Seattle Slew strives Saturday to become thoroughbred racing's 10 Triple Crown winner by adding the Belmont Stakes to his eight-for-eight record. If successful, he should feel extremely proud but not be overwhelmed. The company he joins was not ALL that great. Some were, some weren't.
Indeed, Jimmy Jones once said Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown hero, "should not be compared in any way with a lot of good horses that we (Calumet Farm) had, or at a lot that other people had. You don't compare a horse like Citation to Whirlaway."
Sir Barton, the first 3-year-old to capture the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, did not earn one cent as a race horse until his sixth start, when he finished second. The 1919 Triple Crown victor received seven pounds from Billy Kelly and 10 pounds from Eternal when he beat them in the Derby.
For the matter, the three races were not recognized as any sort of a series when Sir Barton won them.
Gallant Fox, the 1930 Triple Crown champion, was something special, however. "He was lazy," Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons observed. "So long as he had competition he would run like the wind but as soon as he whipped everybody and got the lead he would slow to a walk. He was a fire-eater, though, when he had the competition."
Gallant Fox won nine of his 10 starts at 3, losing only to the 100-to-1 Jim Dandy in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
Omaha, a son of Gallant Fox, took the 1935 Triple. He had won only one of nine races as a 2-year-old and is referred to today by historians as "a great stayer," meaning he was particularly effective over distances rarely run in this country any more.
War Admiral, the 1937 star, accompolished something his sire Man o' War didn't in winning the three races - but only because Man o' War did not compete in the Derby. War Admiral captured all eight of his starts at 3, including, of course, the Belmont, which he delayed eight minutes by dragging as assistant starter through the gate several times.
He also tore off a hunk of the hoof on his right forefoot after stumbling at the start, but he went forth and won the mile and a half event in a record 2:28 3/5.
Whilaway, known to the fans as "Mr. Longtail," ran the final quarter-mile of the Derby in : 23 1/5, setting a Churchill Downs record of 2:01 2/5 for the mile and a quarter which stood until 1962. Despite Jones' remarks, Whirlaway was a joy to watch, a two-time horse of the year and the sport's first $500,000 earner.
Of Count Fleet, the 1943 Triple Crown conqueror, the critics ask: "Who did he beat?" Fairy Manhurst and Deseronto, the only two horses to oppose him the Belmont, were high-priced claiming types. But as Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Adams observed recently, "Count Fleet had terrified all the good horses by then."
Count Fleet was undefeated in six starts as a 3-year-old.
Assault, the seventh Triple Crown winner, in 1946, is perhaps best remembered for overcoming a series of physical problems. He stepped on a sharp stick when he was weanling, the stick going through his frog (a pad on the bottom of the hoof) and out the front walll of his right forefoot. He developed an awkward gait. "When he walked or trotted, you'd think he was going to fall down but there wasn't a thing wrong with his action when he went fast," Max Hirsch noted.
Assault also overcame two splints, a wrenched ankle, a bad knee and internal bleeding during his career.
Secretariat, in 1973, had lost three times before starting out after the Triple Crown. He was fourth in his first race at 2, was disqualified from first place in the Champagne Mile, then lost the Wood Memorial at 3 before going to Kentucky for the Derby.
His efforts in the three races will probably never be equaled. He set official or unofficial time records at all three stops with the flare of what, obviously, was a great runner.
Secretariat's 16 victories in 21 lifetime starts compares favorably with the totals compiled by Gallant Fox (11 for 17), War Admiral (21 for 26) and Count Fleet (16 for 21). These horses give the Triple Crown much of its class, the overall lifetime record of all nine winnres showing only 168 victories in 285 races.
The best record, however, of any of the Triple Crown winners undoubtedly belong to Citation, the 1948 victor.
Citation won eight of nine starts as a 2-year-old and 19 of 20 outings at 3 and had beaten high-quality older horses in Florida before the Derby.
"I could have caught Saggy," Eddie Arcaro said of Citation's defeat in the Chesapeake Trial at Havre-de-Grace in April of '48, "but I wasn't about to burn up this horse for an $8,300 pot with all those $100,000 races ahead."
Citation's only other early defeat occurred in the 1947 Washington Park Futurity in which Calumet Farm finished 1-2-3, with Bewitch, Citiation and Free America.
There never was a stable quite like that one. Calumet had Armed, Bewitch, Faultless, Twosy, Fervent, Free America, Whirl Some and Pot O'Luck, with a few others such as Coaltown awaiting in the wings.
As Kent Hollingsworth relates in "The Great Ones," Jones' only problem with the Washington Fururity was in deciding whihch of the Calumet horses should win.
"We told the riders before the race we'd spllt the fees three ways among them and whoever was in front was to be allowed to win the thing without anybody whipped anybody to death," Jones recalled.
"Well, Bewitch got out there - she could go five-eighths in :58 anytime - and so Citation just sort of went along. Bewitch kind of eased up, though, in the stretch and Citation picked up five lengths on her.
"When the riders came back to us after the race, Doug Dodson, who was on Bewitch, says he could have gone on and pulled away anytime he wanted. But Steve Brooks said, 'Naw, Citation was just loafing,' that he could have gone right on by the filly. About this time, Jackie Westrope gets back with Free America and he said, 'you guys are just kidding yourselves; I coulda taken both of you without even going to the whip.'"