What is the Triple Crown of Horse Racing? Overview, History of Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes

The Triple Crown is a signature three-event package linking thoroughbred horse racing bettors to the sport’s gloried past.

Since 1867, one or all of these races have carried the sport’s prestige to the betting public.

And here we go again.

Their renewal beckons once more, with seven-figure prep races unfolding nearly every Saturday for the next two months.

It culminates with the $3 million Kentucky Derby on May 6, the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes on May 20, and the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on June 10.

Although their purses are no longer the biggest in the sport, Triple Crown events link the racing community with unparalleled, time-honored tradition.

From the post-Civil War era until horse racing began marketing its collective interests in the 1980s — turning these events into multi-million-dollar betting spectacles — many fans and gamblers had considered them the bulk of the entire horse racing season.

The advent of the multi-billion dollar fall Breeders Cup and several million-dollar races throughout the calendar year make the Sport of Kings a year-round, big-event betting circuit.

The Triple Crown has also grown to embrace industry advancements along with the revolutionary realm of mobile betting, which has propelled gambling figures through the roof.

This helped host site Churchill Downs notch a record all-source handle of $273.9 million for its entire Kentucky Derby day card last year.

The Derby also serves as a cultural melting pot, drawing approximately 150,000 fans to Churchill Downs in Lexington, Ky. on the first Saturday in May.

It is even popularized in song via Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses,” the race nickname stemming from the blanket of roses draped over the winner. It is known in the United States as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

That’s the approximate winning time every year.

Triple Crown Winners

The aura of the Triple Crown is its three varied race lengths in a short time frame to measure the top 3-year-old thoroughbreds in the world.

Contestants run 1 1/4 miles for the Kentucky Derby, 1 3/16 miles two weeks later for the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and a grueling 1 1/2 miles at Belmont Park in New York three weeks afterward.

Only 13 horses have managed to win all three Triple Crown events in one year.

Sir Barton1919
Gallant Fox1930
War Admiral1937
Count Fleet1943
Seattle Slew1977
American Pharoah2015

The longest Triple Crown gap of 37 years occurred between 1978 and 2015, as several horses were denied in the Belmont Stakes.

American Pharoah halted the streak in 2015, and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2018, but recent events indicate that the Triple Crown may be harder than ever to secure.

Justify, Mike Smith, 2018 Belmont Stakes, Triple Crown
Justify, with Mike Smith aboard, is the most recent horse to win the Triple Crown (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

Of the last four Kentucky Derby winners, only one — Authentic in 2020 — entered the Preakness.

None of the last three Preakness champions — Swiss Skydiver in 2020, Rombauer in 2021, or Early Voting in 2022 — ran in the Derby first.

Bettors are being acclimated to treating each Triple Crown jewel as an isolated special event. If the Derby winner is entered in the Preakness, that will be a bonus.

It wasn’t always this way.

Secretariat, the GOAT of thoroughbred racing, was 16-for-21 in his career and his 1973 sweep of the three events produced a legendary gem: a stakes record in three consecutive races at three different tracks.

The standards remain 50 years later at 1:59.40 for the Derby, 1:53 for the Preakness, and 2:24 for the Belmont — all done within six weeks.

Contrast this with Flightline, perhaps the closest thing to Secretariat. He went to stud this year after racing only six times. Because he went 6-for-6 and romped in the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Classic, his stud fees are $200,000 a pop.

That’s why his owners did not risk him racing and either tarnishing his image or suffering an injury that would devalue his stud price this year.

History of Triple Crown Races

Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby began in 1875 and is the only one of the three to be run continuously every year.

What makes it unique is the colossal 20-horse field, which is the largest of any American race. This creates an abundance of variables ranging from outside post position, jostling, traffic problems, and the inability to get a clear running lane.

The horse with the best trip — not necessarily the best horse on talent — wins.

Betting value is extraordinary because of the monstrous handle and multiple entries, guaranteeing that a quality horse will be overlooked.

The biggest upset came from Donerail in 1913 at 91-1, but the most celebrated occurred last year.

In both Cinderella and cinematic fashion, Rich Strike roared from the back of the pack to steal the race at 80-1. He became a folk hero not only for the upset but the back story.

Rich Strike had been five minutes away from not being entered one day earlier. But Ethereal Road was suddenly scratched and Rich Strike was put in to round out the field.

He rounded it out all right. Bettors with the winning ticket had to round up their figures as he launched a $1 superfecta ticket worth a whopping $321,000. A Derby alternate had brought the 1980 US Olympic hockey team miracle to horse racing.

The $1 trifecta also had an astounding payout of $14,870.

A number of slick bettors managed to cash this ticket with a key entry. They took an “all” selection in the first spot, 4-1 favorite Epicenter second, and 6-1 shot Zandon third. Their prayers of a longshot on top were answered by the longest on the board and second longest in Derby history.

Preakness Stakes

The Preakness, launched in 1873, has been run continuously since 1894.

It has been the victim of an identity problem in the last few years.

Only one of the last four Kentucky Derby winners has entered the Preakness two weeks later.

The Preakness is about half the field size of the Derby because the pretenders have been shaken out. This makes the race a little easier for bettors to handicap, yet the payouts are moderate.

Memorable moments include Rachel Alexandra beating the boys in 2009. That made her the first filly since Nellie Morse in 1924 to turn the trick and only the fifth ever.

Swiss Skydiver became the sixth in 2020.

Belmont Stakes

The elder statesman of this group, launched in 1867, suffered just one period of interruption. It was not run in 1911 and 1912 because of — for all things — anti-gambling legislation in New York.

Some of horse racing’s most significant innovation is tied to this race.

Belmont officials grew tired of their race popularity waning if there was no possible Triple Crown on the line.

They thus instituted the practice of placing several six and seven-figure races on the Belmont undercard to support the big one. Belmont Day became a destination event, whether a Triple Crown was up for grabs or not.

The result? Always a blockbuster card and worthy of bettors circling the date.

Some of the most dramatic Belmonts have involved foiled Triple Crown bids.

In 2002, Sarava prevailed at 70-1, becoming the biggest longshot to win this race. He denied War Emblem the Triple Crown.

One of the greatest Belmont duels of all time unfolded in 1998. Real Quiet literally lost his bid for the Triple Crown at the wire to Victory Gallop, who chewed apart a six-length disadvantage in the home stretch.

It was a photo finish, too close to call, and the bettors were not the only ones on edge.

Real Quiet would eventually lose a $5 million Triple Crown sweep bonus in a moment captured by track announcer Tom Durkin.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo is worth $5 million dollars,” he exclaimed when the race was still being decided by the stewards.

The photo became worthless to the connections of Real Quiet. But the call — and the moment — were priceless.

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About the Author
Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo is an award-winning writer and broadcaster, who has covered the sports industry since the 1970s. He won the Sam Taub Award for Excellence in Boxing Broadcasting by the Boxing Writers Association of America in 1997, and is in the New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame. Bontempo has broadcast major fights all over the world. The advent of legalized sports wagering shifted his focus to this exciting new industry in 2018.

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