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Liane Crossley: Reduced foal crop could explain sudden surge in Triple Crown winners

The question had been asked for a generation—would the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred racing ever be won again? The question was answered on June 6, 2015 when American Pharoah became the 12th winner of the elusive honor. This past Saturday, Justify added an exclamation point when he, too, completed the sweep.

The most recent Triple Crown winner had been the mighty Affirmed who achieved the distinction way back in 1978. The decade had two other Triple Crown winners—in 1977 with Seattle Slew and in 1973 with Secretariat, who ended a Triple Crown drought dating back to Citation in 1948.

Speculation abounds for the gap of nearly four decades between winners. One notion attributes the Triple Crown shortage to the abundance of Thoroughbreds born in modern times compared with yesteryear. (See accompanying charts.)

American Pharoah’s group of three-year-olds was from the smallest crop since Affirmed’s class of 28,271, according to statistics from The Jockey Club registry. A few years after Affirmed’s iconic victory, the number of Thoroughbreds born each year routinely expanded beyond 30,000 and peaked above 50,000 in the 1980s.

By comparison, racehorses in the middle of the 20th century had fewer potential rivals when foal crops were teeny by today’s standards. The 1940s had four Triple Crown winners when annual foal crops averaged roughly 6,000 according. Sir Barton, the original Triple Crown winner who won in 1919, was one of only about 2,000 Thoroughbreds born in 1916. In theory, those Triple Crown heroes were simply the best of a not very big bunch.

By the 1950s, about 10,000 Thoroughbreds were produced in North America each year and that figure nearly doubled the following decade. The cream of the crops had more potential challengers than their counterparts of the 1940s. The numbers seem to point to a definitive reason for 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation holding his place for 25 years.

Trio of triples before drought

Just when horse racing fans speculated there would be no more Triple Crown winners, along came Secretariat in 1973. The massive chestnut vaulted to legendary status by following his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victories with his overwhelming 31-length Belmont Stakes triumph. He was the superstar of the 24,361 Thoroughbreds born in North America in 1970.

Just four years after Secretariat’s amazing Belmont Stakes, Seattle Slew swept the Triple Crown. He was one of 27,586 in his crop.

Affirmed took the Triple Crown to another level when he edged the gallant Alydar in their epic Belmont Stakes stretch duel. Alydar is forever remembered for finishing second in all three legs of the Triple Crown. In theory, he could have been a Triple Crown winner had he not been born in the same crop of 28,271 as Affirmed.

The elusive Triple Crown had become nearly an annual event when Spectacular Bid stood ready to be the next king in 1979. But his third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes—famously blamed on a pre-race injury caused by a safety pin in his hoof—dashed the dream. Hope was revived in 1981 with Pleasant Colony but ended with another third-place effort in the Belmont Stakes.

The dry spell that would extend well into the next century had begun and so had the era of increased Thoroughbred production. After Spectacular Bid and Pleasant Colony, 11 more horses failed to win the third jewel after taking the first two Triple Crown races.

By 1980, foal crops of more than 30,000 were the norm and peaked above 50,000 in 1985-87. More horses were available to challenge each other during the Triple Crown season leading to the rationale that the quantity of competition was just too large for a single dominant competitor. While the numbers eventually declined, crops of 30,000 were typical until the 2010 foal crop dipped to 28,353.

The count was even lower in 2012 when American Pharoah and 23,537 Thoroughbreds were born in North America. Justify had even less potential rivals as one of 22,936 in his age group.

Unlike American Pharoah, Justify has never been defeated and arguably could have won the Triple Crown against any and all challengers. Mystics and statistics undoubtedly will claim that he could have beaten past legends like Secretariat. Other debates will arise that the Triple Crown has become too easy after decades of thoughts that it had become impossible.

Regardless of the reasons, the Triple Crown remains a time-honored tradition thanks to the majestic bay American Pharoah and the flashy chestnut Justify.

Lexington-based freelance writer Liane Crossley is a lifelong lover of Thoroughbred racing who has held a variety of jobs in both barns and offices. Her favorite part of the industry is being with the horses and the people who share her passion for them. She can be reached at crossleyliane@yahoo.com

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  1. Libby Unwin says:

    Love this…Interesting idea…

  2. Mark Nolan says:

    The author is confusing correlation with causation. By judiciously selecting data and ignoring other explanations Crossley makes the argument that a very limited numerical coincidence is a valid hypothesis. It could be, but this article certainly doesn’t demonstrate that.

  3. Jerry Price says:

    He was comparing Justify to Secretariat ? Not even the same league Wow

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