ESPN Horse Racing

The Triple Crown reloaded
By Kenny Rice
Special to

Ring…Rriinngg… Rrriiinnnggg!

Wait. Before you answer that call, remember we've been transported to this destination before -- Belmont Park -- for a chance at history. As recently as last year even.

Are you ready to return for the fifth time in seven years? Do you believe in fate? The numbers? Or has it already been determined with the wait for Saturday just a formality?

Racing fans, free your minds, the Triple Crown has reloaded faster than you can say "Keanu."

It's a sequel that isn't unprecedented but is rare -- the chance for a Triple Crown in successive years. And you won't have to delve too deep into the rabbit hole to find them.

The year after Count Fleet won the Triple Crown in 1943, Pensive won the Derby and the Preakness, then was second in the Belmont. In 1969, Majestic Prince entered the Belmont with a shot at it all, but failed -- just like Forward Pass the year before. And purists can argue that Forward Pass got there with the only Derby victory awarded on disqualification. In 1977 and 1978, history was made in a couple of ways when Seattle Slew and Affirmed became the only back-to-back Triple Crown winners ever. And Spectacular Bid tried to make it a Triple three-peat in 1979 before finishing third in the Belmont.

There were three straight unsuccessful attempts at the Crown in 1997, 1998 and 1999 with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic. Of course the speedy War Emblem's stumble out of the gate in the Belmont ended his Triple try before it began last year.

Now, the more versatile Funny Cide is the center of attention at the heart of the Thoroughbred matrix, the Triple Crown.

The numbers can overwhelm. So many opportunities since 1997. The most tries ever over this long a time period without success.

As race fans know, there've been only 11 winners of the Crown. Just 11 out of 129 Kentucky Derbys and 128 Preakness Stakes. For merely the 28th time in history, a horse is even able to attempt the feat. (Burgoo King in 1932 and Bold Venture in 1936 won the Kentucky Derby, then the Preakness but neither ran in the Belmont, so I don't include them in the group.)

Theroretically, Triple Crown contenders should come along once every five years, but don't try to decipher time and space in racing, as Funny Cide is the 9th horse in the last 24 years with a Triple chance.

Why have there been more horses with this chance since there were seven Triple Crown winners over an 18- year period, from Gallant Fox in 1930 to Citation in 1948?

Perhaps only the Crown's Oracle -- also known as Lukas and Baffert -- can explain. Bob Baffert came within less than a second of winning two straight Crowns with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. Wayne Lukas won a Triple Something in 1995, training Thunder Gulch to the Derby and Belmont titles and Timber Country to the Preakness winner's circle. I'm sure neither of these two famed conditioners would dispute the fact that luck and timing are as important as talent.

Is this the toughest accomplishment in all of sports? Well, there've been more horses flirting with the Crown than there've been baseball players hitting .400 the last week of the season. Ted Williams' .401 in 1941 might never be threatened. And no baseball player has won that game's Triple Crown (home runs, RBI and batting average) since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Red Sox in 1967.

Regardless of what it is that brough on so many recent assaults on the Crown, the three-sided trophy is the most elusive prize in horse racing. Very good horses -- even a few great ones -- have come close. It entices and frustrates, but always keeps us wanting, analyzing andpredicting who can or should win it this time.

And if you believe the rebel forces can hold on every so often, it's hard to root against the first gelding as well as the first New York bred to try for the Triple Crown.

And Funny Cide may have time on his side as well. Since Sir Barton swept in 1919, never has more than 25 years passed between Triple Crown champions.

Hopefully on Saturday, we'll all be able to toast the silver anniversary of Affirmed's amazing sweep over Alydar, while at the same time congratulating Funny Cide on becoming horse racing's new Chosen One.