Horse racing: Counting down the best Triple Crown races of all-time

Sure, some sports are back. But “sports” as we know them are largely still on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. Today is Day 66 Without Sports 🐎

We should be preparing for the 145th running of the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Except, well, you know. 

However! Many of the world’s top jockeys will be descending upon Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday, giving the track a Kentucky Derby-ish day with large fields filling out the card.

It has the feeling of the first Saturday in May. Except it’s the third Saturday in May. And there is no Derby. Or mint juleps. Or hats. Or fans.

But, hey, let’s make it a day of celebration anyway, shall we? With that in mind, we’re counting down the 10 most exciting Triple Crown races. As a Kentuckian, I feel a special authority to make these types of determinations. Even so, I’ve enlisted the help of my brother, an absolutely terrible handicapper but something of an exciting-horse-races-you-can-watch-on-YouTube expert. 

A special thanks to the magnificent Tom Durkin, whose voice you’ll hear over and again when you inevitably fall down the rabbit hole of legendary horse races. 

10. Giacomo, Kentucky Derby, 2005

There was a decades-long stretch when you could all but be assured that the favored horse would not win the Kentucky Derby. Even so, rarely has a horse with odds as long as Giacomo won the run for the roses. Off at 50-1, Giacomo’s odds were the third-highest of any Derby winner in history. He passed Afleet Alex, who you’ll hear more from later, in a thrilling stretch run.

9. Rags to Riches, Belmont Stakes, 2007

The pack was four-wide at the far turn (CP West, Hard Spun, Curlin, and Rags), and once two broke clear, it became another Battle of the Sexes, though the legendary Curlin put up a much better fight than Bobby Riggs. Curlin battled back on the rail, but Todd Pletcher’s filly would not be denied, giving Pletcher his first Triple Crown victory.

8. Secretariat, Preakness Stakes, 1973

One of the most underrated races in history. His Belmont gets all the hype, and it should. But have you ever seen a horse make a move on the first turn the way Secretariat did? Any other horse does that, go ahead and tear up your ticket. But not Big Red. Still, the most impressive aspect of this effort is that Ron Turcotte never once used his whip. Not many hand-ridden Triple Crown winners out there. 

7. Grindstone, Kentucky Derby, 1996

Every time I watch this stretch run I think Grindstone has no chance. The favorite, Unbridled’s Song, seems in complete control at the top of the stretch. On the rail, however, Cavonnier makes a move and then *he* looks like the sure winner. But Grindstone comes down the middle of the track like he was shot out of a cannon and wins by a nose.

6. Brokers Tip, Kentucky Derby, 1933

This one was literally a fight to the finish. More specifically, a fight at the finish. Don Meade, atop Brokers Tip, and Herb Fisher, on Head Play, are literally fighting one another as the horses come down to the wire. It’s insane. The finish was later dubbed the “fighting finish,” which really isn’t very clever, but it’s accurate. The two continued duking it out afterward in the jockey’s room. 

Two jockeys fight at the finish in a race that was later dubbed the "fighting finish."

5. Birdstone, Belmont Stakes, 2004

Smarty Jones’ owner Roy Chapman was pretty chapped that Eddington and Rock Hard Ten pressed the pace with poor Smarty, and Smarty did run the race of his life. But, in the end, little Birdstone picked up the pieces, and an unapologetic Nick Zito got his first Belmont win in 12 tries. Valiant but vanquished, Smarty Jones was left in the dustbin of history.

4. Mine That Bird, Kentucky Derby, 2009

If Calvin Borel earned his nickname Bo-RAIL with Street Sense, he solidified it with Mine That Bird. Vanned all the way from New Mexico, Mine That Bird came from absolute dead-last to literally skim the rail and win at 50-1. Even Tom Durkin was surprised as the mud-covered 8-horse scooted up the rail and won by daylight. Giacomo’s 50-1 win had some drama; this one was a walk. 

3. Secretariat, Belmont Stakes, 1973

Not a lot of drama in this one. Secretariat took a commanding lead and … stretched it. By a lot. He wrapped up the triple crown in the most dominating fashion ever, winning by 31 lengths.

Secretariat was fast.

2. Afleet Alex, Preakness Stakes, 2005

Perhaps the greatest racehorse to not win a Triple Crown, Afleet Alex had one of the most dramatic wins in the history of the sport. The leader at the top of the stretch, Scrappy T, was all over the place at the final turn, and the two clipped heels and Afleet Alex nearly went down as jockey Jeremy Rose was almost thrown from the horse. Somehow, Rose regained control and Afleet Alex sprinted away. He won the Belmont with a late kick you have to see to believe.

1. Victory Gallop, Belmont Stakes, 1998

The word “heartbreaking” doesn’t quite cut it. “Soul-crushing” or “absolutely devastating” would probably do. Real Quiet is all alone with one furlong to go. Every time this race is replayed, it seems impossible that Real Quiet could lose. Kent Desormeaux hits the wire unaware if he’s a hero; Gary Stevens crosses the finish line clueless if he had played spoiler on Victory Gallop. And if Durkin had a hiccup with Mine That Bird, this Belmont was his finest hour. His hysterical call at the wire hits the perfect tone. It’s how everyone was feeling. But, in the end, we were all left waiting for another year for a Triple Crown champion.

Honorable mention

Video of the day

The greatest race of all-time.

Story time!

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UM, NEVERMIND: That AAU volleyball tournament in Orlando that remained scheduled despite folks from 34 states attending? No longer happening.

LIVE SPORTS!: The Bundesliga returns Saturday. Here’s what you need to know.

BOUNTYGATEGATE: James Harrison clears the air about his comments that seemed to suggest Mike Tomlin helped pay his fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

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COVERING MJ: Ahmad Rashad on what it was like to follow Michael Jordan’s career from the sidelines.

THAT’S NOT HAPPENING: Rory McIlroy played a round of golf with President Trump a few years ago. He probably won’t do that again.

‘EVERY MOMENT COUNTS’: Tragedy brings perspective for Lakers center Dwight Howard.  

AARON RODGERS: Retiring with the Green Bay Packers ‘may not be a reality.’

What to watch

NFL: 1962 NFL Championship: Packers vs. Giants, noon EST, NFL Network; 1992 NFC Championship, Cowboys at 49ers, 9:30 p.m. EST, NFL Network.

MLB: 1997 World Series Game 3, Marlins at Indians, 11 a.m. EST, MLB Network; 1999 NLCS Game 6, Mets at Braves, 2 p.m. EST, MLB Network; 2002 World Series Game 2, Giants at Angels, 5 p.m. EST, MLB Network.

NBA: 1996 NBA Finals Game 6, Sonics at Bulls, 6:30 p.m. EST, NBA TV. 

SOCCER: Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke 04 (live!), 9:20 a.m. EST, FS1; Eintrach Frakfurt vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (live!), 12:20 p.m. EST, FS1.

UFC: Fight Night (live!), 6 p.m. EST.

Today in sports history

1996: Sammy Sosa hits two home runs in one inning.

1984: Legendary Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton hits a grand slam.

1869: Cincinnati Reds play their first baseball game, eke out a 41-7 win.

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