This Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of the last Triple Crown winner in horse racing and unless something unexpected happens again this year most fans and collectors will soon forget the results of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Those who will argue with some merit that horse racing really doesn't qualify as a true sport -- the horses do most of the work and the jockeys are simply along for the ride. Of course, those skeptics have never ridden a true thoroughbred over a mile and a quarter and it is worth pointing out that Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner 25 years ago, was voted athlete of the year by several major publications that year.
However, unless one horse manages to win all three major stakes races beginning with Saturday's "Run for the Roses" at Churchill Downs there will be little interest to acquire anything associated with the horse, its jockey or trainer or even the stables that nurtured the horse into a true champion. Even the most die-hard of fans will be sorely tested to remember who won last year's Derby and Preakness -- Silver Charm -- which missed out on a chance for immortality when it failed to capture the Belmont and the Triple Crown.
No, it's been 20 years since Affirmed with Kentucky teen-ager Steve Cauthen aboard rode into the history books with victories in the three major races. Making that triple crown -- the 11th in racing history -- so memorable was that Affirmed dueled Alydar in all three races in competition that would rival Ali-Frazier, Connors-McEnroe or Chamberlain-Russell. Alydar finished second in all three races, earning a place in the Avis (we finish second) hall of fame but settling for an asterik to the run of Affirmed.
For a time in the 70s, it appeared that Triple Crown winners would become too commonplace and as a result, not be as special to the betting and spectator public. The year before Affirmed won in 1978, Seattle Slew and Jean Cruguet riding won all three races. In racing circles, Seattle Slew is considered to be among the weakest of the Triple Crown winners because the competition was considered to be weak that year.
Five years earlier, the aforementioned Secretariat with jockey Ron Turcotte swept to impressive victories in the three races including a 26-furlong win in the Belmont Stakes. Before that, it had been a quarter of a century before any horse had accomplished the trick. In 1948, Citation, probably the most famous horse of its era, and jockey Eddie Arcaro, probably the most famous jockey of the era, won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Arcaro's feat was more special because it marked his second Triple Crown -- he had won with Whirlaway in 1941 -- and he is the only jockey in history to ever win the Triple Crown twice. It helped distinguish him from his major rival of the era, Willie Shoemaker, who won more races and more money than any other jockey but never won the Triple Crown.
Predicting a horse that will ride into the hearts of collectors and bettors alike is as difficult as anything in sport. The Kentucky Derby always has the largest field -- just entering and competing in the Derby will raise the profile of the horse, jockey, trainer and owner to the point where it usually pays off in stud fees and the selling of the offspring at auction sales down the road. The field thins out considerably for the Preakness in Baltimore two weeks later -- most of the Derby also-rans don't want to go through the expense of running at Pimlico with the realization most people won't care if the horse finishes out of the money. At Belmont, the longest of the three races, the one mile and one half length discourages many from entering because of the fear of injury to the horse.
This year, horses like Indian Charlie, Event of the Year, Halory Hunter, Favorite Trick, Real Quiet, Victory Gallop and Cape Town are considered serious candidates for the Triple Crown although none is even whispered to be in the class of a Secretariat or Affirmed. Few are predicting a triple crown winner to emerge from this year's field of horses.
Interestingly, the most sought-after item for collectors each year at the Derby has nothing to do with the horse, jockey or stable. Sure, there are t-shirts, caps and other memorabilia sporting the name of current contenders and former winners on sale at Churchill Downs (and other tracks with off-track betting wagering on the race) and there are even those who choose to hang on to the winning ticket -- usually the smallest $2 wager -- rather than cash it in because of the chance the ticket will be worth more down the road.
But the No. 1 item each year continues to be Derby Glasses. No, that's not the name of a broken down nag that failed to qualify for the race but the glasses that contain a simply awful concoction called a mint julep. The combination of cheap Kentucky bourbon and mint -- the drink is considerably watered down to make it taste even worse -- has been popular in Louisville since the turn of the century. But over the past 25 years, the glass that houses the drink has been a sought- after collectors' item. The glass lists previous Derby winners, has Churchill Downs insignia on it and is often kept and traded at shows right alongside trading cards. Many buy the glasses from vendors -- you can purchase a dozen at concession stands without having to suffer through the drink itself -- and the price has gone up from $1.50 in the 70s to as much as $7.50 a shot depending upon where you purchase it.