Triple Crown is elusive gem of racing royalty


At the Pimlico stakes barn early yesterday morning, Ed Seigenfeld was asked who he likes in the Preakness Saturday.

"I like any horse who has won the Kentucky Derby," he said.

Of course he does. The New York-based Seigenfeld, Johns Hopkins class of '58, is executive director of Chrysler's $5 million Triple Crown challenge. Doing away with the point system used in recent years, Chrysler only will pay a bonus to a horse that captures the Triple Crown.

It's the greatest honor in racing, winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in the same year.

The only horse in the world who can win the Triple Crown this year is Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin.

No 3-year-old has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, although a lot of people, like Seigenfeld, root for it to happen every year.

When Go For Gin splashed to victory in the slop in the Derby 10 days ago, many in the Churchill Downs crowd of 130,594 and knowledgeable racing people among the millions watching on ABC-TV assumed there'd be no Triple Crown winner this year.

Not unless all three races are run on sloppy tracks.

Whoa, says Nick Zito, who trains Go For Gin. That's not necessarily so.

"Gin is a good horse," Zito was saying at stall 40, where the Derby winner is quartered this week. "He never runs a bad race. He runs well on a fast track."

Yesterday Go For Gin put in a workout that Zito called "perfect." The colt went five-eighths of a mile in 1:02 2/5 over a muddy track.

"Just what we wanted," said Zito, who will gallop the horse up to the Preakness.

What would it take for Go For Gin to win?

"He has to break good," said Zito. "Get a good post position. Have a good trip.

"It all depends on when he drops his head. When he wants to run, Chris McCarron will drop his head and let him go. Chris will sense that. He's a great jockey. I don't have to tell people in Maryland that."

No, Zito doesn't have to tell us about Chris McCarron, who, as an 18-year-old apprentice, broke in at Bowie on Jan. 24, 1974, and on his first mount, Most Active, finished dead last.

Things have picked up. Four times McCarron's mounts have won more money than those of any other rider that year. Three times he has won more races than any other jockey. Last year his mounts earned $11,631,725. It's standard for the jock to receive 10 percent.

In fact, McCarron has won the Triple Crown -- though on different horses in different years. In addition to winning the Derby this year, he also won the Run for the Roses on Alysheba in 1987, the '92 Preakness with Pine Bluff and the '86 Belmont with Danzig Connection.

The least of Zito's concerns is his rider. One thing that does concern him is what he calls "the new players" in the game.

There are seven horses in the Preakness who did not run in the Derby -- Concern, Numerous, Kandaly, Polar Expedition, Shiprock, Silver Goblin and Looming.

They are referred to as fresh horses. A horse that ran 1 1/4 miles on May 7 is hardly a fresh horse. That's always of concern in a 1 3/16-mile race such as the Preakness.

"That's what makes it so tough to win the Preakness," Zito said. "You have to come back in two weeks. Some of these horses coming in haven't raced in a month."

That's part of what makes the Triple Crown what it is. Many consider it the most elusive championship in all of sports.

"It's so hard to win," said Zito, shaking his head in dismay. "You have to win the Derby and then the Preakness and then three weeks after that the Belmont Stakes at a mile and a half. It's so tough."

The record supports that.

The youngest of the Triple Crown races is, oddly, the one that has become America's greatest horse race -- the Kentucky Derby. The Derby began in 1875; the Preakness two years

before that. The Belmont, dating to 1867, is the oldest.

Even though the three races have been in existence together for 119 years, only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown:

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; and Affirmed, 1978.

Although Sir Barton was the first Triple Crown winner, nobody realized he had won it at the time.

The name Triple Crown didn't come into existence until 1930, when a popular racing writer of the day, Charley Hatton, coined the term in describing Gallant Fox's accomplishment.

It's said that Hatton, a hunt-and-peck typist, tired of writing out the names of the three races. Triple Crown was so much simpler. Sportswriters being what we are, the rest followed Hatton's example. Happily.

It would have been impossible to win a Triple Crown in some of those early years.

The Preakness and the Belmont were run the same day in 1890 at Morris Park. Eleven times the Preakness was run before the Derby. In 1917 and 1922, the Derby and Preakness were run on the same day.

The Preakness was not run at all in 1891, 1892 or 1893. New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes banned racing in 1911-1912, eliminating the Belmont.

There have been 39 Triple Crown near-misses -- horses that won two of the three races. Twelve times one horse has won the Derby and Preakness, only to lose in the Belmont. The most recent of these was Sunday Silence in 1989.

Hall of Fame trainer Charley Whittingham saddled Sunday Silence. He has Numerous in the Preakness.

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