Well, he almost did it. But California Chrome was added to the growing list of near misses that won the first two races only to fail at the third. Including California Chrome, five horses since 2002 have has the same problem. There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1978. Why do we have so many close calls just have them fail in the last race? Before we answer that, let’s answer a couple of other questions people may have about horse racing?
Do horses need jockeys?
Depending on who you ask, the horse may or may not need a jockey. Greyhounds are raced at tracks with nothing more than a toy draped in front of them. But horses don’t appear to be so easily motivated. If you were to ask a jockey, they would of course say the horse needs motivation. And while wild horses will race each other from time to time, the jockey does play a role. First, they know the horse’s strength and weaknesses. Knowing when to push them and when to pull back is an important part of the strategy. For more on this top check out this WSJ piece about the need for jockeys.
Do the horses know they’re racing?
Sure we know they run fast. And it’s obvious there is a chase going down. But do the horses know this is a competition? Do they care? This is a difficult question to answer, and no one really knows for sure. But a Reddit post from a couple of years ago offers some interesting anecdotes into this idea. One poster says his dad had trouble rounding up ponies until he got on a motorcycle and showed them he was the fastest. Then they listened. The horses are also sensitive to the emotions of their riders and owners. Horses used to the attention coming from a win can end up confused if they lose. Also, like mentioned before horses do race in the wild. There could be a dominance element at play. So it stands to reason that a horse needs to not only have good athletic genes, but some sort of bred sense of competition. This is all largely anecdotal, but you can read the discussion here.
Back to the real question
Now, the back to the question at hand. Why is the Triple Crown so hard to win? Before California Chrome even ran at the Belmont Stakes people were saying he wouldn’t win. One of them was Pat Forde. Forde explained that because of the racing schedule the horses competing in all three major races may not get sufficient rest. Of course, many of the horses only race in one or two. Tonalist, the horse that one the Belmont Stakes, did not even race in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. So winning the Triple Crown isn’t about just winning three races on equal ground, it’s about beat fresh hooves at each step along the way. This is why winning is so hard. This system is not without controversy. But changing the rules might cheapen an eventual Triple Crown.