Will we ever see another Triple Crown winner?

Mar 16th 2011 07:49 pm |

Uncle Mo

This past Saturday, Uncle Mo made his 3-year-old debut beating a few nondescript colts in the Timely Writer at Gulfstream Park. The race furthered the short career of, what appears to be, this years best hope for completing the Triple Crown.

If Uncle Mo ends the Triple Crown series’ longest drought, winning the ultimate trifecta in North American racing, he will do so with only five career starts, two starts as a 3-year-old, and one race beyond 1 1/16 miles. Which had me asking the question: Is it physically possible for such a lightly raced colt to win three races in a five-week span at the demanding distances that comprise the three Triple Crown races?

Obviously, racing has changed a great deal since 1978, when Affirmed became the last to complete the Triple, but have horses changed that much since then? I would argue that the Thoroughbred hasn’t changed, it’s the training methods employed by humans that has changed. If we take the same breed of racing animal, and lighten their racing schedule leading to the Kentucky Derby to a point where it would be unrecognizable to the trainers of the past, is it possible for that same animal to sweep a race series that has proven to be one of the most elusive feats in all of sport?

If we look at the total number of starts and 3-year-old starts before the Kentucky Derby of the eleven Triple Crown winners (and the near misses* since 1978), it provides some perspective on the necessity for real racing experience to sweep (or nearly sweep) the big three:

* I define near misses as any colt that won two legs of the Triple Crown and finished in the top three of a third.

There are two Triple Crown winners that might support the idea that less starts wouldn’t hinder the possibility of another Triple Crown, however:

  • Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown after only six career starts but had three races as a three-year-old and went 1 1/8 miles twice during his early sophomore season in winning the Flamingo and Wood Memorial.  He also had published works at 4 furlongs, 6 furlongs, and one mile, within two weeks of Derby Day.
  • Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown with no wins in six career starts and not a single start as a 3-year-old. He competed in the series before it was recognized as the “Triple Crown” so the three races were significantly less competitive then. Another thing to consider: Sir Barton lost his first six starts by over sixty combined lengths — a different era, indeed. If a maiden with such a record won the Kentucky Derby today, there would be a congressional hearing.

With few exceptions, colts that won or come close to a Triple Crown, have had a solid racing foundation.  With the trend toward less racing for colts before the first Saturday in May, one wonders if we’ll ever see another American Triple Crown winner. Yes, we have had close calls since Affirmed but all of those colts had at least nine career starts and three starts as 3-year-olds (Uncle Mo will enter the Derby with five career starts and two starts at three).

If the trend continues beyond this year, and trainers continue to treat the best 3-year-olds like china dolls, then the odds that we’ll ever see another Triple Crown winner will go from “long” to “off-the-board.”


I used the Daily Racing Form’s Champions to check the records of all the colts referenced above.

It seems like i’m not the only one who was inspired by Uncle Mo’s race (if you can call it that) to do a little number crunching related to Derby preparation. Jessica Chapel at Railbird published a piece about trends towards two preps before the Derby. And, Teresa Genaro at Brooklyn Backstretch, published a piece titled Derby Preps: Starts and Starters that looks at the number of preps and the average number of starters in those races.

Brian Zipse did a comparison of the careers of Seattle Slew and Uncle Mo. Evan Hammond of the Bloodhorse recently did the same.

T.D. Thornton wrote an excellent piece for the Thoroughbred Times about a little known New York track called Maspeth and the history of thoroughbred racing under the lights. Unfortunately, it is only available in the print version of the magazine.  Hopefully, they will put it online at some point in the future — it is really nice piece of history.  It’s good to see the racing weeklies providing significant space for well-researched historical articles — the DRF weekend has also published some excellent racing history in the last year.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

Filed in Kentucky Derby,thoroughbred racing history,Triple Crown

5 Responses to “Will we ever see another Triple Crown winner?”

  1. RG says:


    Citation had 7 races in 1948 before the Derby.

    Horses definitely got to the track more in the past both for races and workouts.

    My copy of Champions doesn’t even show Coaltown running in the Derby.

    Also it doesn’t show any 4th place finishers which is part of the stupid transition past performances went through years ago. If a horse wins why not provide more info by listing the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place finishers.


  2. Prerequisites for the last 3 Triple Crown winners: UNCLE MO meets them?

    1. Champion at two: UNCLE MO, check.
    2. Debut no later than September 20 (‘SLEW’s maiden win): August 24, check.
    3. Debut in New York: Saratoga, check.
    4. At least one G.I win at two: Champagne and BC Juvenile, check.
    5. 3y.o. debut in March: March 12, check.
    6. 3y.o. debut around one turn: 1 mile @ GP, check

    What questions remain for UNCLE MO?
    1. G.I win at three: In all likelihood, will win the Wood Memorial.
    2. Minimum of 24 furlongs on the Derby trail: 17 (Timely Writer 8f, Wood 9f)

    The last point is the one place, perhaps the most important of all those listed, where UNCLE MO will need to prove history wrong to become the next Kentucky Derby winner and the only foal of 2008 with the chance to be the next Triple Crown winner. SECRETARIAT’s races were spaced 21 days and 14 days apart, ‘SLEW (the closest comparison to UNCLE MO’s career) 17 days and 28 days, AFFIRMED had four races, spaced 10 days, 15 days, and 14 days apart.

    There is a good chance UNCLE MO doesn’t have enough furlongs for the demanding 1 1/4 miles test in the Derby. If he wins that, miraculously on sheer talent alone, then there’s the question of another classic 14 days later, something he’ll never have tried. If he wins the Preakness on class alone, how much would he have left for the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont 3 weeks later???

    Only STREET SENSE and BIG BROWN won the Derby off just two 3y.o. preps. UNCLE MO, IMHO, is at least as good as those colts were. Is the two preps enough to carry him to a Triple Crown? STREET SENSE faltered to CURLIN in the Preakness by a nose after building a 1 1/2 lengths lead. BIG BROWN, well he had a much publicized abcess/quarter crack prior to the Preakness and was stepped on in the Belmont Stakes losing a shoe and all chance at immortality in the game.

    I dream of sharing the experience of a Triple Crown winner with my kids, like my dad did w/ me when AFFIRMED won. I hope UNCLE MO is very, very special to overcome his lack of seasoning….maybe this will be the year the drought is broken, but the odds admittedly are stacked against UNCLE MO doing it.

  3. White Camry says:

    FWIW, Invasor went into the 2005 Uruguayan Triple Crown after only two starts (both wins.)

    But to come back Stateside, we shouldn’t discount the “off day.” At the risk of bringing back the 1970s “biorhythm” fad, it seems that a “near miss” like Afleet Alex would have been luckier to have an off day in the Arkansas Derby and then bounce back in the KD. That’s how it panned out for Secretariat in the Wood Memorial, even if that was only due to an abcess in his mouth.

  4. […] Colin’s Ghost wonders: “Will we ever see another Triple Crown winner?” […]

  5. Hal Dane says:

    A grade one race by definition, is open to all sportsmen who think their horse is good enough to run in it, that is the worldwide rules.

    The Kentucky Derby is a restricted race, depending on how much cash the horse has accumulated before the race, that is the simple reason why another SIR BARTON will never win the race again, even if he later proves to be the champion 3-y-o of that year, but he was denied a run in the Derby