Kentucky Derby Horse Racing

Mike Smith celebrates after riding Justify to victory during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby in 2018 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

Legalized betting on sporting events has states clamoring to enact legislation to allow people to place wagers on football, baseball, hockey, and basketball, but lost in the shuffle is the fact that horse racing has stood proudly as the original legal “best bet” in sports in America for well over a century.

The upcoming 2019 running of the Kentucky Derby, the fabled “Run for the Roses”, on Saturday, May 4, is the first leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, which gives us pause to reflect upon the significance of the event.

Every sport has an annual championship showdown. In baseball it's the World Series, in football it's the Super Bowl, and in hockey it's the Stanley Cup. The common denominator is that there is a winner every year.

The honor rolls of World Series, Super Bowl, and Stanley Cup winners through the years all boast teams of varying championship qualities. There's little doubt some were better than others. Some stand out as dynasties while others gather dust on the shelves of time. It's an inevitability when there has to be a winner.

There doesn't have to be a Triple Crown thoroughbred champion. Yet, the opportunity exists to have a winner every year. The events that comprise the Triple Crown are held annually. Individually they are difficult to win. Collectively they represent nearly insurmountable challenges.

Similarly, of the tens of thousands of thoroughbreds foaled every year, only an elite 13 have ever won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes: Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015), and Justify (2018).

There were no Triple Crown champions in the '50s and '60s. None in the '80s and '90s. There was a 25-year gap between Citation and Secretariat. There was a 37-year gap between Affirmed and American Pharoah, which got people thinking that it had become an impossible quest.

Triple Crown champions are in a class by themselves. Every thoroughbred has only one chance to join the exclusive club. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont are restricted to 3-year-olds.

When you get right down to it, thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown just may be the most elite mantel of greatness in all of sports.

The three Triple Crown stakes are held at three different race tracks in three different states at three different distances during a span of six weeks.

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The track configurations and running surfaces are different in every instance, plus there's this little complication: Many of the thoroughbreds who compete in the Triple Crown races are barely three years of age by the calendar. Since race horses celebrate a universal birthday on Jan. 1, horses foaled in May turn a year old the following January, yet in reality they are only seven months old.

The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, is the first jewel of the Triple Crown. It is held on the first Saturday in May at a distance of 1 1/4 miles, the furthest the competitors have ever been asked to run.

The Derby has become America's most famous horse race. It didn't always enjoy that reputation. Once upon a time it was just another race. Then along came Col. Matt Winn in the 1920s to run Churchill Downs. A marketing genius far ahead of his time, he "talked up" his track's biggest race and laid the groundwork for the status it enjoys today.

After the Kentucky Derby, the horses move on to Baltimore, Maryland, for the Preakness Stakes at historic Pimlico Race Course. At a distance of 1 3/16 miles, the race is a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby.

The third and final jewel of the Triple Crown is held at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, three weeks after the Preakness. The race is called "The Test of the Champion" and rightfully so. It's a demanding 1 1/2 miles, in many cases the first and only time the horses will ever be asked to run that far.

When you take into account the media hoopla that surrounds the Triple Crown events, the hordes of people who pack the stands, the noise, and the hype, it's a miracle any horse has been able to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way on the road to racing greatness.


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Opinions are solely those of the writer. Reach him at jgbrokopp1@gmail.com.