34 Years of Futility: The Triple Crown Misses
(With the final leg of a potential Triple Crown set for Saturday, I shall consider this my lone chance to run a relevant horse racing article on JoeSportsFan.com. Forgive me.)
Just a few days before the Belmont Stakes, I’ll Have Another tweeted to his 6,000+ followers that the owner of the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, liked his chances. Sure it was an amusing endorsement, but in reality the exchange was just a excuse to mention that, in 2012, even thoroughbreds have Twitter accounts.
In other words, it’s a slightly different world than when, in 1978, Affirmed become the 11th and last horse to win the Triple Crown. Over the past 34 years, 11 names have been added to the list of horses that have taken the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but failed to close the deal at the Belmont. I’ll Have Another will become the 12th member of one of those two groups on Saturday.
Each of the horses that could not complete the elusive feat has their own tale of how or why they came up short when expectations were at their peak. And each of their stories bears resemblances to some of the most notable moments in mainstream sports. To give them some context for the non-horse racing fans who will tune in this weekend, we’ve matched up all 11 near-misses with their mainstream doppleganger.
If nothing else, the sport of horse racing sure does know how to produce agonizing losers.
1979 – Spectacular Bid (click to see the Youtube)
Comparable to: Buster Douglas – Mike Tyson
In November 1990, if you had told a boxing fan that Mike Tyson would lose a fight in Tokyo, they probably would have assumed that he entered the Kumite for fun after disposing of Buster Douglas without breaking a sweat. Let’s just say it was a bit of a surprise when a dude named “Buster” knocked out the seemingly unbeatable champ.
In 1979, the unbeatable champ was Spectacular Bid. Of all the winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, none were more highly touted. In 1979 horse racing was at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of champions of the sport. The Bid was poised to become the third consecutive Triple Crown winner after Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. His coronation in New York almost seemed an afterthought.
Like many before and after him, Spectacular Bid was gunned to the lead early in the abnormally long race and paid for it by being caught in the home stretch. Later it was determined that he had stepped on a safety pin in the paddock which could have compromised his run, but it didn’t make for a sufficient reason to explain his defeat as a 1-10 favorite.
The Bid redeemed himself after defeat by coming back and dominating the sport with one of the best four-year-old campaigns in history, and managed to do so without threatening to eat anyone’s children or having any tribal symbols tattooed on his face.
1981 – Pleasant Colony
Comparable to: 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays
When you ask even a horse racing fan to list off the names of the horses to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness over the last 30+ years, there’s a good chance that if one is forgotten, it will be Pleasant Colony. Perhaps due to the timing, just on the heels of Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, there just wasn’t the same hype for Pleasant Colony as others in his position.
Pleasant Colony serves the role of the forgotten “almost” dynasties, the 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays of horse racing if you will.
The Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993 and with a third consecutive in 1994 would have most certainly been viewed historically as one of baseball’s increasingly rare dynasties. As is stands, the ’94 postseason was called off and they never had a chance to finish the back-to-back-to-back title run, leaving them somewhat overlooked just like their equine counterpart.
1987 – Alysheba
Comparable to: Buffalo Bills
Alysheba’s Triple Crown affair goes deeper than just him. As the son of the great Alydar, Alysheba carried around the stigma of a horse pre-disposed to come up short like his daddy did in each of the three Triple Crown races to Affirmed in 1978.
Like the Bills of the 90’s, the Alydar/Alysheba family tree struggled to win the big one. Unlike his father, Alysheba was able to secure two of the jewels, but couldn’t overcome the family jinx to bring home the Crown. Always the bridesmaid.
1989 – Sunday Silence
Comparable to: Cowboys-49ers rivalry in the mid-90’s
As far as rivalries go, think of Sunday Silence as the Dallas Cowboys of the mid-90’s and Easy Goer as the San Francisco 49ers, only we presume that Sunday Silence did way less coke than the Cowboys.
In 1992 and 1993 the Cowboys defeated the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. In 1994, the 49ers exacted revenge over the ‘Boys to earn their spot in the Super Bowl. With both teams having traded playoff blows, they finished 1995 season with identical 11-5 records before the Cowboys reasserted themselves as the dominant force in going to and winning their third Super Bowl in four years.
In 1989, Sunday Silence took out his rival Easy Goer in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Easy Goer kept the Triple Crown from Sunday Silence with a dominating win in the Belmont, but just as it looked like it was his turn to establish his dominance in the rivalry, Sunday Silence struck back with a victory in the 1989 Breeders Cup Classic, their final meeting.
1997 – Silver Charm
Comparable to: The Olympics
If only because a horse named Silver Charm finished second to a horse named to Touch Gold. It seemed appropriate.
Safe to say, if there would have been a horse named Bronze Jimmy in the race, he would have come in third. If there would have been a horse named Carl Lewis in the race, well good luck in the breeding shed.
1998 – Real Quiet
Comparable to: 1988 World Series Game 1
With the A’s leading Game 1 of the 1988 World Series for 7 of the first 8 innings, Dennis Eckersley barely had a bead of sweat built up on his mustache while facing the gimpy Kirk Gibson to close it out. Moments later Gibby smoked one of the most dramatic homeruns in postseason history.
The loss was the hardest type to take for A’s fans. With their team leading the entire game, the thought of losing didn’t enter into their minds all the way up to the moment when that ball dropped into the left field seats.
Although he isn’t nearly as well known as some of his counterparts, Real Quiet is actually the horse that came the closest to ending the Triple Crown drought and in turn had the most dramatic loss. Real Quiet held the lead all the way down the backstretch in the Belmont, right up until the moment he played Eckersley to Victory Gallop’s Kirk Gibson, who nipped him at the wire in a photo finish.
1999 – Charismatic
Comparable to: Stan Musial 1948
In 1948, Stan Musial won the NL batting title, the RBI title and came one homerun shy of winning the Triple Crown. In response, Musial jokingly claimed that he would have won it if not for having a game rained out.
Charismatic has a similar excuse. After winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, he came up a few lengths short in the Belmont but can conveniently blame it on suffering a fractured leg at some point through the home stretch. Jockey Chris Antley’s quick reaction to the injury made sure that Charismatic could reminisce and chuckle at his misfortune while taking a break from his job of having sex multiple times every day.
2002 – War Emblem
Comparable to: 2006 George Mason
It made for a great story when George Mason stormed to the Final Four in 2006 by beating college basketball powerhouses like Michigan State, UNC and UConn. But after the drama of the Cinderella making the Final Four had passed, it became obviously that they were in a bit over their head. In the Final Four, Florida patted little Georgie on the head, congratulated them on their achievement and promptly stomped them en route their national championship.
War Emblem’s run wasn’t quite as shocking as George Mason, and it made for a nice story but he just didn’t have the feel of the horse that was destined to win the first Triple Crown in over 25 years. A front-runner, War Emblem stumbled out of the gates, was forced to rush to catch up and eventually burned out by the final turn, finishing seventh. He didn’t get beaten by a dominant rival, as a 70-1 shot wound up taking the race, his defeat was dished out more by the game of horse racing which has a funny way of making sure that – when it comes to the Triple Crown at least – there aren’t any flukes.
2003 – Funny Cide
Comparable to: Rocky Balboa/Apollo Creed I
If the Rocky series would have ended after the first movie, Mr. Balboa would be the perfect comparison for Funny Cide.
Funny Cide, a gelding owned by a group of high school friends in New York, took on the persona of the people’s champ from the moment he won the Kentucky Derby in an upset over the dominant and classicly-bred Empire Maker.
After routing the field in the Preakness, Funny Cide returned to his home state to take on Empire Maker in the Belmont a’ la Rocky taking on Apollo Creed in Philly. Just like his fictional counterpart, Funny Cide put up a valiant effort before succumbing to the superior foe.
Of course, if the Rocky series would have ended after the first movie, our lives would have a large void that only Ivan Drago and Clubber Lang could fill.
2004 – Smarty Jones
Comparable to: 1993 AFC Wild Card Game – Buffalo over Houston
It just seemed like a done deal. Smarty Jones, arguably the most popular of all the candidates to break the drought, coasted into the lead rounding the final turn and separated from the field like he had done in his record breaking win in the Preakness.
As the horses that challenged him on the backstretch faded away and the finish line seemed just a few feet in front of him, a 36-1 shot named Birdstone came hauling up the middle of the track like the Frank Reich-led Bills charging back from a 35-3 deficit to the Houston Oilers, overtaking Smarty on the final strides and winning by half a length.
2008 – Big Brown
Comparable to: 2011 Miami Heat
It was sort of a formality that, after their Avengers-esque collaboration, that we would see the Miami Heat’s pseudo-All Star team land in the 2011 NBA Finals. But most everyone outside of Miami had a common reaction 1.) excited they made it to the Finals and 2.) hoping they would get destroyed in the most dramatic way possible. The Dallas Mavericks too care of that for us all.
The same unusual dynamic was in place in 2008 when Big Brown headed into the Belmont as a heavy favorite to break the streak of failed Triple Crown winners. He looked dominant in the first two races and most appreciated the drama it created, but he was backed by two human slimeballs – trainer Richard Dutrow and owner/Jersey Shore extra, Michael Iavarone – that not many wanted to see celebrating in the winners circle. People may not have admitted it during the race itself, but afterwards there were very few upset that Big Brown and his connections didn’t cement their legacy in a good way.
In the race, Big Brown was pulled up after he dropped to last place entering the stretch run. Basically the equivalent of Heat coach Eric Spoelstra calling timeout with 10 minutes left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals and pulling his team off the court to concede the loss.
And now we’re left to see which side of history the latest candidate – I’ll Have Another – will add its name too. We just can’t wait to see if he manages to tweet from the starting gate.