I had my first dust-up with the Triple Crown racing gods 50 years ago. Tim Tam seemed to be their darling. He was the first three-year-old in 10 years to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and the Belmont looked to be at his mercy. He had a snappy name, just like Big Brown, the kind of name that befits a Triple Crown champion. He was owned by Calumet Farm, at that time the New York Yankees of racing stables. His competition was so middling that Lincoln Road, who’d finished second in the Derby and the Preakness, was still eligible for “non-winners of two other than maiden or claiming” races. And of the 11 horses who’d already won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, eight had added the third. Only one had actually lost: Pensive in 1944, collared by the aptly named Bounding Home and beaten a half-length. Neither Burgoo King (1932) nor Bold Venture (1936) made the Belmont, each falling victim to injury after the Preakness.
Big Brown’s Top 10 excuses for not winning the Belmont
10 | Weather sucked.
9 | Track was too deep.
8 | Didn’t get my meds.
7 | Jockey wasn’t allowed to wear Hooters logo on pants.
6 | And he wouldn’t let me run when I wanted to.
5 | UPS van was supposed to pick me up on backstretch and give me a breather.
4 | Was just following trainer’s instructions — he said I could lope around the track and still beat this bunch, so I did.
3 | Didn’t want to end up like Eight Belles.
2 | Saving myself for $50 million breeding deal — how many mares is that?
And Big Brown’s #1 excuse for not winning the Belmont:
1 | Uh, what was in it for me?
The sole cloud on Tim Tam’s horizon was Cavan, winner of the major Belmont prep race, the Peter Pan. The bettors couldn’t see it: Tim Tam went off at 3-20. And, like Big Brown, he seemed poised to make the winning move as they headed for Belmont’s far turn. Then, before a disbelieving crowd of 44,000, he limped home, six lengths behind Cavan. He had cracked a sesamoid bone in his right foreleg; he never raced again.
That was the beginning of horse racing’s Triple Crown blues. Starting with Tim Tam and including controversial 1968 Derby winner Forward Pass (on the butazolidin disqualification of Dancer’s Image), 21 horses have gone to the Belmont post with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and only three — Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed in 1978 — have found the winner’s circle. They’ve run the full gantlet of the agony of defeat. In 1961, Carry Back’s come-from-behind style suggested he’d be even better in the mile-and-a-half Belmont than he’d been in the Derby and the Preakness, but he staggered home seventh — turned out a mile and a quarter was as far as he wanted to go. Forward Pass prompted mixed emotions — his Triple Crown would have worn an asterisk, so some were relieved when he didn’t go past Stage Door Johnny. The following year, Majestic Prince was, like Big Brown, undefeated. How could he lose? Try sitting six lengths behind your main rival, Arts and Letters, after an opening six furlongs in a glacial 1:16 and change. (And that with one of America’s best jockeys, Bill Hartack, aboard.) At the finish, Majestic Prince was still almost six lengths back.
Four years later, Ron Turcotte gave Secretariat what could have been the worst ride ever on a Triple Crown contender, letting him run the first six furlongs in a suicidal 1:09-4/5 while going head to head with his rival Sham, but it was Sham who folded and Secretariat who bailed his rider out with probably the greatest race ever run by a thoroughbred on an American track. Seattle Slew was a workmanlike Triple Crown winner, Affirmed a dramatic one as he just nosed out Alydar. In 1979, Spectacular Bid looked certain to give us a three-peat, but a safety pin that he stepped on and a questionable ride did him in. (He went on to win 12 of his 13 remaining starts, demolishing a number of track records in the process.) That initiated the current 30-years-and-counting dry spell. More recently, the candidates have begun to tease us. In 1997, Silver Charm led into deep stretch before giving way to Touch Gold. The following year, Real Quiet opened up a hefty lead in the stretch, but Victory Gallop pipped him on the post despite getting bumped twice. (Had Real Quiet prevailed in the photo, his number would likely have been taken down.) The year after that, Charismatic broke down near the finish line while running third. In 2004, Smarty Jones was, like Majestic Prince and Big Brown, undefeated, and like Real Quiet he opened up a big lead in the stretch, but Birdstone caught him.