History on Chrome's side in 3YO Eclipse race, but will it be enough?

Was Derby-Preakness winner California Chrome the top 3-year-old in 2014? Photo: Zoe Metz/ESW/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images).

While history suggests that California Chrome likely has Champion 3-year-old Male honors all sewn up, Mike Kane looks back at five Derby-Preakness winners who were denied year-end titles.

History says that California Chrome will be the 3-year-old male champion for 2014. Ah, but did the Eclipse Awards voters agree that he was best in his division?

Last year was an extraordinary one for 3-year-old males, and Bayern and Shared Belief rose up to seriously challenge California Chrome in the second half of the season. For the first time in 45 years, victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness may not be enough to deliver the title when winners are announced on Jan. 17.

There is no doubt that California Chrome has some very positive stats on his side. Since the launch of the Eclipse Awards voting in 1971, every one of the 16 horses that completed the Derby-Preakness double went on to be 3-year-old champion. Three of those were the Triple Crown winners of the 1970s, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Each of the other 13 secured victories in the American classics on the first and third Saturdays of May and were elected by comfortable margins. Two in that group (Sunday Silence in 1989 and Charismatic in 1999) were also named Horse of the Year. 

However, the history of the Eclipse Awards does not tell the full story of American Thoroughbred racing championships. These date back to 1936 with the publication of polls by the Turf and Sport Digest and Triangle Publications, which owned Daily Racing Form and the Morning Telegraph. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations joined the party in 1950 with an annual poll of racing secretaries. To avoid a blurry championship picture, which happened from time to time, Philip Iselin of Monmouth Park developed a plan for the Racing Form, the TRA, and the National Turf Writers Association to combine the results of their individual polls to determine official industry winners as the Eclipse Awards. 

During the Eclipse Award era, winning any two of the Triple Crown races has usually led to a title. A gentle crunch of the numbers reveals that 91 percent of the horses that won at least two legs of the Triple Crown since 1971 also were presented with the divisional trophy. Considering that neither of his competitors was a factor during the Triple Crown series, it would seem that California Chrome holds a pretty powerful hand. However, Bayern and Shared Belief have some important victories on their resumes, too, and the controversial start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic could further complicate the picture.

Although it hasn’t happened since the Eclipse Awards were inaugurated, there is some precedent to suggest that Chrome could be denied the divisional title. In the 78 years since the initial championship polls, only five of the 29 horses that won the first two legs of the Triple Crown did not earn the divisional title outright. It started with the inaugural season when Bold Venture won at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, but Granville was recognized as the 3-year-old champion and was the Form’s inaugural Best Horse of the Year. The final four Derby-Preakness winners who did not secure divisional honors were: Pensive (1944); Kauai King (1966); Forward Pass (1968), and Majestic Prince (1969). 

Why weren’t these five able to parlay their early-season success into a title?

Bold Venture was beneficiary of a wild start and tangle of horses in the 1936 Derby during which Granville lost jockey Jimmy Stout. The favorite, Brevity, was knocked to one knee at the start, moved into a contending position but lost by a head. Fourteen days later in the Preakness, Bold Venture found trouble early, but had collared Granville by the top of the stretch. They ran together to the wire with Bold Venture winning by a nose.

Between the Preakness and the Belmont, Bold Venture suffered a career-ending leg injury and was retired to stud. Meanwhile, hard-luck Granville, a son of Triple Crown chap Gallant Fox, suffered this third straight loss of the season by a nose in the Suburban. In the Belmont Stakes, Granville nipped Mr. Bones by a nose and then won his remaining five races that season, including the Arlington Classic and the Travers. 

In 1944, Pensive finished first in the Derby and Preakness, was second by a half-length in the Belmont Stakes, and never won again. By Jimminy did not run in the Triple Crown, but won six of his last seven starts, including the Travers and was named the top 3-year-old male. Pensive had a legacy, though: He was the sire of 1949 Derby winner Ponder, who sired Needles, the 1955 Derby winner.

In his American Race Horses 1944, the legendary turf writer Joe Palmer described the colt’s rise and fall from prominence: “Pensive, which had won the two most important spring 3-year-old events when he was given only an outsider’s chance, proved unable to win another after he had about convinced everyone he was invincible.”

In Racing In America, 1937-1959, author Robert Kelley said the 3-year-olds of 1944 were not a top group. “At varying times, Stir Up, Pensive, and By Jimminy seemed the best in the division; By Jimminy was given the honors in several polls, largely because he was around at the end of the season and the other two were out.”

Twenty-two years later, Kauai King made the most of the 2-year-old champion Buckpasser’s absence from the Triple Crown with a quarter crack. Buckpasser, bred and owned by Ogden Phipps, returned in June, won his final 11 starts of the season, and finished the campaign with a 13-1-0 record from 14 starts. Among his conquests that season were the Arlington Classic, Travers, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Malibu. Kauai King, a son of Native Dancer, finished fourth in the Belmont and suffered a career-ending injury in the Arlington Classic.

In controversy-wracked 1968, the year that Dancer’s Image was disqualified from first in the Kentucky Derby for having traces of a banned substance in his system, Stage Door Johnny was named champion by both the TRA and Daily Racing Form, but Turf and Sport Digest selected Forward Pass. After wins in the Everglades, Florida Derby, and Blue Grass, Forward Pass was the Derby favorite. He finished second to Dancer’s Image, but was moved up to first with the disqualification. Forward Pass won the Preakness by six lengths. Dancer’s Image reached the wire third, but was disqualified and placed eighth for interference.

Greentree Stable’s Stage Door Johnny, who didn’t break his maiden until May 8, four days after the Derby, ended Forward Pass’s bid for the Triple Crown in the Belmont by 1 1/4 lengths. He won the Saranac and the Dwyer in his final two career starts and ended up as the champion. Forward Pass’s chances for the title were hurt when he finished second in the muddy Travers, while spotting the winner, Chompion, 12 pounds.

There was no question about the quality of the top two 3-year-olds in 1969. Unbeaten Majestic Prince, trained by Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Longden, notched his eighth victory in the Kentucky Derby, beating Paul Mellon’s Arts and Letters by a neck. Majestic Prince nipped Arts and Letters by a head in the Preakness and headed to New York in position to win the Triple Crown. Longden sensed that the colt wasn’t right and talked about skipping the Belmont Stakes. 

In a move to give Arts and Letters confidence after five seconds in six starts, trainer Elliott Burch ran him in the Met Mile against older horses on May 30. He won by 2 1/2 lengths and came back on June 7 to beat Majestic Prince by 5 1/2 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. Majestic Prince was given the rest of the year off and was retired to stud the following winter. Arts and Letters built on his Met Mile and Belmont Stakes wins with victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which he won by 14 lengths. 

In Racing in America, 1960-1979, William Rudy said with eight wins in 14 starts and $555,502 in earnings, Arts and Letter stood above the rest: “It was no contest for Horse of the Year.”

But was the decision so simple for 3-year-old male honors in 2014?

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