Since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 1978, we have gone without a Triple Crown winner. In those 34 years, however, there have been many close calls.
Here are the 11 horses that won the first two legs but came up short in the Belmont:
Big Brown, 2008
Big Brown certainly passed the eye test as a potential Triple Crown champ. He was an immense animal, yet still had agility and rapid acceleration on the racetrack. Trainer Rick Dutrow wasn’t bothered by a controversy about his legal use of steroids on the colt, and he was as cocky as they come after Big Brown romped in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. On Belmont day, however, everything that could go wrong did. Big Brown was bumped early, never settled into a comfortable stride and was eased in the stretch by jockey Kent Desormeaux, who feared the colt was injured. Big Brown checked out fine after the race, and his virtual no-show remains a mystery.
Smarty Jones, 2004
Smarty Jones was a fan favorite, in large part because of his humble roots. He was born in Pennsylvania, not in the Kentucky blue grass of horse racing royalty. He began his career at Philadelphia Park, where $5,000 claiming races rule. His trainer, John Servis, had a tiny operation, and his jockey, Stewart Elliot, had never been on racing’s big stage. When Smarty Jones won his second race by 15 lengths, Servis knew he had something special and pointed him for the Kentucky Derby. Having moved into racing’s big leagues as a 3-year-old, Smarty Jones arrived at Churchill Downs undefeated and remained that way through the first two legs of the Triple Crown. In the Belmont, Smarty Jones was pressured early by two quality horses, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, but still opened a lead of 3-1/2 lengths in the upper stretch. But he had little in the tank when Birdstone came charging in the stretch to prevail by a length at 36-1. It was little solace that Smarty Jones still finished eight lengths clear of third place.
Funny Cide, 2003
This Triple Crown season was all about New York, with the upper crust’s Empire Maker going against the working class’ Funny Cide. Both horses were based in New York. Empire Maker edged Funny Cide in the horses’ final Derby prep, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, but Funny Cide reversed the outcome in the Derby to become the first gelding since 1929 to win the Run for the Roses. When trainer Bobby Frankel elected to sit out the Preakness and point Empire Maker for the Belmont, Funny Cide romped in Baltimore. His win by 9-3/4 lengths marked the second-largest victory in the race’s history. The rigors of the Triple Crown caught up to Funny Cide at Belmont, as he finished a no-excuse third behind Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted, another Derby starter who skipped the Preakness in favor of rest.
War Emblem, 2002
War Emblem was not the most popular of the Triple Crown threats, in large part because he was purchased by Ahmed bin Salman only three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Many fans, and many in the horse racing industry, felt the new connections hadn’t earned their way into the starting gate. No matter, War Emblem was quickest out of the gate. He won the Derby in the easiest of front-running trips and took the Preakness after dismissing an early challenge from a long-shot rabbit. But in the Belmont, he stumbled at the start and fell to last. He used too much energy to regain position. Although he took the lead on the final turn, he was done in the stretch. The race went to 70-1 bomber Sarava.
Charismatic was dismissed at 31-1 in the Kentucky Derby, fitting since his owner had all but dismissed him as a classic contender by putting him in claiming races as late as three months before the Derby. But Charismatic put it all together two weeks before the Derby, winning the Lexington Stakes to earn a spot in Louisville. After his shocker at Churchill Downs, he beat the doubters again in the Preakness at 8-1 odds. The bandwagon was full for the Belmont, with Charismatic favored at 2-1. Charismatic had the lead in the final furlong, only to slow suddenly and get passed by Lemon Drop Kid and Vision And Verse. When jockey Chris Antley dismounted immediately after the finish line, we understood what happened. Charismatic broke a bone in his left front leg. Antley calmed the colt and held up the injured leg until help arrived, likely saving Charismatic’s life in the process.
Real Quiet, 1998
Real Quiet won only one stakes race before rallying to win the Derby at 17-1, helped by great distance-running bloodlines that enabled him to make powerful moves on the final turn. That was the formula for a Preakness win, and the jockey, Desormeaux, tried it again in the Belmont. Problem was the race is 1-1/2 miles, and there were still six furlongs left when Desormeaux began his final bid. Real Quiet did get the lead and opened up by four lengths in the stretch. But confirmed closer Victory Gallop, who finished second in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, was charging. Real Quiet drifted out as Desormeaux tried to make Victory Gallop work a bit harder, but the challenger got to the line a nose ahead of Real Quiet. A photo determined the Triple Crown drought would continue.
Silver Charm, 1997
With the Triple Crown series restricted to 3-year-old horses, the breeders often determine just how hard it will be to win the Crown. Silver Charm had the misfortune of running in a deep and talented crop of 3-year-olds. It’s generally regarded that the top four of that spring — Silver Charm, Free House, Captain Bodgit and Touch Gold — all could have threatened for a crown in an average year. Silver Charm was one of those horses who did just enough to win, and he took the first two legs in photo finishes. When he caught Free House in the Belmont stretch, he might have thought he had done enough to win. But Touch Gold was flying wide, out of Silver Charm’s field of vision. Touch Gold went right on by to win by three-quarters of a length.
Sunday Silence, 1989
Sunday Silence was half of one of the great East Coast-West Coast rivalries. Sunday Silence represented the West, Easy Goer the East. Easy Goer was the 2-year-old champ of 1988, and the Eastern establishment was certain he would continue his dominance in the Triple Crown series. After Sunday Silence won the Derby, Easy Goer’s backers said it was because of the wet track. When Sunday Silence won a close race in the Preakness, Easy Goer’s backers blamed a poor start. The Belmont proved to be the day for the Easy Goer crowd. While Sunday Silence spent the first half of the race pressing the lead, Easy Goer stayed in a stalking position. After Sunday Silence took the lead, Easy Goer pounced and won going away to beat Sunday Silence by eight lengths. That fall, Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to get the last say in the rivalry. But he did not get the Crown.
Alysheba was a son of Alydar, who famously finished second behind Affirmed in each race of the 1978 Triple Crown. It didn’t appear Alysheba would make good for his dad, when he entered the Kentucky Derby with only a maiden win to his credit. But he had recent surgery to correct a breathing issue that was holding him back, and he got instant results in the first two legs of the 1987 Crown. At the time, the diuretic drug Lasix was illegal on race day in New York. Alysheba regularly raced on the drug, at home in California and in the Derby and Preakness. Whether it was the change in routine or the rigors of the Crown, Alysheba was a dull fourth in the Belmont as Bet Twice romped by 14 lengths.
Pleasant Colony, 1981
A large horse, standing nearly 17 hands high, Pleasant Colony found distance racing to his liking. His long stride carried him to victory in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. On a warm Belmont, however, Pleasant Colony acted up in the paddock and on the track before the race. He did not seem comfortable. He settled in last, 10 lengths behind a slow pace. Whereas, an early move is a horse’s undoing in the Belmont, this time jockey George Martens’ decision to push Summing to the front and save ground proved a winner. Pleasant Colony made up some ground but finished a non-threatening third.
Spectacular Bid, 1979
When conversation turns to the best racehorse of all-time, Spectacular Bid merits a mention. He was 26 of 30 lifetime and set a track record at the sprint distance of seven furlongs and a world record at the classic distance of 1-1/4 miles. His victories in the Derby and Preakness were business as usual, and the Belmont promised more of the same. Then came the most famous safety pin in the history of horse racing. The “Bid” stepped on a safety pin that lodged in the soft flesh unprotected by his hoof. It wasn’t enough to take him out of the race, but he wasn’t himself. That, and an unwise decision by jockey Ron Franklin to gun Spectacular Bid early, softened him up. He was caught in the stretch by Coastal and Golden Act and finished third. It was the only race of his career in which he was passed in the stretch.