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Homeracing

How long are the three Triple Crown races?

Profile Picture: Alastair Bull

May 18th, 2022

The three races which make up the United States Triple Crown of Thoroughbred horse racing—the Kentucky Derby (G1), the Preakness Stakes (G1), and the Belmont Stakes (G1)—each provide a test over a different distance at a different venue. But just how long is each race?

Origins

The American Triple Crown races all hark back to at least the 1870s, but they were not widely recognized as the Triple Crown until 1930. One horse had already won all three races prior to that—Sir Barton in 1919—and he was honored retrospectively as the first Triple Crown winner. A further 12 horses have won the Triple Crown since then.

The American Triple Crown followed the first Triple Crown, held in England. Recognized as a Triple Crown in the 1850s, the English variety is made up of the 2000 Guineas S. (G1) at Newmarket over one mile in late April or early May, the Derby (G1) at Epsom over 1 1/2 miles in early June, and the St Leger S. (G1) at Doncaster over 1 13/16 miles in early September.

The American Triple Crown is held in a much narrower time frame than its English counterpart—all three are within a five-week period, rather than four months as in England. However, it is raced over a much narrower distance range—the three race distances are all within five-sixteenths of a mile of each other, compared to the thirteen-sixteenths of a mile separating the shortest and longest legs of the English version.

Below is a guide to all three American Triple Crown races.

  • The Kentucky Derby (G1): 1 1/4 miles, held on the first Saturday in May

Inspired by viewing the Derby at Epsom, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. returned to Kentucky to create a local version, and it was run first in 1875. Like the Epsom version it was initially staged over 1 1/2 miles, but it was changed to 1 1/4 miles in 1896, a distance it has remained at ever since.

These days it takes about 2:02.50 on average, weather and track permitting, for the winning horse to complete 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

  • The Preakness S. (G1): 1 3/16 miles, held on the third Saturday in May

Like the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland began life as a 1 1/2-mile event. First staged in 1873, it has had more distance changes than any of the Triple Crown races—it has been staged over seven different distances, only settling on its current distance of 1 3/16 miles in 1925.

The Preakness is the shortest of the Triple Crown races (it is a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby), and it takes about 1:55 on average for the winner to complete.

  • The Belmont S. (G1): 1 1/2 miles, held three weeks after the Preakness

The final leg of the Triple Crown, held at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, is the greatest stamina test of the three races. Its distance of 1 1/2 miles is rare for a dirt race in the 21st century. Though there were top-level races up to two miles on dirt as late as the 1970s, the Belmont is now the longest dirt race with Grade 1 status (the highest race status available) in North America, though there are some prestige races on dirt at 1 1/2 miles or longer that carry Grade 2 or Grade 3 status.

Like the Preakness, the Belmont has had a number of distance changes. It began as a 1 5/8-mile contest in 1867 and has been staged over five different distances, settling at 1 1/2 miles in 1926. The only variation since then was 2020, when following the disruption caused by COVID-19, it was held over 1 1/8 miles as the first leg of the Triple Crown. It went back to 1 1/2 miles a year later.

Secretariat caused a sensation in 1973 when he won the Belmont by 31 lengths and completed the 1 1/2 miles in 2:24. No other horse has completed the race faster than 2:26, and the average winning time is around 2:28.

Summary

It is the narrow range in distance and time frame that has made the American Triple Crown an enduring target. The English Triple Crown has been won 15 times since 1853, but only once since 1935 (Nijinsky in 1970), as greater distance specialization of horses and a lack of stud appeal for winners of races as long as the St Leger have combined to reduce its popularity.

Since 1970, only three horses have won the first two legs of the English Triple Crown, and only one of those—Camelot in 2012—attempted the third leg; he was beaten into second place.

By contrast, 19 horses have won the first two legs of the American Triple Crown since 1970; all but one (the injured I’ll Have Another in 2012) attempted to complete the treble, with five (Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, American Pharoah, and Justify) succeeding.

Therefore, the lengths of the American Triple Crown races and their timing have kept the series relevant as arguably the most important Thoroughbred Triple Crown in the world.

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