Yesterday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, was one of the most outstanding horse races in recent memory, with Derby winner I'll Have Another laying well back until clear of the final turn, then storming up on the fleet sprinter Bodemeister to win by a neck in one of the great final eighths in Preakness history. Talk about an exciting race.
And it sets up yet another Triple Crown try.
Being an introvert, I like individual sports more than team sports. (Lots of extroverts feel the opposite. This is a completely unpedigreed theory—Wikipedia would say "needs citation.") Slamming all the major championships in individual sports is damnably difficult. In tennis, Don Budge won the Grand Slam in 1938 and the superlative Rod Laver did it twice, once in 1962 and once more when the Open Era started in 1969—he'd been closed out of amateur-only events in the interim, after turning pro. Laver is the most dominant player in tennis history even though he had six years in the prime of his career when he couldn't play in all the major tournaments. The achievement eluded Connors, Borg, Sampras, and Federer. On the women's side, three players have managed the feat—Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, and Steffi Graf (Graf also won the Olympic Gold Medal during her Grand Slam year, 1988). It eluded King, Navratilova, Evert, Seles, and (so far) both Williams sisters.
Common to all such "slams" is the difficulty not just of achieving the wins, but achieving them in sequence. In tennis, the short gap between the French Open on clay and Wimbledon on grass is a particular challenge. In thoroughbred racing, the Preakness comes two weeks after the Derby and the Belmont follows three weeks after that; thoroughbred racehorses are customarily rested for four or five weeks between races.
In golf the Grand Slam is even more difficult. No man has ever won the modern Grand Slam, consisting of the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship in the same calendar year. Tiger Woods has come the closest by holding all four titles concurrently, but across two different years. The classic Grand Slam consisted of the Open and Amateur championships of both the U.S. and Great Britain, back when gentleman sportsmen were amateurs and professionals had to eat with the help; Bobby Jones was the only man to win that, in 1930. (The Masters didn't exist when Jones won his Grand Slam, because he founded that tournament, later in his life.) No woman has ever won a four-major Slam, not even the great Mickey Wright, although Babe Zaharias won all three of the majors that were contested in 1950.
One after another
In 1979, it seemed like Triple Crowns in horse racing were going to become all but commonplace. The incomparable Secretariat had done it in 1973, breaking a 25-year drought, and Seattle Slew and Affirmed won Triple Crowns back-to-back in 1977 and '78, Affirmed with his sensational series of duels with the great Alydar. It seemed like an anomaly when Derby and Preakness champion Spectacular Bid failed in his Triple Crown bid in 1979, weakening over the final quarter mile to come in third in the Belmont. He had been the overwhelming favorite at 1-5.
Thirty-three years later, Affirmed is still the most recent winner of the Triple Crown.
There have been 11 Triple Crown winning thoroughbreds in all—and, coincidentally, there have been no fewer than 11 horses since Affirmed who had a shot at the Triple Crown going into the Belmont but were defeated by the long final race's gruelling mile-and-a-half length—which makes big-hearted* Secretariat's 31-length victory there in 1973 all the more astonishing. Here's the list.
The Belmont Stakes is run at Belmont Park in New York State on a Saturday in June, no earlier than the 5th and no later than the 11th. This year the race will be run on June 9th. There, I'll Have Another will either become the 12th horse to try and fail since 1978—or the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. Either way, a racehorse who has now proved himself a true champion—and a truly gutsy one—will face his sternest test.
*Literally. He had an exceptionally large heart, thought to be a genetic legacy of an ancestor called Eclipse.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by John Buquoi: Well, there's never been a horse like Secretariat or a sweeter champion...here's a beautiful look at this horse at play in retirement. Important to remember that his Belmont victory of 31 lengths (and still going away!) was not against a weak field...what a race...there will never be another like him...."
Mike replies: It's true, he was the greatest racehorse in the short annals of known history. Here's a video compilation of his three Triple Crown races.