Horse Sense: Rating Triple Crown Losses

Profile Picture: Molly Jo Rosen

Molly Jo Rosen

May 27th, 2014

by Andrew Champagne
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Several years ago, columnist Bill Simmons documented something called “the levels of losing,” which, in theory, acted as a way to order different types of losses and the pain that resulted from having experienced them.

It’s a fun concept, as not all losses will be treated equally.

In a relatively few number of days, California Chrome will attempt to become the first horse in 36 years to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. Since Affirmed pulled it off in 1978, 12 horses have been in this position and failed, all with different reasons and varying levels of anguish attached to them.

Below is this turf writer’s attempt to rank these failed attempts, ranging from losses we could live with to defeats that leave us scratching our heads to this day.

LEVEL ONE: Just not good enough

Horses who fit: Pleasant Colony (1981), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Charismatic (1999), Funny Cide (2003)

All five horses were fan favorites, for various reasons. All five ran very well on Belmont day, but none of them found the winner’s circle. Simply put, they ran into better horses those days, all of whom ran the races of their lives to beat the aforementioned fan favorites. This happens every day across the country: Good horses run well and get beat all the time.

LEVEL TWO: Over before it started

Horse who fits: Alysheba (1987)

Alysheba developed into “America’s horse,” but before the Belmont, his usual medication pattern ran afoul of the New York Racing Association. At the time, NYRA banned Lasix, and Alysheba could not run with the anti-bleeder substance in his system. Largely due to that rule, the Jack Van Berg trainee ran a clunker, and was beaten a city block by rival Bet Twice.

LEVEL THREE: Over shortly after it started

Horses who fit: War Emblem (2002), Big Brown (2008)

After War Emblem missed the break in the 2002 Belmont, the race was over with 11.99 furlongs left to run. The one-dimensional frontrunner had no chance, and wound up finishing eighth. Meanwhile, Big Brown’s lone defeat came after he was stepped on by Guadalcanal, a maiden who had no business running in that year’s Belmont.


Horse who fits: I’ll Have Another (2012)

You win the Derby and the Preakness, and you run in the Belmont for a chance at racing immortality. That’s the way it works…unless you’re I’ll Have Another, who sustained an injury during Belmont week. Instead of positive publicity the sport desperately needed, we were reminded of how fragile the athletes are.


Horse who fits: Smarty Jones (2004)

A number of jockeys in the 2004 Belmont rode Smarty Jones instead of their own horses. Smarty Jones was never given a chance to breathe, and it forced the hand of Stewart Elliott, who urged Smarty into action around the far turn. Quickly, his early challengers were left in the dust…but not Birdstone, who picked up the pieces and devastated a massive crowd.

LEVEL SIX: SuperHorse who wasn’t on Belmont day

Horse who fits: Spectacular Bid (1979)

By any measure, Spectacular Bid is one of the greatest Thoroughbreds in American history. He had stellar years at ages two, three, and four, and he won plenty of big races, which is what makes his failure in the 1979 Belmont that much harder to fully comprehend.

Here’s what we know: The morning of the race, Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin. The pin was removed, and the horse was declared sound. Trainer Bud Delp told inexperienced jockey Ronnie Franklin about the pin, and Franklin proceeded to deliver one of the worst rides in Belmont history, urging Spectacular Bid early and finishing a distant third behind Coastal.

Spectacular Bid was the best 3-year-old in the country that year. Every racing fan knew it going into the Belmont, and he was supposed to become the fourth Triple Crown winner of the 1970’s. Instead, he kicked off the longest streak of futility in the history of the series.


Horse who fits: Real Quiet (1998)
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Trainer Bob Baffert was thought to have a Derby contender in 1998 with Indian Charlie, who won that year’s Santa Anita Derby. However, it was Real Quiet who won the marquee race, and he added the Preakness two weeks later: setting the stage for Baffert’s second straight attempt at the Triple Crown.

Things looked great for “the Fish” at the top of the lane. He spurted clear by open lengths, and it looked like the Triple Crown drought was over.

And then Victory Gallop came and got him.

The margin of victory was a nose (though it looks more like a whisker in the photo), and people still question whether or not jockey Kent Desormeaux was at fault for moving Real Quiet too soon. He may have done so, but let’s not lose sight of how good Victory Gallop was: he’d won both the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby, and would capture both the Stephen Foster and Whitney Handicaps the following year.

Does that make the loss any less painful? No. 20 years of near-misses came down to less than a head-bob. If consolation is to be found anywhere, actually, it may be in that Real Quiet DIDN’T get his nose down, as he drifted in the stretch and may have been taken down via disqualification.

California Chrome has 36 years of history working against him. The number of things that could derail a Triple Crown bid is what makes the feat so difficult to accomplish.

However, if he wins, it’ll make the party that much more fun.