Why Winning the Triple Crown is so Difficult

The Belmont Stakes is known as the “Test of Champions.” The final leg of the Triple Crown is so difficult, not only because it is the third major event in five weeks for three year olds that have never run so frequently, but it is contested at the mammoth distance of a mile and a half. This is the longest race these horses have ever run, and probably ever will.

As noted previously, betting on American Pharoah is a bad gamble. But why exactly do so many horses that win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness fail to win the third jewel?

When Affirmed captured the Triple Crown in 1978, he joined ten other horses in an exclusive club. While we frequently begrudge the fact no horse has won the Triple Crown in nearly 40 years, this isn’t the first large gap in champions. It took 44 years from the first time the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont were all run before Sir Barton won the Triple Crown in 1919. Eleven years later, Gallant Fox became the first of six winners over a 14 year span. However, between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973, there were no champs. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, all winners in the 1970s, are regarded as three of the best racehorses of all time.

Thirteen horses have won the Derby and Preakness but failed at the Belmont since Affirmed took the Triple Crown. The resulting public perception is that something must be askew. However, seven horses did the same during the long gap in the middle of the last century. Not surprisingly, 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont but failed to win the Preakness, and 13 have captured the final two legs but came up short or didn’t run in Louisville.

In the history of professional sports, 16 teams won three consecutive championships in one of the four major sports: four in baseball, five in basketball, two in football (though they came before the Super Bowl), and five in hockey. The last three-peat was the Lakers in 2000, 2001, and 2002, followed closely by the Yankees from 1998-2000. The NFL goes back to the Packers in the 60s, and the NHL to the Islanders in the 80s. The point is, winning three straight titles, whether it be a pro team or a professional racehorse is extremely difficult.

Unlike pro sports, where maybe a year off for Peyton Manning would really do his arm wonders, in horse racing not everyone competes in each race.

American Pharoah, who geared his entire season towards winning the Kentucky Derby, will be facing horses who competed in only one or neither of the previous two Triple Crown races. Furthermore, while American Pharoah was preparing to win the mile and a quarter Derby, other Belmont contenders were putting their energy into working out for the longer Belmont.

How do you think Usain Bolt would like to try the 400 meters a few weeks after spending four years fully focused on the 100 and 200 meters?

All of that beting said, it is very possible American Pharoah will overcome the obstacles and win the Triple Crown. Perhaps he really is a super horse; maybe he will get a great ride (even though his jockey Victor Espinoza erred in last year’s Belmont while riding California Chrome); or maybe his competition just isn’t that stiff.

The world will cheer for American Pharoah, and you can too, but that doesn’t make it a good bet. The obstacles he faces are significant, and the betting odds make for a poor gamble. In fact, because his odds will be so low, there is great value on the competition.

(Photo credit: Naoki Nakashima (Flickr: stretch of belmont stakes) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo may appear cropped.)