The three-year-old champion male Eclipse Award picture ahead of the Belmont Stakes
Just because a Triple Crown is not on the line at this year’s Belmont Stakes does not mean the “Test of the Champion” does not have championship implications.
Indeed, a win by Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator would make the Curlin colt the 23rd 3-year-old in the past 33 seasons to win at least two of the four biggest races available to 3-year-olds: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic. In 21 of the previous 22 instances that 3-year-old went on to earn the Eclipse Award as his generation’s champion male. The lone exception occurred in 1994 when Holy Bull was Horse of the Year over Preakness-Belmont winner Tabasco Cat.
Of course, the Breeders’ Cup Classic is still to come in November at Santa Anita Park, and that actually could favor Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist because while 3-year-olds have never split the so-called Grand Slam, the year in which it came closest to happening—1989—the Classic was viewed as the rubber match between Derby-Preakness winner Sunday Silence and Belmont winner Easy Goer despite the “score” being 2-1.
So while a Belmont win would certainly make Exaggerator the leader of his division, it would not completely slam the door on Nyquist or any other 3-year-old for that matter, as the closest calls to the 21 champions came from horses who hadn’t won a Triple Crown race before the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Came Home and Medaglia d’Oro in 2002 and Bayern and Shared Belief in 2014.
In 2014, Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome lost the Belmont Stakes then returned in the fall to get beat by Haskell winner Bayern in the Pennsylvania Derby. Meanwhile, the previous year’s champion 2-year-old male Shared Belief was defeating older horses in prestigious races like the Pacific Classic and actually went favored in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Bayern scored a controversial decision that day with 3-year-olds sweeping the superfecta, but California Chrome ultimately wrested not only divisional but also Horse of the Year honors by winning the Hollywood Derby on turf.
In 2002, War Emblem’s Derby-Preakness double may not have been enough to overcome a late-season charge from either Medaglia d’Oro or Came Home had either won that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, but they didn’t, so the Eclipse Award went to the dual classic winner.
An Exaggerator championship would support another trend among the Eclipse Award and classic races: since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup, the Preakness winner has gone on to win champion 3-year-old male honors a dominant 21 times, but again, the Breeders’ Cup Classic could be Nyquist’s (or another 3-year-old’s) trump card because of the 11 times a 3-year-old has won North America’s richest race, he has gone on to win the Eclipse Award 6 times, and that 54.5-percent strike rate is not that far off the Preakness’s 65.6-percent rate over the same period, and those numbers would narrow to 58-63 if a 3-year-old Classic winner won this year’s championship over Exaggerator.
And if it’s Exaggerator loses the Belmont where things get really interesting.
In 32 seasons since the Breeders’ Cup Classic, there have been 13 in which we had three different winners of the Triple Crown races. In three of those—1990 Unbridled, 1992 A.P. Indy, and 2007 Curlin—a classic winner went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and earned championship honors. In the other 10 years, the Preakness winner won four championships (Snow Chief, Prairie Bayou, Bernardini, and Lookin At Lucky), the Derby two championships (Spend a Buck and Animal Kingdom), the Belmont winner one championship (Summer Bird), and a horse who failed to win any such race three championships (Skip Away, Tiznow, and Will Take Charge).
That’s a long-winded way of saying if Exaggerator loses it’s still very much anyone’s division, though a classic winner would have a leg up in that a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory would likely be enough.