Triple Crown traditions
Not since Affirmed in 1978 has a horse become honored as a Triple Crown champion. Nonetheless, every year, the nation's best three-year-old thoroughbreds will compete for the coveted Triple Crown during the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, three races esteemed in tradition like few others in all of American sporting events.
All three races have been held since the late 1800s, almost 100 years before the Super Bowl and several decades before the World Series and Stanley Cup Finals. Before Horton Smith won the first Masters, Oregon the first men's NCAA basketball tournament, Ray Harroun prevailed at Indy and even Richard Sears at the 1881 U.S. Open, Triple Crown hopefuls have broken from the starting gate.
The Kentucky Derby, the longest continuously held sporting event in the U.S., is the first and most well known of the three races. The "Run for the Roses" is held at Churchill Downs during the first Saturday in May.
"I think we all sort of mark the passage of time by the fact that here it is -- time for another Kentucky Derby," ABC announcer Jim McKay says of the 1 ¼ mile race. "It's time for that song, My Old Kentucky Home, that always brings a tear to the eye no matter where you are from.
"It's time to put on the greatest two minutes in sports."
The Preakness Stakes, held in Pimlico, Md. two weeks after the Derby, is known as the "Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown." Only Saratoga (est. 1863) and Belmont (1867) are older than Pimlico. Its trophy, the Woodlawn Vase, is valued at $1 million dollars, the most valuable trophy in American sports.
If a horse wins both the Derby and Preakness, serious talk begins about Triple Crown immortality.
"There is a great deal of excitement over the question: "Can the horse win the second jewel of the Triple Crown and then go on to the Belmont?" McKay says.
The final jewel of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, is held three weeks after the Preakness. While the Derby and Preakness have 1 ¼ mile tracks, the Belmont's distance is longer at 1 ½ miles. The horses that run in Belmont will probably never again race at that distance.
The oldest of the Triple Crown events, Belmont's inaugural race was in 1867 at Jerome Park, predating the Preakness by six years and the Derby by eight. The race is now being held at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., the largest track in the United States.
"When a horse has a chance for the Triple Crown, that is it," McKay says. "With that honor on the line, the Belmont Stakes becomes the most thrilling event in horse racing."