This time of year - the week of the Kentucky Derby - is when thoughts of a Triple Crown winner really intensify. Well, really, those thoughts reach their peak after the Derby has been run and we can judge whether we think the winner is worthy of joining Secretariat, Seattle Slew and the other all-time legends. Looking at it now is a bit more fun, though, because we aren't bound by reality - we can dream about whatever horse we think is best and consider their chances accordingly. We can also bet on it. Bovada has the odds of there being a Triple Crown winner at a relatively low 5/1, with the "no" side being heavily favored at 1/8. So, will there be a Triple Crown winner this year? Is there any value in this bet? Let's take a look:
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History is not on our side in this one if we are looking at the "yes" option for this prop. We have not had a Triple Crown winner since 1978. We have come close - many soul-crushing times. Very good horses like Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Big Brown, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide and others have won the first two legs only to come up short in the final try - just by a nose in the case of Real Quiet. Point Given and Afleet Alex were at least as good as any of those horses, but they faltered in the Derby before dominating the last two legs. Winning a Triple Crown is just plain hard. It takes a whole lot of luck and an exceptional horse. They need to have their best racing day three times in five weeks - something horses just aren't asked to do at any other time any more. Increasingly, they are also forced to beat a lot of fresh horses, too - horses that skipped the Derby to prep for the Preakness or Derby horses that skipped the Preakness to be fresh for the Belmont. And, more all the time, horses are being bred in North America for flashy speed over relentless stamina - which makes it really tough to shine in all three races, and especially the Belmont.
On the other hand, whenever we get depressed about how long it has been and how hopeless it all seems right now, all we have to do is look back to the 1970s. Back then people were making the same arguments we are now. There hadn't been a Triple Crown winner since 1948, the task was getting tougher, breeding was skewing towards speed, and so on. But then Secretariat changed everything in 1972. Then Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown again in 1977. And Affirmed in 1978. Look back to the end of that decade and the argument was all about how the Triple Crown had become so easy as to be meaningless and it needed to be changed before it got out of hand. In other words, things could change.
While I firmly believe that we will see a Triple Crown winner again - and not a long time from now, either - this does not set up well to be the year. Many have said it, but D. Wayne Lukas is the most often referenced - to win a Triple Crown you need an exceptional horse facing an underwhelming group of contenders. That isn't always the case - Affirmed had to fight off the great Alydar in each of his races - but the pattern most often fits. Well, that's a problem here.
American Pharoah has the looks and makings of an exceptional horse - a generational one. But so does Dortmund. And Carpe Diem is no slouch. And, in other, less-daunting years there would be much more excitement around horses like Mubtaahij, Frosted, Firing Line, and others than there is now. This is a very deep, very impressive group of three year olds. We know with certainty that one of them will win the Derby on the first Saturday in May. There are two problems, though - it's very tough to figure out which horse that is likely to be, and it's tough to imagine the same horse besting the rest of this group three times in a row.
The biggest enemy to a Triple Crown this year is Bob Baffert. American Pharoah and Dortmund are both the kinds of horses that most trainers only dream of having just once in their careers. He has two at the same time. They are very likely to be the two top favorites in the Derby. That's not unprecedented - Bobby Frankel had Empire Maker and Peace Rules in 2003, and Bobby Jones had a heck of a one-two punch in 1948 when CItation won the Triple Crown and Coaltown went on to be 1949 Horse of the Year. Things turned out well for Jones, but Frankel came up short - finishing second and third in the Derby and third in the Preakness before winning the Belmont with Empire Maker.
So, would I bet that this is the year that we will finally break our Triple Crown drought? No. But I will be hoping for it intensely - just like every year.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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