California Chrome is the latest in a storied line of thoroughbreds to enter the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown. There have been 33 horses before Chrome to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and less than a dozen have succeeded in taking the third leg, making the Triple Crown one of the most elusive titles in all of American sports.
California Chrome is about to ruin all of that, by finally winning it.
It was June 10, 1978, the last time a horse won the three most prestigious summer races on American soil, completing the American Triple Crown. I was 119 days old when Affirmed became just the 11th horse in history to win all three races, following Seattle Slew, who had won the year before, and Secretariat—widely recognized as the greatest thoroughbred in racing history—just four years prior to that.
No horse has won the Triple Crown since. Eleven times since 1978 a horse has raced in the Belmont Stakes with a chance to join an elite class of horses. Eleven times since 1978 that horse has failed.
While this isn't the only protracted drought for a Triple Crown winner in horse racing history, it has been the longest. It had been a quarter century between Citation's victory in 1948 and the record-setting run of Secretariat in 1973, a decade shorter than the current streak.
For much of the 1930s and 40s, the Triple Crown must have felt downright probable for fans (and gamblers) of the sport of kings. From Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935 and War Admiral in 1937, to Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946 and Citation two years later, there were seven Triple Crown winners in 19 years, five of which came within a 12-year span.
The first horse to win the Triple Crown, Sir Barton, came in 1919, just 11 years before Gallant Fox, putting the current streak ahead of any other in history by at least a length and a half. Every year that we think the current streak might be broken, something happens to continue it on. In a way, that has been a good thing for the sport. This season, however, may be the best chance for that to end.
I have loose memories as a nine-year-old of Alysheba nearly winning the Triple Crown. Two years later, I recall Sunday Silence had his chance as well, finishing second in the Belmont. For the last 35 years, all we can remember are those near misses; all we can recall is the heartbreak that comes with what ifs.
I distinctly remember the run from 1997 through 1999 when the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness finished in the money in the Belmont but could never get the victory. Oh, Real Quiet, you were so damn close.
Since 2000, only five horses have even gone to the Belmont with a chance to make history, taking a fair amount of luster out of the whole Triple Crown process.
War Emblem stumbled. Funny Cide got stuck in the mud. A lot of us thought—hoped—that Smarty Jones was going to be the horse to do it in 2004, but he fell just short in the Belmont as well, amidst a bit of racing controversy.
I had someone tell me just this week that he hasn't watched one horse race since Smarty Jones lost the Belmont. That's how much people grow to care about the horses that enter the Belmont with a chance at history.
It's been 10 years since a horse came that close. Big Brown pulled up before the home stretch in 2008, becoming the first Triple Crown contender not to finish the Belmont. Two years ago, I'll Have Another didn't even start the Belmont, leading NBC to completely amend its coverage of the event, knowing the air had been taken out of its day-long anticipatory balloon.
This trot down Triple Crown memory lane is an attempt to provide context to the question posed at the top: Is California Chrome here to save horse racing or destroy it?
In other words, has horse racing been as popular as it is over the last 35 years only because most of us come back year after year just waiting for another Triple Crown winner?
Despite waning interest in the sport as a whole, the three big races, and even the Breeders' Cup, do well on television and at the gates. People still care about big events in horse racing, but is the interest predicated on the belief that this could finally be the year a horse wins the Triple Crown? Certainly Belmont ratings drop in years without a Triple Crown contender, but once we get one, will we really care as much to see it again?
I've never seen a Triple Crown winner, but when I do—when California Chrome wins the Belmont this year—is that going to rejuvenate interest in the sport or make people care less and less if it happens again next year, or the year after, or five times in 12 years?
Where were you when the horse of a generation broke the longest streak in history and won the Triple Crown? Where were you the following year, when it happened again, or two years later when another horse did it? Did you even remember to watch?
To use an (admittedly) odd parallel to horse racing, I'll ask this: Do you know how many people have ever stepped foot on the moon? The same number of people as horses have won the Triple Crown, if California Chrome brings home the Belmont.
When the first moon landing took place in 1969, it was one of the most important events in history. My parents took a photograph of my older brother, who was just a baby at the time, to remember exactly where they were when history was made. Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, based an entire episode this season, and the death of a character, around the historical importance of the first moon landing.
In the late '60s and early '70s, going to the moon seemed to mean something. Space travel seemed to mean something.
No person has been back to the moon since 1972, and while NASA caught a bit of a boon in the 1980s, interest in space exploration waned so much over the last quarter-century that NASA essentially shut down its own shuttle program in 2011. What was one of the most important events in history—a sign of the future—has become nothing more than a contextual footnote of a time long since past.
Sometimes it's not about being somewhere as much as it's about getting somewhere.
For horse racing, we've been getting to this moment time and time again for the last 35 years. People my age don't ever remember being there, so the anticipation each time we get closer and closer has been the most amazing part of the annual trip.
The tension of rewatching Real Quiet lose at the line or Smarty Jones run out of steam down the stretch was just as wrenching as when each happened. We have a visceral connection to the sport's history, especially to the near misses, because many of us have never seen what it feels like to watch a horse actually win.
What will that feel like? And once we feel it, will it matter as much next year? Will it matter as much the year after that or even five years after that?
We won't know for sure, but all the anticipation of hoping year after year for the chance to see history would be gone the minute we actually get to witness the history.
It's a different time in sports than the last time a horse actually won the Triple Crown. Horse racing has a far lower profile in today's American sports landscape than it had back then.
The inevitable buzz of a horse finally pulling off the Triple Crown may draw more people back to the sport next year, or perhaps more likely the victory this year would burst the balloon, allowing all those people who come back year after year to witness history the chance to check this off their sports bucket list and move on to something else next year.
No one will know for sure until it happens. We do know this, however. If California Chrome doesn't win the Belmont, every one of us will be back next year, or the year after, or in five years to watch the next horse with the best chance to break the drought.
I know it sounds like I'm arguing against a horse winning the Triple Crown just so we can continue to hope for a horse to win the Triple Crown. The very idea is illogical. We either want a horse to break the streak or we don't. But if we don't because the streak is what keeps our interest going, maybe hoping is more important than having.