The Triple Crown Winners

12 horses that made history

Author: Camilla Osterman

Each year in May, the racing world is asking the same question: Will we have a Triple Crown winner this year?
Will one three year old horse win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes?
After the Kentucky Derby the chances are always there. If the winner then goes on to win the Preakness in Baltimore the tickets for the final race – the Belmont Stakes in New York – will sell out.
But in the 98 years that have passed since Sir Barton won all three races, only another twelve horses have managed to do so. Here are their stories:


Sir Barton.
Sir Barton.

Sir Barton, 1919

The first horse to win all three races was Sir Barton in 1919. It happened before one used the expression “The Triple Crown” – but already by then the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont were considered to be the most important races for 3-year-olds, at least to those east of the Rocky Mountains.

The fact that Sir Barton even raced in the Kentucky Derby was down to his owner, a Canadian named Ross, who also owned the races’ favorite, who required a pace-maker. This is how it was that Sir Barton, who had never previously won a race, made his 3-year-old debut in the Derby.

Sir Barton proved to be a more than effective pacemaker, holding the lead right to the finishing line. He won the Derby by five lengths. Four days later he won the Preakness, again by sheer speed alone, by four lengths. Before taking the Belmont, he also ran and won the Withers Stakes. This all took place in the span of 32 days. A real “heavyweight” of a racehorse, in other words.

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Gallant Fox.
Gallant Fox.

Gallant Fox, 1930

Eleven years later, in 1930, another Triple Crown winner left his mark in the history books. This time, he was already an established star, and therefore his success was less of a surprise. Gallant Fox was trained by James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who during his career trained over 2,275 winners, and owned by William Woodward’s successful Belair Stud. His jockey, Earle Sande, had lost a considerable sum of money in the Wall Street crash of 1929 and came out of a two-year retirement to ride him.

Gallant Fox won two of his starts as a 2-year-old, though this success was to prove just a taste of greater things to come. As a 3-year-old he won nine of his ten starts, including all three Triple Crown races. As it happens, he won the Preakness first, as it was held before the Derby that year. He is the only Triple Crown winner to win the races “out of order” as it were. It was also during his campaign that the term “Triple Crown” came en vogue.

He burnt off the opposition with his sheer speed and scared them with his right eye, which had extra white around the pupil. This feature, called a wall-eye, supposedly used to “spook” the other runners when he glared at them. Additionally, it is said that he stopped during races to look up at passing airplanes in the sky.

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Omaha, 1935

Five years later, in 1935, history would repeat itself. Almost the same gang – Sunny Jim, William Woodward and one of Gallant Fox’s sons, Omaha – repeated the feat. And by now the concept Triple Crown was on everybody’s lips.

Sunny Jim followed the same route with Omaha as he had done previously with Gallant Fox. Firstly, a 2-year-old campaign to teach him his trade. Because Omaha was a gigantic horse, he required an especially build horse box, and he didn’t have the respect his father did on the track.

Omaha won just one of his nine races as a juvenile, but it was enough. After a few prep races, it was the Kentucky Derby that counted. Omaha took the lead on the turn for home and held it to the line. The following week he won the Preakness by six lengths. Before the Belmont, the colt finished second in the Withers Stakes, and doubt set in again. No matter, he was good enough to win the Belmont Stakes by one and a half lengths.

One of only 18 foals out of Gallant Fox’s first crop, Omaha is the only Triple Crown winner not to garner Horse of the Year honors. However, he and his sire remain the only father-son team to take the Triple Crown.

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War Admiral.
War Admiral.

War Admiral, 1937

In 1937, it was time again! War Admiral, who more recent followers of horse racing will know as the horse beaten by Seabiscuit in a match race, was first a Triple Crown winner. War Admiral’s father – the legendary Man o’ War – won both the Preakness and the Belmont in 1920, but he never had the chance to win the Triple Crown, as he was never entered to run in the Derby. This was because his owner, Samuel Riddle, was not a fan of racing in Kentucky and also felt the race’s distance was too far to ask a 3-year-old to run that early in the season.

However, the Triple Crown had gained prestige by the time War Admiral came around, and the colt was one of the best of his generation. So, after he won his first start as a 3-year-old, Riddle decided to give the Derby a chance. War Admiral was given a “pipe opener” four days before the Derby, winning a lesser race at Churchill Downs. On Derby Day there were no doubts about the way he won, easily taking the Derby by two lengths. A week later, he won the Preakness by a short head.

In the Belmont, War Admiral almost fell at the start and cut himself so badly that he left blood all the way around the track. Despite this, he won the race by five lengths. As a result of his injury, he had a break until the autumn when he notched two further big wins. He won all eight races that year, making him only one of two Triple Crown winners to post an undefeated 3-year-old season.

The following year, War Admiral met Seabiscuit in the famed match race, where he was beaten by four lengths, largely due to the skills of his foe’s jockey, George Woolf. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Seabiscuit also set a track record that day.

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Whirlaway, 1941

Whirlaway, or Mr. Longtail as he was also called, was owned by Warren Wright’s Calumet Farm. Wright had sold his Calumet baking powder business to General Foods for almost $30 million and invested his personal fortune into racehorses.

Wright was a perfectionist, and Calumet Farm was a model establishment. Everything was painted white and devil red, and the personnel were handpicked with high demands made upon their work activities and orderliness. It would become one of the most historic farms in American racing lore.

As for Whirlaway, he was a special fellow with much more going on in his mind than just racing. In order to help focus his mind, his trainer, Ben Jones, applied a pair of blinkers which prevented Whirlaway from seeing beyond the outside rail. Without this assistance, the colt was likelier to end up in the grandstand than winner’s enclosure. Whirlaway’s unusual behavior, however, endeared him to the racing public, and he became a big favorite. Will he race around the track or won’t he, they must have often wondered.

Jones used one of the world’s top jockeys, Eddie ‘Banana Nose’ Arcaro for his difficult colt. Arcaro had a very special style of riding, with his right stirrup very short in the saddle and the inner, left stirrup significantly shorter. He was the first jockey to successfully steer Whirlaway around turns without him disappearing out at the periphery. His technique was to take a long rein and use his bodyweight and to leave the reins alone and see how it worked!

Together, the team around Whirlaway – with God’s will and under the guidance of the whip – helped the colt keep his act together during the Triple Crown races. He took the Derby by eight lengths and in record time. A week later took, after winning the Preakness by five and a half lengths, Arcaro described his experience in that race as akin to riding a tornado. He finished the Triple Crown with an easy victory in the Belmont.

Whirlaway may have been a difficult colt, but his team and his talent led him to be named Horse of the Year both in 1941 and 1942.

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Count Fleet, 1943

The next Triple Crown winner came as soon as 1943, during the Second World War. As a sign of the times, a sign stood beside the finishing line at Belmont Park that read: “In case of Air Raid – Keep Calm.” Count Fleet did do things calmly and was one of the most superior Triple Crown winners ever seen.

For all his talent, Count Fleet was a backward horse. He didn’t show a great deal of ability as a young horse, and his owner almost sold the ornery runner not once, but twice. The first time they were unable to find a buyer, and the second time Johnny Longden, the horse’s jockey, persuaded them to keep him. Having ridden over 6,000 winners, Longden realized that Count Fleet was the best horse he had ever been on.

Count Fleet’s style of racing, which was to go to the front, then little by little increase his lead, meant that he won the Derby by three lengths, the Preakness by eight and the Belmont Stakes by an eye-popping 25 lengths.

That Count Fleet won the Belmont so easily was largely down to the fact that connections of the better horses around at the time didn’t dare take him on. Instead, the opposition was made up of largely mediocre horses, knowingly in competition with each other for second and third place prize money. None of this of course should belittle Count Fleets’ achievement. If he hadn’t been so good, the better competition would have been brave enough to line up against him.

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Assault, 1946

Texas! That is the key word for the 1946 Triple Crown winner, Assault. The colt came from one of the biggest cattle ranches in Texas, and in Texas, big means big. The land area of King Ranch is bigger than that of the entire state of Rhode Island. Assault’s trainer, Max Hirsch, was also a Texan and was King Ranch’s private trainer right up until his death in 1969.

As a young horse, Assault trampled on a land surveyor’s stake and damaged his right front hoof, which was never the same again. He became known as “the clubfooted comet” as a result. Although he could certainly run, he would never win any beauty contests for either his movement or overall general appearance. Assault was a frail horse in other ways too. He developed problems with his liver, and after his racing career was over, he proved himself to be sterile at stud.

Like many other Triple Crown winners, Assault was no 2-year-old star, but as a 3-year-old, he came into his own. Following a calamitous Derby Trial, he bounced back and won all three Triple Crown races. He won the Derby by eight lengths and was sent off as the favorite in the Preakness. He managed to take the second leg of the Triple Crown by a desperate neck. In the Belmont, Assault stumbled at the start but ended up pulling away from his rivals by three lengths.

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Citation, 1948

Calumet Farm, Triple Crown winner with Whirlaway in 1941, had continued its investment in thoroughbred breeding to become the best. By the time Citation came along, Wright had achieved his goal, and Calumet was one of the USA’s leading breeders and owners.

Jones, the operation’s trainer, had a set theories when it came to training horses: “Give them what they need, when they look as though they need it.” It’s as simple as that! His son Jimmy, who took over the trainer’s license after his father became ill, was also in tune with horses, saying, “It isn’t just about a horse’s speed, stamina and breeding lineage. It is also about his personality – they are like people. You know?”

Arcaro had been taking things a lot easier since 1942, after he had been banned from riding for a year. He had been aggravated by another jockey and he had retaliated. At the inquiry into the incident, he was asked if he had intended to injure the other jockey. To this Arcaro answered calmly, “No, I wasn’t trying to injure him; I was trying to kill him.” Wrong answer!

As for Citation, he is considered one of the best racehorses America has produced. The talented colt possessed both stamina and speed, and his racing style was like a game of “cat and mouse.” He won eight of nine races at age 2 and won 19 of 20 races at age 3. The Triple Crown was a cake walk for the mighty runner. Little did anyone know, racing would have to wait 25 years for its next Triple Crown champion.

Wright died in 1950, and his last wish was that Citation should become the first racehorse to earn more than $1 million in prize money. His wish was fulfilled, as it usually was. In 1951, at age 6, Citation’s earnings passed that magical level to become the first equine millionaire ever.

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Secretariat, 1973

Time magazine is renowned for its front cover. A portrait of a person making news usually adorns the front page. But on June 11, 1973, appeared the portrait of a horse – Secretariat. The handsome chestnut colt had became so popular, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated also featured him on their respective covers the same week. Would Secretariat become the first Triple Crown winner since 1948?

A portrait of a person making news usually adorns the front page. But on June 11, 1973, appeared the portrait of a horse – Secretariat.
A portrait of a person making news usually adorns the front page. But on June 11, 1973, appeared the portrait of a horse – Secretariat.

The odds against this happening had changed since those days. In Citation’s age group there had been 6,000 horses, in Secretariat’s 25,000. But Secretariat was one of a kind. Seldom had a horse captured people’s imagination the way that he did.

Secretariat was the bluest of bluebloods, by of one of the most successful sires of his time, Bold Ruler, and from a mother with genuine racing merits too. When owner Penny Chenery saw the homebred colt for the first time, she wrote one word in her diary: WOW!

Although known for his Triple Crown feats, Secretariat also made the history books when he was awarded the Horse of the Year title in 1972 as a juvenile. In the decades since, only one other horse has been given that honor as a 2-year-old.

Heading into the Kentucky Derby, however, Secretariat had a big problem: his appetite. He ate enormous amounts, and when he felt he hadn’t been fed adequately, he let everyone around him know about it.

No matter. While winning the Run for the Roses, Secretariat set a track record of 1:59 2⁄5, which remains in place to this day. In fact, only one other Derby winner, Monarchos in 2001, has finished the contest in under two minutes.

After winning the Derby, when most horses wouldn’t feel like eating much, Secretariat ate up everything he was served. His trainer, Lucien Laurin, once told his stable hand: “This food here will take him three days to eat up.” Half an hour later the trough was empty. Now that’s a real horse.

Secretariat captured the Preakness with ease, but it is his Belmont performance that lives on in the minds of racing fans. It also led to one of the most famous race calls of all time: “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!” track announcer Chick Ander-son yelled. “Secretariat is all alone…he’s going to be the Triple Crown winner. An unbelievable, an amazing performance. He hits the finish 25 lengths in front!”

Anderson was off by a few lengths. The final margin of victory was 31 lengths, in a world-record time of 2:24 for the 1-1/2 miles. A total of 5,617 winning tickets on Secretariat that day were never redeemed. Instead, they became the ultimate souviner.

As part of his first crop at stud, Secretariat sired Canadian Bound, who was the first thoroughbred yearling ever sold for more than $1 million when he fetched $1.5 million at the 1976 Keeneland July sale. He was a dud as a racehorse.

And in general, as it usually happens, Secretariat’s offspring were unable to live up to extremely high expectations. Risen Star came the closest, winning both the Preakness and the Belmont, but he could only manage third in the Derby. Among Secretariat’s other notable foals were 1986 Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret and 1990 Melbourne Cup winner Kingston Rule.

Perhaps Secretariat’s foremost contribution to thoroughbred bloodlines came through his daughters. He is the broodmare sire of such breed shaping stallions as A.P. Indy and Storm Cat.

To this day, Secretariat holds the track record for each of the three Triple Crown races.

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Seattle Slew.
Seattle Slew.

Seattle Slew, 1977

Karen and Mickey Taylor from Washington were relatively new to horse ownership when they went with veterinarian Jim Hill to Kentucky in order to buy a horse. They had a budget of between $12,000-$13,000. When the bidding on the colt they wanted exceeded their budget, Karen persuaded Mickey to continue bidding because she was so taken with him.

In the end the colt, later named Seattle Slew, was theirs for $17,500. It was a good decision, as the horse earned more than $1.2 million on the track and countless more millions at stud.

Seattle Slew was put into training with a young trainer called Billy Turner, who took things very carefully with the colt. The solid bay runner, who also became known as “Baby Huey” after the clumsy duck cartoon character, proved his talent on the track and was named champion 2-year-old.

Turner continued his cautious approach with Slew, and the horse entered the Kentucky Derby undefeated. He remained so after the Preakness and Belmont, too. As a result, he is the only Triple Crown winner to enter and exit the series undefeated.

Seattle Slew would not end his career undefeated, but continued racing after his Triple Crown success. Two months before he was retired in 1978, Slew defeated the heir to the Triple Crown, Affirmed, in the grade 1 Marlboro Cup.

As a stallion, Seattle Slew sired more than 100 stakes winners including the likes of A.P. Indy, Swale, and Slew o’ Gold. Seattle Slew died on the 25th anniversary of his victory in the Kentucky Derby, May 7, 2002. When he passed, he did so with his head in Karen Taylor’s arms. With his death, he left the United States without a living Triple Crown winner for the first time.

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Affirmed, 1978

Just one year after Seattle Slew, Affirmed claimed the Triple Crown for his own. Affirmed was bred by Louis Wolfson and his wife Patricia at Harbor View Farms in Florida. His trainer was the veteran Laz Barrera, who had been one of Cuba’s best trainers before coming to the U.S. in 1971 after many years working in Mexico.

Jockey Steve ’The Kid‘ Cauthen completed the team around Affirmed. Partnering Affirmed, Cauthen became the youngest ever jockey to win the Triple Crown, as he turned 18 just a few days before the Kentucky Derby.

For all that, it is another name always associated with Affirmed: Alydar. The duels he had with Alydar, second in all three Triple Crown races, are that of racing legend. Alydar came from the Calumet stable, which by then was a shadow of the organization that had produced Whirlaway and Count Fleet.

The rivalry between the two horses began as 2-year-olds. Alydar first met Affirmed on the track on his racecourse debut, which was Affirmed’s second race. Affirmed won and Alydar came fourth. It would prove to be the only time that they raced against one another where they didn’t occupy first and second finishing places.

At the beginning of his 3-year-old season, Affirmed raced in California, while Alydar competed on the East Coast. Not surprisingly, each horse dominated their respective coasts.

In the Derby, Cauthen positioned Affirmed in third place and then halfway up the home straight swept into the lead, winning the race by one and a half lengths. Alydar came with a strong, late rally, but he couldn’t reach Affirmed in time.

In the Preakness, Affirmed took up the lead earlier, with Alydar hunting him all the way up the home straight. He was never able to quite reach him, and Affirmed won by a neck.

Then came the Belmont. Almost directly, Affirmed went to the front of the field, but by the end of the back turn Alydar had caught up. From there they battled head to head for almost 1 1/4 miles. Affirmed raced on the inner rail and won by a head.

It was an extraordinary show of strength and power from both horses and a true spectacle for the spectators. It was the essence of horseracing at its absolute best.

The rivalry did not end there. Though Affirmed finished first in the Travers, he drifted in front of Alydar in the stretch. After an inquiry, Affirmed was taken down and Alydar placed first. By the end, the two faced each other a total of 10 times, finishing first and second in nine of them. Affirmed usually won.

Affirmed had a respectable career as a stallion before dying in 2001 at the age of 26. But perhaps Alydar got one final victory, as he is widely considered to have been the more successful stallion.

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American Pharaoh.
American Pharoah. ©Sue Kawczynski/EclipseSportswire

American Pharoah, 2015

It would take another 37 years until it happened again. By then, many people believed that winning the Triple Crown had become an impossible feat. Thirteen horses had completed the first two legs, only to fall short at the Belmont Stakes.

Then American Pharoah came along. Bred by Ahmed Zayat, he was born at Stockplace Farm near Lexington, Kentucky in 2012. As a yearling, the colt was offered at the Fasig Tipton Saratoga Selected Yearling sale, but he didn’t sell. The Zayat’s were not willing to take any less than $1 million for him, and when the highest bid didn’t even reach a third of that, they decided to keep him and race him instead. As it turned out, it was a good idea.

When American Pharoah failed to catch the eye of a new owner in Saratoga, he was sent to Florida to McKathan Brothers Farm near Ocala to begin his training. On August 9, 2014, American Pharoah made his debut in California for trainer Bob Baffert. He lost.

However, the colt figured out the racing game that day and won nine of his next ten starts, eight of them in Grade 1 company. The horse with the misspelled name (is it supposed to be Pharaoh) ended his juvenile season a dual Grade 1 winner and was named the 2-year-old champion colt that year.

On May 2, 2015, American Pharoah started as the favourite in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. He and jockey Victor Espinoza lived up to the punters’ expectations and crossed the line one length in front of Firing Line. Two weeks later, they led the Preakness Stakes field from start to finish on a wet and sloppy track, winning by seven lengths. With the Triple Crown within reach, American Pharoah came to Belmont Stakes as the odds-on favourite. 90,000 fans had gathered at Belmont Park. In front of the roaring crowd, American Pharoah cruised to a 5.5-length wire-to-wire victory, becoming the 12th American Triple Crown winner in history.

In October that year, American Pharoah shipped to Keeneland and ran in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he challenged older horses for the first time. It did not prove a problem for American Pharoah. He won by 6.5 lengths, becoming the first Triple Crown winner to have won “The Grand Slam,” as the Classic was first run in 1984, and the last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978.

After the Breeders’ Cup, the Triple Crown hero retired to Coolmore’s American division Ashford Stud in Kentucky, and his first crop was born in 2017. He receives thousands of visitors every year.

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