A quarter century has passed since America's last Triple Crown winner in Thoroughbred racing. Although memories of a baby-faced Steve Cauthen guiding Affirmed to greatness in 1978 remain, fans tend to forget the fleeting superstars who tried this test and came up short.
I've attempted to rekindle the memories of what I consider the 25 best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds since Affirmed's Triple Crown season 25 years ago. My parameters were to include only a horse's races at age three; consider the entire racing season and not just the five-week Triple Crown run; give extra credence to those sophomores who would beat older horses that season; and only consider fillies who defeated male rivals in major stakes company at age three.
Compiling lists and all-time bests always provides more fuel for debate than decisiveness. That's what makes sports such a national pastime. Enjoy memory lane and feel free to disagree where you like.
#25 Serena's Song
Serena's Song twice defeated males during her stellar 1995 sophomore season, securing the Haskell Invitational and Jim Beam. Sent off as part of a favored entry in the Kentucky Derby, she set a scorching pace before tiring badly to 16th. The tough filly came back just 13 days later to win the Black Eyed Susan Stakes (the filly equivalent to the Preakness) by nine lengths. She won 9 of 13 starts in '95, including the Beldame over top older fillies and mares such as Heavenly Prize.
#24 Prairie Bayou
His tragic breakdown in the 1993 Belmont Stakes casts a scar over his outstanding accomplishments. Favored in all three legs of the Triple Crown, Prairie Bayou finished second in the Kentucky Derby. He was attempting to become the first gelding to win the race since 1929. He flew from far back to win the Preakness two weeks later despite a horrendous trip. Prairie Bayou won 5-of-8 starts in that bittersweet year, including the Jim Beam and Blue Grass.
#23 Snow Chief
In a geographical rarity, Snow Chief won 1986's premier Derby preps on both coasts – the Santa Anita and Florida derbies. His dismal 11th-place finish in Louisville as the favorite was quickly avenged in the Preakness when he romped by four lengths over Derby champ Ferdinand. Nine days later, he dominated the Jersey Derby, making his third start in 23 days. Snow Chief ran third in the Silver Screen Handicap (his only try against elders), finishing 6-for-9 on the year.
#22 Dance Smartly
The most eye-raising inclusion on this list, Canada's sensational filly Dance Smartly was a North American dynamo in 1991. She swept all three legs of her nation's Triple Crown, and added the Molson Million over the boys as well. Back in with her own sex, she drew clear to a convincing victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff that fall. Dance Smartly won all 8 starts in 1991, and, by year's end, had already ranked as the richest filly and mare racehorse ever by career earnings.
Sent away as the 1991 Kentucky Derby favorite, Hansel followed in a long line of snake-bitten Derby choices, finishing 10th. He rebounded to destroy the Preakness cast by 7 lengths and then tallied the Belmont by a head over Derby champ Strike the Gold. Hansel won 4-of-9 starts during the '91 season, but was retired following a second-place finish in the Travers and never faced older horses. His major wins included the Jim Beam and Lexington Stakes.
#20 Winning Colors
One of only three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby, Winning Colors had speed to burn. Her 4-of-10 record in 1988 included a victory over males in the Santa Anita Derby. After a wire-to-wire Kentucky Derby win, rival trainers vowed to press her into submission at Pimlico. Winning Colors finished a credible third in the Preakness. She would later lose narrow decisions to undefeated older mare Personal Ensign in the Maskette and Breeders' Cup Distaff.
#19 Proud Truth
An underrated sophomore historically, Proud Truth swept the 1985 Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, and had a disqualification victory over leading sophomore Chief's Crown in the Flamingo Stakes overturned in the courtroom. In Spend A Buck's wire-to-wire Derby win, Proud Truth closed from 15 lengths behind to finish fifth. He would not lose again that season, culminating with a win over older horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Proud Truth finished 7-of-11 in '85.
#18 Skip Away
It's hard to imagine a more remarkable 3-year-old season when a horse loses all three Triple Crown starts. But that's what happened to Skip Away in 1996. A winner in 6-of-12 starts that year, Skip Away finished second in the Preakness and Belmont before blossoming. He won 4 of his final 5 outings in '96, headlined by a Jockey Club Gold Cup upset of the legendary older horse Cigar. His '96 resume included wins in the Haskell, Molson Million, Ohio Derby and Blue Grass.
#17 Java Gold
Injuries kept Java Gold on the sidelines until April of his 3-year-old season. By mid-summer, he had the measure on Triple Crown race winners Alysheba and Bet Twice by taking the Travers. In that same Saratoga meeting, he would beat top older horses in the Whitney, including Broad Brush, and add the Marlboro Cup that fall over elders as well. Java Gold posted a 6-of-8 record for trainer MacK Miller in 1987. In fact, he faced older horses 6 times in those 8 sophomore starts.
One of the few horses on this list not to compete in any Triple Crown race, Tiznow dominated the second half of the 2000 sophomore season. His 5-for-9 Horse of the Year campaign was capped off by winning the Breeders' Cup Classic. Along the way, he beat older horses in the Goodwood, dominated Belmont winner Commendable in the Super Derby, and finished second in the Pacific Classic against elders. Tiznow did not make his debut until April 22 of his 3-year-old season.
#15 Spend A Buck
Brilliant front-running winner of the 1985 Kentucky Derby, he was lured away from the remaining Triple Crown races by a $2 million bonus for winning the Jersey Derby. He scored the Monmouth Handicap (now known as the Iselin) against older horses in track record time after finishing second in the Haskell to complete a 5-for-7 season. Spend A Buck outran his pedigree and all doubters en route to his place in history.
Winner of the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Alysheba competed in one of the tougher sophomore classes of the past quarter century (Bet Twice, Cryptoclearance, Gulch, Java Gold et al). Despite a loss to rival Bet Twice in the Belmont Stakes, Alysheba rebounded to win the Super Derby and finish second to '86 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand in the Breeders' Cup Classic that fall. Alysheba went 3-for-10 in '87, not including his DQ from the win in the Blue Grass.
#13 Risen Star
The most successful son of the great Secretariat, Risen Star rolled out of the Bayou in 1988 and into Triple Crown lure. Following a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby to the filly Winning Colors, he bounced back to win the Preakness by daylight and the Belmont Stakes by a New York City block – 14 _ lengths officially. Injuries would halt his career after the Belmont, but not before he would win 6-of-8 starts on the season.
#12 Tabasco Cat
The ill-tempered Tabasco Cat proved to be one of the more durable sophomores of the 1990s, competing in 8 Grade 1 stakes during the year. The Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner, he won 5-of-12 starts at age 3, and missed by a neck in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee also posted narrow defeats in the Santa Anita Derby and Jim Dandy. He won the inaugural Kentucky Cup Classic over older horses, including multimillionaire Best Pal.
Swale was taken from us as fast as he became a household name. In 1984, the son of '77 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew dominated his peers in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. But only eight days after his Belmont score, he collapsed and died in his Belmont Park barn. He won 4-of-7 starts during that '84 season, including the Florida Derby and Hutcheson. Even though he ran seventh in the Preakness, his fans made him a deserving favorite in the Belmont Stakes.
#10 Silver Charm
First or second in all seven starts during the '97 season, Silver Charm led deep into the stretch of his Triple Crown attempt before being collared by Touch Gold. His wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness each came by a narrow head. The class of '97 proved to be a stellar group with the likes of Free House and Captain Bodgit. Trainer Bob Baffert did not race Silver Charm during the fall of his 3-year-old year – saving him for a $4.6 million season at age 4.
He joins Sunday Silence as the only 3-year-olds to win the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. His magical 1990 campaign, where he compiled a 4-for-11 mark, also included a victory in the Florida Derby. After his memorable Derby win for then 92-year-old owner Frances Genter, Unbridled finished second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont. His amazing versatility included a near-miss second on the turf in the Grade 1 Secretariat that summer.
#8 A.P. Indy
Scratched the morning of the 1992 Kentucky Derby, A.P. Indy returned to blitz his generation with wins in the Peter Pan and Belmont Stakes. Later that fall, he capped a 5-for-7 year with a convincing two-length win over elders in the Breeders' Cup Classic, avenging his third-place finish in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. His Horse of the Year season also included a victory in the Santa Anita Derby for trainer Neil Drysdale.
#7 Conquistador Cielo
The first of trainer Woody Stephens' five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners, Conquistador Cielo earned 1982 Horse of the Year honors. He made his lone Triple Crown splash by destroying the Belmont Stakes field by 14 lengths over a sloppy track. That field included Derby winner Gato Del Sol and Preakness hero Aloma's Ruler. Remarkably, the Belmont victory came only five days after he defeated older horses in a record-setting Metropolitan Mile. He won 7-of-9 in '82.
#6 Easy Goer
After excruciating defeats as the heavy favorite in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the 1989 Belmont Stakes provided sweet redemption for this son of Alydar. While his daddy played bridesmaid to Affirmed 11 years prior, Easy Goer rejected rival Sunday Silence's Triple Crown bid with an 8-length thrashing at the Belmont. He registered wins in 8-of-11 starts that year, including the Travers. Easy Goer also defeated older horses in the Woodward, Whitney and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
#5 Point Given
Trainer Bob Baffert has three times lost a Triple Crown bid at the Belmont Stakes. However, he'll readily admit that the toughest Crown to get away was in 2001. The beaten favorite in the Derby, Point Given rebounded for convincing scores in the Preakness and Belmont. Point became the first horse ever to win four straight $1 million races when he added the Haskell and Travers, earning Horse Of The Year. An Injury forced his retirement before meeting older horses.
#4 Thunder Gulch
Only 1/4 of a length away from being the 1995 Triple Crown winner, Thunder Gulch was perhaps the most overlooked Kentucky Derby winner ever. Despite wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, fans fretted over his 4th-place run in the Blue Grass and sent him away at 24.50-to-1 odds. The D. Wayne Lukas charge emphasized his class with powerful wins in the Belmont and Travers, as well as the Kentucky Cup Classic against elders. He won 7-fo-10 races in '95.
#3 Holy Bull
The 1994 Horse of the Year picked a lousy time to run the biggest clunker of his career, finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby. Everything else that year was magical, as he won 8-of-10 starts – including 5 Grade 1 stakes. Holy Bull's triumphs in the Travers, Haskell, Florida Derby and Blue Grass were joined by wins over older horses in Metropolitan Mile and Woodward. Trainer Jimmy Croll bypassed the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race where fellow 3-year-olds finished 1-2-3-4.
#2 Sunday Silence
One of only two horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic the same season, Sunday Silence became the first to do so in 1989. He also added the Preakness, Santa Anita Derby and Super Derby to his 7-for-9 season. He avenged his Belmont Stakes loss to arch rival Easy Goer in that fall's BC Classic, their final career showdown. While he'll never be remembered singly, but rather in his epic rivalry with Easy Goer, Sunday Silence's merits certainly stand alone.
#1 Spectacular Bid
The Bid won 10 of 12 starts in 1979, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Blue Grass and Florida Derby. Later that fall, the Bud Delp trainee beat older horses in the Marlboro Cup and Meadowlands Cup. After finishing third in the Belmont Stakes as the .30-to-1 favorite, he would win 11 of his final 12 career starts. Spectacular Bid did it all, nearly sweeping the Triple Crown despite a 19-year-old Derby rookie, Ronnie Franklin, in the saddle.