As the first event in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Horses, the Kentucky Derby has always attracted massive crowds. Despite the fact that the Belmont Stakes, usually hosted in late June, could determine a Triple Crown racehorse, the stands of Churchill Downs are tough to compete with.
Every year, crowds of around 150,000 pack into Churchill Downs in what many consider to be one of the greatest bucket-list sporting events in the world. Fancy hats and pristine gloves are worn by spectators and photo ops and distracted groups of people abound.
But for regular horse racing pundits, the Kentucky Derby is just another race. In fact, some fans would argue that the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, with their longer distances and tighter lineups, are where the tight competition actually takes place within the Triple Crown series.
Though the Kentucky Derby tends to take the lion’s share of attention for non-racing reasons, this 2020’s race proved worth watching. Tiz the Law was predicted to take the race, but Authentic beat out the favorite. In another rousing performance, Mr. Big News leaped into third place despite entering the Derby with zero qualifying points.
While this year’s Kentucky Derby was delayed by half a year, proprietors have no intention of delaying next year’s race. The 2021 Kentucky Derby is set for the first weekend in May and has punters already setting out their free picks for horse racing and compiling detailed profiles on entrants.
So far, Essential Quality and Jackie’s Warrior have caught the attention of analysts. Many are hoping there will be enough action and intrigue in 2021 to produce another race as exciting as this year’s battle between Authentic and Tiz the Law.
However, the true prize that all horse racing fans wait for is the possibility of seeing another Triple Crown winner named after taking the Kentucky Derby. Historically, they’ve tended to come in batches.
Of the thirteen horses honored with the Triple Crown, three were named in the 1930s, four in the 1940s, another three in the 70s, and two more in the 2010s. In fact, only the first winner, Sir Barton in 1919, claimed an era all his own.
1930s: Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral
In 1930, Gallant Fox ended the eleven-year drought of Triple Crown winners. Though the concept of a ‘triple crown’ winner first began in 1923, it was popularized by Daily Racing Forum’s writer, Charles Hatton.
Owned and bred by Belair Stud, Gallant Fox was a descendent of the French stallion Sir Gallahad. Sir Gallahad was an illustrious stud who also produced Fighting Fox, who took multiple races like his brother, Gallant Fox.
The next winner, Omaha in 1935, was also owned and bred by Belair Stud. Jim Fitzsimmons served as a trainer for both Gallant Fox and Omaha, and would hold the record for most Triple Crown champions trained until Bob Baffert did the same in recent years.
However, the 1930s primary star was War Admiral, who took the Triple Crown in 1938. War Admiral is also known for his famous race against Seabiscuit, where the Triple Crown winner lost in a closed race at Pimlico Race Course.
1940s: Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation
In 1941, Whirlaway became the first horse owned and bred by Calumet Farm to take the first Triple Crown of the decade. He was also the first horse to achieve the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing after also taking the Travers Stakes.
Two years later, Count Fleet, owned and bred by Fannie Hertz, became the next Triple Crown winner. He’s known as one of the most competitive horses to have raced in the US, particularly in the 20th century. He continues to hold the record for the largest margin of victory with twenty-five lengths at the Belmont Stakes.
Assault and Citation closed out the 40s with wins in 1946 and 1948, respectively. Citation was also owned and bred by Calumet Farm, marking their second (of two) Triple Crown wins. Like Count Fleet, he’s considered one of the greatest racehorses of the century.
1970s: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed
Pundits typically name Secretariat as the greatest racehorse of all US Triple Crown winners. Though his record isn’t as pristine as Count Fleet or Citation, Secretariat faced stiffer competition.
Bred and owned by Meadow Stable, Secretariat still holds multiple records set during his campaign in 1973. But only four years later, another Triple Crown winner was named in Seattle Slew. Seattle Slew marked the first winner to have a wide share of owners—and is one of two Triple Crown winners to take the title while undefeated.
The very next year, Affirmed of Harbor View Farm became a Triple Crown champion. His legacy includes a vibrant rivalry with fellow thoroughbred, Alydar. Affirmed defeated Alydar by meager lengths in each of his Triple Crown wins, leaving Alydar to be remembered as one of the greatest racehorses to never win a championship title.
2010s: American Pharaoh, Justify
Following Affirmed’s Triple Crown win in 1978, US horseracing saw a 37-year drought of thoroughbred champions. American Pharaoh ended the drought with style and power. Besides being named Triple Crown champion, American Pharaoh also became the second horse to take the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred Racing in 2015.
However, unlike Whirlaway, who achieved the same feat by also taking the Travers Stakes in addition to the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness Stakes, American Pharaoh won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He set a track record with a win of 6.5 lengths.
To date, Whirlaway and American Pharaoh are the only racehorses to achieve these feats. Bob Baffert trained American Pharaoh. Along with Fitzsimmons, trainer of Gallant Fox and Omaha in the 1930s, Baffert is the only trainer to have led two horses to become Triple Crown champions.
Three years later, another one of Baffert’s trained horses, Justify, took the Triple Crown. Like 1977’s Seattle Slew, Justify became the second Triple Crown recipient to be owned by multiple groups, which included China Horse Club and WinStar Farms.
Justify is descended from Seattle Slew. Both horses are the only racehorses to have won the Triple Crown while undefeated. Though Seattle Slew eventually lost following his Triple Crown win, Justify was retired following the Belmont Stakes and remains the only Triple Crown to have never lost a race.