This weekend, I built a fire in a fire ring, near the back porch, with its Tibetan prayer flags waving in the breeze, and as the smoke drifted over the Bourbon County pastures and trees, in the general direction of Claiborne Farm, I asked the ghost of Secretariat to break the Triple Crown drought, just as he did in the flesh in 1973.
Because this is not the first Triple Crown drought. But it is the longest.
When next May rolls around and the cycle begins again, it will have been 35 years since there was a Triple Crown winner, and no guarantee we’ll have one for the anniversary. But, Secretariat broke one Triple Crown drought, and I call upon his ghost to descend upon a likely two-year-old, and give him — or her — (and wouldn’t a Triple Crown winning filly be a boost to the sport) a dose of Big Red’s courage, stamina, speed, and heart.
The only significant news coming out of New York this week came a full day ahead of post time for the Belmont Stakes, when I’ll Have Another was scratched from the race, and from the opportunity of breaking this Triple Crown drought, by far the longest in history.
As we’ve seen in earlier columns, the modern American Triple Crown of Thoroughbred racing was pretty well invented by the press and Col. Matt Winn, the Kentucky Derby’s greatest promoter, in 1930, when Gallant Fox, ridden by the great Earl Sande, won the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Sir Barton had done the same thing in 1919, of course, but no one noticed. During the decade in between, the three races had consolidated themselves as the premier races in the Thoroughbred world, and had become, even before they were proclaimed so by the press, an American Triple Crown.
Gallant Fox, in 1930, was trained by Jim Fitzsimmons, one of the greatest trainers of his era, who would train the next Triple Crown winner, Omaha, in 1935, as well. In 1937, War Admiral, who lost to Seabiscuit in the famous match race that year, won the Triple Crown. One decade, three Triple Crown winners: A Triple Crown winner almost every three years. Sound like heaven?
It only gets better. In 1941, Calumet Farm won the first of its two ’40s Triple Crown victories with the great runner Whirlaway, with the greatest jockey of his — and arguably any other — age, Eddie Arcaro, aboard. In 1943, Count Fleet, ridden by Johnny Longden, whose star was fading as Arcaro’s was rising, won the Triple Crown. In 1946, the mighty King Ranch, whose Texas operation is famously larger than Rhode Island, won the Triple Crown with Assault. 1948 brought Calumet Farm, and Arcaro, their second — and for each, their last — Triple Crown.
The vehicle on which they won it was wondrous to behold: Citation was everything today’s thoroughbred is not. He had the speed and stamina to win not only the Triple Crown, but sixteen races in a row, and was fit enough to race until he was six years old, though he had to lay off one year with an injury. Citation retired as the sport’s first million dollar winner, and — though we have largely forgotten him — as the super horse of his generation. It is perhaps poetic justice that he won his Triple Crown the year Man O’War died, then died himself the year Secretariat was born. When The Blood-Horse toted up their votes on the greatest Thoroughbreds of the Twentieth Century, they placed Citation third, behind only Man O’War and Secretariat.
My old law partner, former Fayette County Judge Joe Johnson, and a great breeder in his own right, insisted that one of the turning points of his life was watching his father put down a $10,000 bet on the Calumet Farm combination entry of Citation and his stablemate Coaltown, at the Derby. Joe and his father were from Hazard, which made Coaltown their sentimental favorite. Citation’s victory cashed the ticket, but Coaltown came in second, an amazing performance. “I was never afraid to do a deal after that,” Joe said. Though the combo only paid $2.80, that amounts to getting back $14,000 on a $10,000 bet, not bad in 1948 dollars.
That year marked the fourth, and final, Triple Crown winner of the ’40s, surpassing the three Triple Crowns of the ’30s, and ending a 20-year Golden Age of Triple Crown Winners, which had seen seven winners in two decades, one every three years on the average. It also began the first great Triple Crown drought.
The 50s were as dry as a desert, despite the best efforts of Eddie Arcaro, and the 60s, smelling of patchouli and napalm, the decade that produced Northern Dancer, and the Dancer’s Image controversy, produced no Triple Crown winners.
The ’70s opened with promise, as Canonero II in 1971 won both the Derby and Preakness at blazing speeds, only to fade badly in a Belmont his infected hoof should have kept him out of. But 1973 was the year of Secretariat, and everything changed. We had the only undisputed super horse since, well, Citation.
“Tell me again how everything was better in the ’70s,” my son taunts me. Well, for Triple Crown winners, it kind of was. After Secretariat, the greatest of them all, you had our only back-to-back Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew in 1977, one of the most popular racehorses of all time, and Affirmed, who won his dramatic duels with Alydar in all three jewels of the Triple Crown in 1978. I remember thinking at the time, we’re going to have lots of Triple Crown winners now!
Unfortunately, that brings us to today. Which is to say, 35 years later, deep into what has become by at least ten years the longest sustained Triple Crown drought in the series’ history. We are in the awkward position of having four living former presidents — including the one who was in office when the last Triple Crown winner ran — and no living Triple Crown winners.
For the first time, we’ve had three whole decades — the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s — without a Triple Crown winner. Which is to say, three decades without a true ambassador for racing, a Secretariat or Man O’War, who can become the embodiment, the mane and tail, of the sport, and its ambassador to the world.
And so, as the woodsmoke faded away, and the cats resumed trying to knock down the prayer flags, I mumbled that line from Stairway to Heaven about smoke rings in the trees, and asked the ghost of Secretariat, who broke the last Triple Crown drought 40 years ago next year, to find a likely looking two-year-old runner, one with stamina and speed, but mostly heart, and pour out upon him or her that special spirit it takes to start another golden age of Triple Crown winners. This drought has gone on long enough.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.