Recent Triple Crown winners and near misses

tonalist california chrome belmont triple crown steve coburn 
Chrome owner Steve Coburn was not happy following the Belmont Stakes. Is he right? (Getty Images)

On Saturday, California Chrome's bid for history's 12th Triple Crown was dashed by Tonalist, a horse that ran in neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness Stakes.

This did not make Steve Coburn, owner of California Chrome, particularly happy

Coburn called Tonalist's road to victory "the coward's way out," since the horse was held out of the two prior Triple Crown races. He went on to say that this trend will keep horse racing from seeing another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime, and that it's not fair to the horses.

So let's look closer. There were three Triple Crown winners in the '70s, and none since. Does Coburn have a point? Here's a look at the three champs.

Secretariat, 1973: He's the nerd in your math class that ruins the curve. Dusted the field in all three, and was never really challenged. It wouldn't have mattered if a horse sat out the first two and ran the Belmont -- Secretariat won the thing by a football field.

Seattle Slew, 1977: A heavy favorite in the Derby, Seattle Slew won fairly easily. He then faced a challenge from Cormorant, a horse that was held out of the Derby and had won seven of nine races. Slew won again, and breezed through the Belmont.

Affirmed, 1978: Affirmed endured a legendary challenge from Alydar, the only horse to place in all three Triple Crown races. It was basically a duel three straight races. Watch this Belmont race. Insane.


And now, the horses that almost made it.

Spectacular Bid, 1979 (3rd to Coastal): Like Tonalist, Coastal won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park and followed that with a win at the Belmont Stakes. He ran in neither the Derby nor Preakness.

Pleasant Colony, 1981 (3rd to Summing): Much like Coastal and Tonalist, Summing won a stakes race at Belmont Park, skipped the Derby and Preakness, and came back to win the Belmont.

Alysheba, 1987 (4th to Bet Twice): Alysheba has a similar story to California Chrome, in that he had a slow Derby time, won the Preakness, and needed clearance from stewards before the Belmont. In his case, Alysheba was forbidden the use of a blood-thinning agent, and lost to Bet Twice, who finished second in both the Derby and Preakness.

Sunday Silence, 1989 (2nd to Easy Goer): Just like Bet Twice, Easy Goer was second in the Derby and second in the Preakness. But he smoked Sunday silence and the field at the Belmont by eight lengths.

Silver Charm, 1997 (2nd to Touch Gold): Touch Gold didn't enter the Derby but did race in the Preakness and Belmont, besting Silver Charm in the latter by half-a-length.

Real Quiet, 1998 (2nd to Victory Gallop): If you still feel sad for California Chrome and his connections, re-watch this race and see what real pain is like. Victory Gallop was second to Real Quiet in the Derby and Preakness and won the Belmont by thi smuch.

Charismatic (3rd to Lemon Drop Kid): Charismatic, too, seemed poised to win the Belmont, but faded in the final furlongs. It wasn't until afterwards that we found out that he had broken his leg in two places. Lemon Drop Kid ran in the Derby but sat the Preakness. 

It was expected that Charismatic would be given the greatest challenge by Menifee, who finished second in the Derby and Preakness. But Menifee finished eighth at the Belmont.

War Emblem, 2002 (7th to Sarava): An enigmatic horse, War Emblem won the first two legs and then got smoked in the final leg, losing to 70-1-shot Sarava -- and six others. War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and never recovered in the Belmont.

Funny Cide, 2003 (3rd to Empire Maker): Empire Maker ran second in the Derby and sat out the Preakness, as his connections opted instead to rest the colt. He had beaten Funny Cide once already at the Wood Memorial, and came back to do it again at the Belmont.

Smarty Jones, 2004 (2nd to Birdstone): Birdstone, too, ran in the Derby before sitting out the Preakness, and came back in the Belmont to stun Smarty Jones in the final furlong.

Poor Tom Durkin can barely mask his disappointment.

(Interesting note at this point of history. Afleet Alex lost in the Derby, a race in which his jockey admitted was a bad ride. He then won the Preakness and Belmont rather impressively. You will rarely see a kick like this. Of all the near misses listed here, he's probably the best.)

Big Brown (2008) and I'll Have Another (2012): These two don't really count for our purposes, since neither of them finished the Belmont. Big Brown pulled up out of the gate, and I'll Have Another scratched with a leg injury.


So there's that. Three of the horses that foiled Triple Crown bids ran in both the Derby and the Preakness, while four ran in either the Derby or the Preakness, and three ran in neither.

In short, Coburn's argument is flimsy. While there have been instances of horses being held out of the Preakness to run in the Belmont, it's hardly the norm, nor does it seem to be a case of targeting, as Coburn suggested.

So let's wrap it up: Is it hard to win the Triple Crown? Yes. Is it impossible? No.

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