The Triple Crown

Three races that bring racing to the front pages

Camilla Osterman NYRA, NYRA/Adam Coglanese, Jim mcCUE/MARYLAND JOCKEY CLUB,, Churchill Downs

In the world of horse racing, the Triple Crown is the title awarded to a racehorse who wins the biggest three races on the flat for 3-year-olds. In most European countries, those races are local runnings of the 2000 Guineas, Derby and St. Leger. But in the USA, where the Triple Crown is viewed as the Holy Grail of racing, the races the 3-year-olds must conquer are the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

The horse that wins all three earns the title of Triple Crown winner.


The expression ‘The Triple Crown‘ is used in a number of different contexts, however, the definition has been used in England since 1830 to describe horse races. The jewels in the English Crown are contested over distances ranging from 1,600 meters to 3,000 meters and take place from May to September.

In the United States, it was the racing journalist Charles Hatton who began using the expression regularly in 1930, even though it had been used earlier during the 1920s.

Like the English version, the American version is raced over three different distances at three different racecourses.

The big difference?

The entire race series takes place over five weeks, not five months.

A horse who manages to win the U.S. Triple Crown is clearly a real “tough guy.”

The Kentucky Derby, the first and most famous of the three races, is 1 ¼ miles (about 2,000 meters) and takes place on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. The Preakness Stakes takes place two weeks later at Pimlico Racecourse in Maryland. The race is 1 3/16 of a mile (1,900 meters) and is the shortest of the three races. Then, three weeks later the Belmont Stakes takes on New York and clocks in as the longest of the three races at 1 ½ miles (2,400 meters).

Each race has its own history and traditions, however flowers, singing and drinking figure highly in all three instances. The Triple Crown races are famous for their party atmosphere and appeal more to the general public than all other American races.

On June 6 2015, a talented bay colt went to the front of the 1 ½-mile contest and never looked back. With his victory, American Pharoah became the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
(Click here for the full story of all 12 winners)

The Kentucky Derby

The grandstand was built in 1895 and with the two twin spires, a famous symbol known throughout the United States and beyond.
The grandstand was built in 1895 and with the two twin spires, a famous symbol known throughout the United States and beyond.

Churchill Downs opened in 1875, the first year the Kentucky Derby was run. The grandstand was built in 1895 and with the two twin spires, a famous symbol known throughout the United States and beyond.

It came about that The Kentucky Derby (pronounced Durby, not Darby) served as a great advertisement for the state’s main “export” apart from bourbon: thoroughbred racehorses! During his travels in Europe, Colonel M. Lewis Clark visited England and after attending the Epsom Derby, realized that this was precisely what Kentucky needed.

Not to mention, the event could even be used to market and sell bourbon. Mint juleps, which contain bourbon, mint, sugar and water, form an important part of the Derby tradition to this day.

Another beloved tradition involves giving the winner a blanket of roses, which is why the race is also known by the moniker the Run for the Roses.

Track: Churchill Downs
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Date: 1st Saturday in May
Distance: 1 1/4 miles
Purse: $2 milllion
First run: 1875


In 1980, ABC Sports commissioned folk singer Dan Fogelberg to write a song by the same name. However, the quintessential Kentucky Derby song is “My Old Kentucky Home.” The tune, which also serves as Kentucky’s state song, is played during the post parade and has a reputation for making even the hardest of hard boots tear up. It is also one of the few days at American racetracks where ladies are expected to show up in their finest hats.

The Kentucky Derby is also known as the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” a nod to the approximate length of time it takes to run the race. It is the longest continually held sporting event in the United States and is America’s most popular race.

The Preakness Stakes

The Preakness Infield has developed into a major music event.
The Preakness Infield has developed into a major music event.

The story of how the Preakness Stakes came about isn’t as serious as the Derby. At a dinner party following a race meeting at Saratoga Springs in 1868, Maryland’s Governor, Oden Bowie, announced there would be a race for that year’s foals in Baltimore in two years’ time. In 1870, Pimlico Race Course had been built, the Dinner Stakes was staged, and the losing owner had to pay for dinner.

The race was won by a horse called Preakness.

In 1873, the first Preakness was contested. The race hasn’t always been held at the same time of year, over the same distance, or even the same day of the week. From 1891-1893, the race wasn’t run at all. However, it is now well-established as a race at Pimlico held always on the third Saturday in May each year.

The music that is played before the Preakness Stakes is “Maryland, My Maryland,” and the official drink is known as a Black-Eyed Susan, named after the flowers that decorate the winning horse. The drink is made up of bourbon, vodka, orange juice, and sweet and sour mix. Unfortunately, these flowers aren’t in blossom during May in Maryland.

Three ladies fill their days before the race fastening flowers to the blanket and painting black pistils onto yellow daisies.

Track: Pimlico Race Course
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Date: 3rd Saturday in May
Distance: 1 3/16
Purse: $1 million
First run: 1873 

Since 1909, the Preakness winner has also gotten another honor at Pimlico. As soon as the race is declared official, the weather vane is repainted in the colors of the winner’s silks, and it remains that way until the next running.   

The Belmont Stakes

The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the Triple Crown races.
The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the Triple Crown races.

The third race, the Belmont, is held at Belmont Park on Long Island just outside New York City.

Belmont Park is named after the banker August Belmont.  His son – August Belmont J:r built Belmont Park and is also know for having bred the legendary Man o’War.

Track: Belmont Park
Location: Elmont, New York
Date: 3 weeks after the Preakness Stakes
Distance: 1 1/2 miles
Purse: $1 million
First run: 1867


First run in 1867, the Belmont is the oldest of the three races and was contested at other courses before Belmont Park was founded in 1905.

The first time the race was staged at Belmont, it caused New York’s first real traffic pile up. The roads that led out to Long Island weren’t really suitable for so many horse drawn carriages and people flocking to see America’s finest 3-year-olds compete. Although it is the oldest of the Triple Crown races, the Belmont was not contested in 1911 or 1912.

There is of course a special drink associated with the race – a mixture of whiskey, sweet sherry and mixed fruit juices known as the Belmont Breeze – but can you really beat a Manhattan? And the song sung by one and all before the races is, of course, “New York, New York.” The winner’s blanket is made with white carnations.

Since 1931, the order of Triple Crown races has been the Kentucky Derby first, followed by the Preakness Stakes, and then the Belmont Stakes. Prior to 1931, the Preakness Stakes was run before the Kentucky Derby 11 times, and twice it was run on the same day!

(Click here for the full story of all 12 Triple Crown winners)