A History of the Horse Racing “Triple Crown”

In American horse racing, the Triple Crown is the title given to a three-year-old Thoroughbred who wins the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in the same calendar year. The Triple Crown was formerly regarded as one of the most wanted and lauded accomplishments in all of sport, but as horse racing’s popularity fell precipitously at the start of the twenty-first century, it lost some of its cachet. Only 13 horses have achieved the feat since 1875, the first year that all three races were held concurrently, making it a still uncommon accomplishment. Some of the horses that won the triple crown had very long odds

After the American Civil War, initiatives to group races in a manner akin to the British Triple Crown were launched. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who founded Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby, attempted to market a Triple Crown that featured his Derby in 1875. Race organizers in New York concentrated on three competitions that took place in that state at the turn of the 20th century. These initiatives failed because the racing organizations were all provincial and insisted that their own races were the most important. In fact, it took a long time before the Eastern socialites, who mainly controlled the sport, would even permit their horses to compete at Churchill Downs in the “West.” Owner Samuel Riddle was driven by the famous Man o’ War’s obstinacy to keep him out of the Kentucky Derby in 1920, depriving him of a likely Triple Crown. Owner Samuel Riddle also felt that the Derby was run too early in the year, before young three-year-old horses had fully grown.

Charles Hatton, a Daily Racing Form journalist, played a significant role in popularizing the idea of an American Triple Crown. In the 1930s, he regularly referred to the three races as the “triple crown,” and as the phrase gained popularity, more and more owners and trainers started to focus their preparations on these competitions. Newspapers began regularly using the word by the 1940s. At the Thoroughbred Racing Associations’ annual awards ceremony in New York in December 1950, the Triple Crown title was publicly announced and retroactively given to Sir Barton, the first horse to triumph in all three contests (1919). At the organization’s subsequent annual dinners, the title was thereafter awarded to succeeding pre-1950 victors.

There was an average of one Triple Crown winner every two and a half years over the 18 years between Gallant Fox’s Triple Crown victory in 1930 and Citation’s triumph in 1948. But it took another 25 years before Secretariat finally won the award in 1973. Racing enthusiasts were elated by the consecutive Triple Crown victories of Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, but a subsequent protracted dry period occurred until American Pharoah captured the trophy in 2015. The subsequent champion didn’t have to wait long, as Justify succeeded three years later.

Horse racing has a long and distinguished history in the United States (in its relatively short history) as well as other countries throughout the world. 

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