June 2015 – When Affirmed won the Triple Crown of American thoroughbred racing in 1978, the achievement merited little more than a shrug. It was the third time in five years that the same horse had won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, and the eleventh in the sport’s history. And Affirmed’s achievement, however impressive, paled in comparison with the legendary 1973 campaign by Secretariat, who set record times for all three races that have still never been broken.
But as decades went by without another Triple Crown winner, Affirmed’s shadow loomed larger and larger. It would be 37 long years for racing fans until this June 6th, whenAmerican Pharoah— whose owners are clearly better at horse-training than they are at spelling—at last equalled the feat. Leading almost wire to wire, he reached the finish line in two minutes and 26.55 seconds, besting the runner-up by five and a half lengths.
There are good reasons why the Triple Crown has proven so elusive. Raw speed is of course essential to secure it, but adaptability, endurance and a quick recovery time are almost as important. The three races, all for three-year-olds, occur within a five-week stretch in May and June in three different states. The Preakness, the middle leg held in Maryland, is the shortest at one and three-sixteenths miles (1.9 km) long, rewarding sprinters who may tire easily. The Kentucky Derby, the first and most popular race, is only slightly longer at a mile and a quarter, which may explain why winning the first two-thirds of the crown is fairly common: from 1979 to 2014, 36% of Derby victors also prevailed in the Preakness.
But the Belmont, held in Long Island just east of New York City, favours precisely the opposite type of horse. At a mile and a half, it is the longest track in the United States and a veritable equine marathon. Most of the competitors—and many of the jockeys, for that matter—have never run so far. The final turn is tricky, and can cause even experienced riders to make the push for the lead too soon. The fact that it is the final leg, after horses have already exhausted themselves in a series of qualifying events and then two high-stakes races, makes the long route feel even longer. As a result, the Belmont is extraordinarily unpredictable: one author even recommended betting on every horse except the favourite, because long-shots are so likely to win there. It has stymied the last 13 horses who entered with a shot at the crown.
However, none of this explains why winning the crown was once so common and is now so rare. The most substantive theory is that training methods have changed: because many modern races are single mile or less, fewer and fewer horses are selected for the ability to sustain a healthy speed for longer distances. That has turned the all-but-interminable Belmont Stakes into a little more than a crapshoot, decreasing the odds of a victory by the favourite. Another hypothesis is simply that the higher level of modern competition makes it harder for a single outlier to dominate consistently: Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist, once used this principle to explain why no one in baseball hits .400 anymore.
But the most convincing account is probably simple random variation. In the 85 years since the current order of the three races was set, ten horses (11.8%) have won the Triple Crown. Over an 85-year sample, the chances that there will be at least one 36-year streak of an event with an 11.8% probability failing to happen are a rather beefy 42%. Similar logic can be applied to the flurry of Triple Crown winners in the 1970s. When Timemagazine asked Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a famous horseman, why so many horses had captured the crown in such a short time, he sagely responded “I think it’s mostly chance.”
Regardless of the cause, American Pharoah’s success has put horse racing, now little more than a fringe pastime, back at the centre of the sporting universe. Some 90,000 fans packed into the Belmont racetrack to cheer him on—even Bill Clinton was spotted in the VIP tent. If last year’s failed Triple Crown bid by California Chrome is any indication, over 20m people probably tuned in on television to watch the race as well. Could the end of the Triple Crown drought help revive the sport’s fortunes?
Experienced bettors will tell you that any horse with sufficiently juicy odds is worth a punt, but a meaningful comeback still looks like a longshot. Average racing enthusiasts are now in their 50s and getting older, and smaller racetracks have been closing all over America. Even if the Triple Crown events can retain the public’s interest, six minutes of action per year does not make for a viable business model. And unlike in other sports that can promote their stars for decades, casual fans who have just discovered American Pharoah will have only a handful of additional opportunities at most to see him run before he retires: given the risk of injury, he will be far more valuable at stud, where he could earn his owners, Zayat Stables, some $100,000 per foal. Today, American Pharoah’s Triple Crown looks like the sport’s most glorious moment in 40 years. With hindsight, it could wind up being horse racing’s swan song.