day before the race, and before the Derby, his only victory in seven tries came in a claiming race on the dirt at Churchill Downs. He had run on a synthetic track in his previous three races.
But on the first Saturday in May, in front of an announced crowd of 147,294, Rich Strike was behind 17 horses heading into the far turn and behind 14 horses as they entered the stretch. Benefiting from the blazing-fast pace set in the first half of the race, he wove his way through the 20-horse field, scooted up the rail, burst past the prerace favorites Epicenter and Zandon and somehow ended up first when it mattered most: at the finish.
“Obviously, with our tremendous effort and win in the Derby it’s very, very tempting to alter our course and run in the Preakness,” the owner, Rick Dawson, said of the original plan to skip the second leg if Rich Strike ran in the Derby. “What’s best for Ritchie is what’s best for our group.”
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