It has been since 1978 that Affirmed won the last American Triple Crown, although several colts have come close in the interim. Every year, there is conversation about in some way modifying the Triple Crown races. On one side are people who believe that distances and/or timing between races need to be changed. On the other side are individuals who assert that the tradition of the Triple Crown should not be tinkered with and that any change would reflect poorly on a colt or filly who won a watered-down Triple Crown.

Would it be heresy to alter the Triple Crown? Consider some important historical modifications in the Triple Crown, followed by a brief summary analysis and a short point of view based on precedent and fact.

From 1875-1896, the Kentucky Derby was run at 1 ½ miles and thereafter at 1-1/4 miles.

The Preakness distance has been changed eight times and has been run at seven different distances:

1873 1-1/2 miles

1889 1-1/4 miles

1890 1-1/2 miles

1894 1-1/16 miles

1901 1 mile and 70 yards

1909 1 mile

1911 1-1/8 miles

1925-present 1-3/16 miles

The Belmont Stakes has been run at these distances:

1867-1873 1-5/8 miles

1874 1-1/2 miles

1890-1892 and 1895, 1904, 1905 1-1/4 miles

1893-1894 1-1/8 miles

1896-1903 and 1906-1925 1-3/8 miles

1926-present 1-1/2 miles

Other Sundry Facts:

Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, in 1919, won the Kentucky Derby at 1-1/4 miles, the Preakness at 1-1/8 miles, and the Belmont at 1-3/8 miles.

The Preakness has in some years preceded the Kentucky Derby. For instance, in 1930, Gallant Fox swept the Triple Crown by winning the Preakness on May 9, the Kentucky Derby on May 17, and the Belmont on June 7.

The Preakness and the Belmont have been run at several different racetracks, other than Pimilco and Belmont Park.

Jockey weights for Belmont winners have ranged from 107 pounds to 126 pounds. The first filly to win the Kentucky Derby, Regret, carried 112 pounds, whereas fillies today carry 121 pounds.

In some years–including 1930, when Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown–the Preakness barred geldings from running in the race.

The intervals between the Triple Crown races have varied for the eleven Triple Crown champions. The majority of them did not compete on today’s schedule of two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. The specifics are:

Sir Barton—4 days between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and 29 days between the Preakness and the Belmont.

Gallant Fox—8 days between the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby and 3 weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont.

Omaha , Whirlaway, Count Fleet—1 week between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and 4 weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont.

War Admiral and Assault—1 week between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and 3 weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont.

Citation—2 weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and 4 weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont.

Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed—2 weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and 3 weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont.

Analysis: The modern-day distances of the Triple Crown races, the ordering of the races beginning with the Kentucky Derby and ending with the Belmont, the intervals between races, and the jockey weights for colts and fillies have been consistent since 1949. However, before that, from 1875-1948, many changes were made. One would have a difficult time comparing the performance of Sir Barton to the other Triple Crown winners because he raced at shorter distances in the Preakness and the Belmont. Citation had the benefit of contesting the Triple Crown over six weeks rather than five. Seven of the eleven champions ran in the second leg of the Triple Crown off 4-8 days in between rather than 2 weeks.

Viewpoint/Opinion: It would not be contrary to Triple Crown history and precedent at all to tweak or even significantly change the conditions. The suggestion here is modest and perfectly in keeping with past practices. Leave the distances as they are but modify the intervals between races: three weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and three or four weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont. A colt or filly that wins the Triple Crown under these conditions would not be diminished by comparison to the feats of past champions. The fact, for example, that Citation had four weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont does not detract from his greatness (especially since he won the Jersey Stakes during the hiatus). And Sir Barton competing at shorter distances is just an asterisk in horse-racing history.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business


  1. The question is; Is the Triple Crown, still a relatively new creation that can be manipulated without endangering tradition or is it a tradition that’s set in stone?

    Without doubt, a Triple Crown devised from scratch, would not resemble what we have today. But is that relevant? Should Racing do what it can to strengthen it’s traditions or does flexibility, with it’s focus on the questionable betterment of the game, trump tradition?

    That question prompts other questions. Should scale weights be raised for the health of jockeys? (of all the ideas being introduced to change racing that one is about the most shortsighted. You’d simply create a bigger pool of heavier athletes reducing to make weight)

    Perhaps the very discussion of changing Triple Crown rules because of it’s difficulty to win makes it even more prestigious to win?

    I think that changing the one thing that horse racing has that draws the attention of the nation would be a mistake. A big mistake.

    As the Fiddler sang, “Tradition”!

  2. Graeme Beaton says

    Change can be good, if is for the betterment of the breed and in the best interests of the animal.

    Changing the schedule because it might shower more money on those involved is exactly the wrong reason.

    Why not try this change? In other countries, horses run back on as little as a few days’ rest. We cannot do that in this country because it takes a couple of weeks to replenish electrolytes etc. due to the diuretics we pump into them.

    Change the drug rules to bring them into line with those in every other major racing nation in the world and you would not need to change the TC schedule. Start by banning salix (lasix) and see what a difference that would make.

    Not only would that cut vet bills, it would allow more starts at greater frequency and restore confidence in the sport, bearing in mind that even salix scientists concede that diuretics can mask other drugs that mask infirmities and enhance performance.

    If we return to the central idea that the health and welfare of the animal comes first, then a lot of other good things will follow. Unfortunately, too many at the top of this industry are so short-sighted they cannot see that making the animal the priority would restore confidence, draw new fans to the sport and benefit the bottom line in the process.

  3. ratherrapid says

    the idea that the TC should be changed due to our lately faux training leaves me a little cold also. How much do you reduce the drama by extending the time?

  4. The English Triple Crown has about five weeks between the 2000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby and about 12 weeks between the Epsom Derby and the St. Leger’s. Increasing the spacing between the American Triple Crown races just slightly is a good idea and, as the article points out is in keeping with history.

  5. I think Graeme Beaton had the righht take on this. The short timetable makes it impossible for horses that are drugged and treated the way most modern thoroughbreds are to rebound so quickly. Just look at Todd Pletcher’s overall record when he runs horses back on two weeks or less rest (under 10% win percentage). Super Saver’s loss in the Preakness was totally predictable. Getting away from lasix would be the biggest single move in the right direction, as the dehydration and weight loss caused by Lasix is a principal reason why horses aren’t able to run back quickly.

  6. Charlene says

    To tinker with the modern (post 1949) Triple Crown would be akin to what people complain about in public education – that we “dumb down” so lesser quality can achieve.

    That doesn’t make sense in the schools – and it doesn’t in the Triple Crown.

    Since Affirmed in 1978 – 11 horses have gone to Belmont with a chance to win. Charismatic lost in the final furlong when he broke down. Silver Charm lost by 3/4 a length because he didn’t see Touch Gold coming on the far outside. Real Quiet lost by a scant nose because Desormeaux moved him too soon.

    These are just three examples of horses who came tantilizingly close to joining the pantheon of greats – but bad luck or bad rides nipped them at the end.

    If eleven horses can get to Belmont with a Crown on the line – that says to me that it is still quite within the scope of the Thoroughbred to win this most elusive and prized triple.

    If I were to make any suggestion as far as alterations go – I’d strongly suggest the Derby field be reduced to 14 maximum. More than one deserving champion got mugged in the Derby fracus and lost who went on to dominate the final two jewels. If the other TC races limit to 14 – Churchill Downs should be held to the same quota. Why should they be so greedy as to gobble every dollar they can squeeze out of that one day by allowing horses who truly aren’t at the same level as a top 14 to clutter the field?

    That would solve the Triple Crown more quickly than anything. But regardless of whether or not Churchill would comply – there will be another Triple Crown winner – and he/she will do it on the current format. It just takes the right horse.

  7. Sissy Fisher says

    Leave the Triple Crown alone. The right horse will win it.

  8. Love Charlene’s suggestion about limiting the Derby field to 14. Indeed, why is it that when anyone suggests tinkering with the Triple Crown that it’s the Preakness and Belmont that have to bear the brunt of alterations? Is the Kentucky Derby that sacrosanct?

    Perhaps we should also adjust the date of the Kentucky Derby. A fact Mr. Shanklin might appreciate: Sir Barton, Gallant Fox and War Admiral won the Derby after the first Saturday in May.

  9. Graeme Beaton has it right IMO. Change the drug rules, stop with the lasix, and the Triple won’t need to be changed.

  10. Since there have been previous changes to the structure of the Triple crown, the popular belief by the so called Traditionalists of diminishing the accomplishment by changing it again really holds no merit.

    It’s structure has been changed many times before and is way overdue for another.

  11. Since i’m a semi-fan of the Canadian Triple Crown I also think it would be really cool to see our Belmont Stakes become a 1 1/2 mile TURF race like Canada’s Breeders Stakes is.

    I think it would be just as Challenging (IF not more so) for a horse to have to be able to win it all on both Dirt and Turf surfaces because it would take a more Versatile Horse to do so.

  12. IMO…..the distances of each race should NOT be changed, but the distances between each race should be changed from 2-3 weeks to 3-4 weeks or more.

    In most of the other countries that have their own Triple Crown series the distances between races is longer than our own is.

    So in that regard we would be more on the same page as the rest of the world and it would be much healthier for the Horses themselves.

  13. Bill Shanklin says

    Looks like Bill Finley of ESPN agrees with Graeme Beaton and Steve Zorn on their comments from last weekend (see above) about medication in the Triple Crown.

    Following is a link to the ESPN article from May 20.