As the country gathers around their television sets on Saturday to watch California Chrome's quest for history at the Belmont Stakes, memories of Triple Crown winners from past years begin to resurface.
We are accustomed to seeing horses fall short of the ultimate prize, but California Chrome just feels different.
There have been 12 instances where a horse has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown since 1979, and 11 of them have fallen short in the Belmont Stakes.
I'll Have Another had a chance to make history in 2013, but he was forced to withdraw from the Belmont with an injury. It seemed like there would never be a horse who could put it all together to win three races in four weeks. Yet here we are just one year later with a chance to witness history.
Whatever happens with California Chrome on Saturday, he already finds himself in rare company with victories at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. One more great run will allow him to sit alongside some of these victories from previous Triple Crown winners.
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Most Impressive Performance: Secretariat, 1973 Belmont Stakes
Anyone who watches sports knows that there are victories, and there are victories. Few champions throughout history have put together a more impressive final performance than Secretariat did at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
Everyone expected the star thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown after he breezed to victory at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (setting course records for time at both events), but no one could have been prepared for what happened at Belmont Park on June 9, 1973.
Staring the longest track of the Triple Crown in the face, Secretariat set a Belmont Stakes record with a 31-length margin of victory while running the 1 1/2 mile track in two minutes, 24 seconds.
In a retrospective looking back at the 40th anniversary of his Belmont victory, Greg Howard of Deadspin noted that Secretariat's heart weighed nearly 22 pounds or "nearly thrice the size of a normal thoroughbred's."
Is it any wonder that Secretariat made history in every Triple Crown event that he ran?
Best Finish: Affirmed Defeats Alydar at 1978 Belmont Stakes
It's not a surprise that two of the most-talked about finishes in Triple Crown history came at the Belmont Stakes because it's the race that puts the top contenders to the test.
The length of the track and stamina required to win the event are so different than the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Affirmed's quest for the Triple Crown in 1978 also took on a different feel because there was an actual rivalry with another horse to talk about. The two competitors locked horns on the track 10 times in their respective careers with Affirmed winning seven of those races.
In 1987, Steve Cady of The New York Times wrote about the rivalry and how it captivated the nation simply by producing compelling television whenever they stepped onto the same track:
Through the Belmont, the score was 7-2 in favor of Affirmed. But two of those victories over Alydar were scored by only a neck, another by a head, a fourth by just a nose and a fifth by half a length. Without Affirmed, and assuming he had run at the same pace, Alydar would have swept the Triple Crown by a combined margin off 22 1/4 lengths. Instead, he became the only horse so far to finish second in all three races of the series. And Affirmed took the Triple Crown with by far the narrowest combined margin of victory: just under two lengths.
By the time the two got to the Belmont, everyone expected the race would come down to them. Affirmed had squeaked by Alydar at the Preakness Stakes, and there were only three other horses in the field at Belmont Park.
The final race of the Triple Crown played out a lot like the Preakness—only the finish was even better. Affirmed held the lead out of the gate, but Alydar kept pace as the two came down the stretch.
In the thrilling final moments, Affirmed pulled slightly ahead and crossed the finish line to make history. He remains the last Triple Crown winner in horse racing.
Forgotten Gem: Citation, 1948
Only a few names come to mind when we think about horse racing. Man O' War was the most dominant horse of his time but doesn't get included in the Triple Crown discussion because he didn't run the Kentucky Derby.
War Admiral, son of Man O' War, did win the Triple Crown in 1937. Secretariat is one of the greatest race horses in history while Affirmed has the luxury of being the last Triple Crown winner, and so everyone will talk about him until a new champion arrives.
One name that doesn't get brought up nearly enough relative to the success he had on the track is Citation.
The 1948 Triple Crown winner cruised to an easy 3 1/2-length win at the Kentucky Derby, followed that up with a 5 1/2-length win at the Preakness and concluded the festivities with an eight-length win that tied a track time record of just over two minutes, 28 seconds.
Ron Flatter of ESPN wrote a special piece for the SportsCentury series about Citation's efforts on the track, noting how he was the standard by which all horses were measured before Secretariat came along to change everything:
He was racing's first millionaire horse, earning $1,085,760 in a 45-race career that ran from 1947-51. He won 32 times and was in the money in all but one. At his peak as a two- and three-year-old, Citation won 28 of his 30 races, including 16 consecutive wins between 1948 and 1950 that established a modern-day record. That mark was tied by Cigar in 1996.
The sport of horse racing is built around history and tradition. It's important to remember those that came before so we can properly appreciate things that we are seeing now.
Citation was a superstar in his day and deserves to be recognized as such—even 66 years after his biggest accomplishment.
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