Eleven. Currently, that's the most important number in American horse racing. There have been eleven Triple Crown winners spread out over 59 years.
However, since the dawn of television, which for arguments sake was 1952, there have only been three horses that could claim all three legs.
For any American who could not get to Louisville, Ky., Baltimore, or Elmont, N.Y., the first time he or she saw a champion horse was in 1952 when CBS affiliate WHAS covered the Kentucky Derby and the signal was broadcast across the country. Hill Gail won the race as the favorite, but an injury kept him out of the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. He never won another major stakes in his career.
But there have been many horses that rose in the television era to become champions.
Some did it on the first Saturday in May; others won the Jockey Club Gold Cup; one filly even became an even bigger star in death.
For the next six articles, I will take you through whom I believe to be the 25 greatest routing American thoroughbreds since the first televised Kentucky Derby in 1952. There were only four rules in coming up with the criteria:
- The horse must have been bred in the United States. As great as Gallant Man was, he was bred in Ireland and therefore ineligible. Same goes for Canadian-bred Northern Dancer.
- The horse must have completed the majority of its body of work in either the United States. Very few American horses fall victim to this category and none that I seriously considered, but it still needs to be a rule.
- Only the horse's racing career is considered. I don't care if the horse became one of the best breeders of all time; if he or she was not one of the 25 best on the track, he or she won't make the list.
- I am only looking at the performance of the horse at one mile or longer, with the exclusion of juvenile races. There have been many good sprinting horses, but it is much more difficult to compare. Eventually I will come back with the list of the best mile-under horses, but that's not for this list.
I will reveal five per article. The sixth and final installment will include 15 great champions that just missed the cut.
Am I correct? Is there some horse that I've overrated? Underrated? That is for you to decide. Now I will present to you the bottom five horses in my top 25, even though in their day they were number one.
25. Skip Away - "Skip Away's a world-beater in the Hollywood Gold Cup!" - Luke Kruytbosch
Skip Away didn't win the Kentucky Derby. Somehow, he didn't win the Preakness or the Belmont either. After that, he was pure gold.
As a three-year old, he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Woodbine Million and Haskell Invitational in the fall on his way to winning the Eclipse for three-year old colt of the year. He is the only horse since 1984 to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown, not win any, not win the Breeders' Cup Classic, and still win that eclipse.
His win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup came over Cigar, who that summer had finished his record-tying streak of 16 consecutive victories.
His 1997 campaign would have won him the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year had it not been for the phenomenal juvenile Favorite Trick, the first two-year old to win it since Secretariat in 1972. Skip Away won the Massachusetts Handicap, Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second time, and Breeders' Cup Classic. His time in winning the Breeders' Cup Classic was a stakes record.
1998 was his shining year. He won nearly every race he entered, although he could not repeat in the Classic. Finally, Skip Away was awarded the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.
Skip Away retired with 18 wins from 38 starts and more earnings than any horse buy Cigar. Not too shabby.
24. Alysheba - "And Alysheba, America's horse, has done it!" - Tom Durkin
Jack Van Berg had already been training for 30 years, dominating the Nebraska circuit while annually finishing in the top ten nationwide in wins. He won one Triple Crown race, but most of his horses were claiming and allowance-level. Then he found his legend.
It's remarkable how quickly the talent level has fallen off, but during the late 1980s there was incredible depth in the classic division. Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, Ferdinand, all true champions. Oh, there was also Alysheba.
Alysheba never won a stakes race before the Kentucky Derby in 1987. It seemed like he could not lose thereafter.
He won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, becoming in the process the first horse since Pleasant Colony to accomplish that feat. He ran a well-beaten fourth in the Belmont, although that was his first race without lasix since his juvenile year.
Alysheba won the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs that September before shipping to Hollywood Park for a chance at the Breeders' Cup Classic. There he was defeated by a nose to Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby champion.
As a four-year old, Alysheba showed his gut, winning three stakes races at Santa Anita, including the Big Cap or the Santa Anita Handicap, over Ferdinand. That victory made Alysheba the horse to beat that summer.
Although Ferdinand retired before the two had a chance to rematch in the Breeders' Cup Classic, there was still a solid field. With near-blackness in the “Midnight Classic” at Churchill Downs, Alysheba stole horse of the year honors with a three-quarters length victory over Seeking the Gold.
He retired as thoroughbred racing's richest horse with nearly $7 million in career earnings and 11 wins and eight places from 26 starts.
23. Round Table - "Now, at 5, as he keeps winning the big ones with his weight up in the relentlessly professional thoroughness of the New York Yankees in Ruth's day and DiMaggio's, the applause grows louder with each passing hour until it is a crescendo of appreciation and admiration for one of the greatest performers in the history of U.S. racing." - Joe Hirsch
Longevity has to count for something, right?
From ages three to five, Round Table dominated American turf racing.
As a three-year old, he won more than $600,000 nearly 50 percent more than Horse of the Year Bold Ruler. His most prestigious win was the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City, his first of two victories in the event.
As a four-year old, he finally got his due. He dominated the winter circuit, taking the Santa Anita Handicap and Gulfstream Park Handicap on his way to winning his first seven starts of the year, He won the Arlington Handicap for the first time and Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap for the second time. He would again win more than $600,000, but this time he would earn Horse of the Year honors.
Despite six stakes wins in his final year as a five-year old, including victories in the United Nations Handicap and Manhattan Handicap on the turf, three-year old Sword Dancer won Horse of the Year in 1959 in one of the biggest coups in the award's history. Sure, Sword Dancer won the Belmont Stakes and dominated the New York handicap series, but he did not come close to what Round Table did.
Round Table also set an American record of 1:58 2/5 on the turf for 1 ¼ miles that year during his triumph in the San Marcos Handicap, a remarkable time especially considering he was carrying the heavyweight of 132 pounds.
Somehow, Round Table was only Horse of the Year once. 43 wins from 66 lifetime starts isn't a bad consolation though, is it?
22. Cigar - "The incomparable, the invincible, the unbeatable Cigar!" - Tom Durkin
Shocked to see Cigar this low? Well, don't be.
Yes, Cigar was a great champion, but he also dominated in a very weak era. The only true competition he faced was Holy Bull, and that was for one race. Holy Bull broke down on the backstretch of the 1995 Donn Handicap, ending his racing career.
Nonetheless, Cigar was a fine champion.
A nothing until his five-year old year, Cigar surprised everyone when he suddenly rose to the top of his profession. During that undefeated season, he won nine stakes: he won the aforementioned Donn Handicap and Gulfstream Park Handicap in Florida; he won the Oaklawn Handicap in Arkansas; he won the Pimlico Special in Maryland; he won the Hollywood Gold Cup in California; he won the Massachusetts Handicap; he won the Woodward at Saratoga; he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.
Traveling all over the country, Cigar won everywhere, culminating it with his victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont.
As if 1995 was not brilliant enough, he decided to go global in 1996, winning the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba on the way to extending his winning streak to 16.
Although Cigar would eventually be upset by Dare and Go in the Pacific Classic Stakes at Del Mar that August and then finish third in the Classic, he still won Horse of the Year for the second consecutive year.
He retired $185 shy of becoming the first horse to win $10 million in his career.
His stud career was not nearly as successful, as Cigar proved to be sterile. He now lives out his days at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
21. Azeri - "The speed of Ruffian, the class of Lady's Secret, the heart of Personal Ensign. One of the greats of all time! THIS IS AZERI!" - Vic Stauffer
Azeri won 14 of her first 15 lifetime starts, the only loss coming with an awful trip in her first stakes race at Santa Anita in which she still managed to finish second.
After that defeat, Azeri reeled off 11 consecutive graded stakes victories, eight of which were Grade I events.
As a four-year old, she won the Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita before shipping to Oaklawn for the first of three victories Apple Blossom Handicap. Azeri followed that with back-to-back victories at Hollywood Park in the Milady and Vanity Handicaps, both races in which she would repeat in 2003.
From that point on, Azeri would not be touched for the rest of the year, concluding it with a dominating five-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Arlington Park. Azeri would become the first filly or mare to win Horse of the Year since Lady's Secret in 1986.
Azeri repeated in the Apple Blossom to start 2003, this time only by a head, as Take Charge Lady ran a game race to be second. Then in the Milady, track announcer Vic Stauffer observed as Azeri was “showing the speed of Ruffian, the class of Lady's Secret, the heart of Personal Ensign” and proved herself “one of the greats of all time.”
A tendon injury led to her defeat in the Lady's Secret Breeders Cup Handicap at Oak Tree Racing at Santa Anita, ending her season before a chance to repeat in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Although Azeri never fully regained her former form, she did win three Grade I stakes as a six-year old in 2004, including a third consecutive triumph in the Apple Blossom Handicap in Arkansas. The other two victories came in the Go For Wand Handicap and Overbrook Spinster Stakes, her first appearance at Saratoga and Keeneland respectively.
Finally, Azeri rode off into retirement with a fifth place finish against the boys in the Breeders' Cup Classic, ending her career with 17 wins in 24 starts.