In the 1970s there were three Triple Crown winners in horseracing: Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978). Looking back on it now, that seems more and more like a golden time in the sport because there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed. With Oxbow winning the Preakness at Pimlico, Orb has been denied an opportunity for glory at The Belmont Stakes and fans will have to wait yet another year.
The Triple Crown may be the hardest accomplishment in sports because of so many varying factors. The Grand Slam in professional tennis and the four majors in golf may be comparable in difficulty, but you are dealing with one player and usually one trainer. In horseracing you have not only the horse but the jockey, the trainer, and the owner to factor into the equation.
Looking at the list of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only one jockey has won twice (Eddie Arcaro) on different horses (Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948). One trainer has also won twice with different horses and jockeys (James Fitzsimmons in 1930 and 1935) with the support of the same owner both times (Belair Stud). All of this makes it pretty clear that winning once is incredible and more than once almost impossible.
Oxbow had a couple of things in its favor at Pimlico – namely iconic jockey Don Stevens and trainer D. Wayne Lukas. They both came into the race with great pedigrees. Hall of Famer Stevens (50) was coaxed out of retirement to ride Oxbow after the horse finished in sixth place in the Kentucky Derby. Lukas earned his 14th Triple Crown victory (four Kentucky Derbys, six Preakness Stakes, and four Belmont Stakes) putting him into the history books (overtaking Fitzsimmons who had 13 wins). After the race Lukas reacted to a question about spoiling Orb’s bid for the Triple Crown by saying, “I get paid to spoil dreams.” And that he did for Orb, jockey Joel Rosario, and trainer Shug McGaughey.
Now the New York Racing Association has to face the fact that The Belmont Stakes will not draw the capacity crowd it was expecting if Orb had been vying for the Triple Crown; however, if Orb and Oxbow both run, perhaps their rematch will be almost as attractive. It has yet to be determined whether or not both horses will be running June 8th at Belmont Park in New York.
Listening to sports radio yesterday after the race, a number of people called in to lament that horseracing isn’t what it used to be. The claim that stood out most was that horses are bred differently these days, meaning that the qualities of good horses of the past (strength and endurance) have been subsumed by concerns about appearance and showmanship. I am not sure whether these people are right or not, but we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner since 1978, so that is proof that this has been going on for a long time. Also, the fact that only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown since Sir Barton first accomplished the feat in 1919 indicates that this has always been difficult no matter what trainers and jockeys and owners are doing with their horses.
Despite Oxbow’s upset of Orb, I remain interested in the Belmont Stakes because it is one of horseracing’s top three events and it happens in my city. A rematch between the two horses will be exciting, but don’t go expecting either one to win. It could be any horse’s day on June 8th, and perhaps that more than anything else makes it one of the most exciting sporting events of the year in this town.
Photo credits: oxbow-bostonglobe.com; orb-usatoday.com