Later developers increasingly the ones to fear in American classics

May 15th, 2023

What does it take to win one of the three Triple Crown races? Apparently a lot less than it used to.

It was only five years ago that we were still talking about the “Curse of Apollo,” whereby horses unraced at age two were perceived to be at a serious disadvantage in the Kentucky Derby (G1). That is until Justify became the first horse since the aforementioned Apollo, in 1882, to win the Derby without any juvenile racing foundation.

For those who considered Justify an outlier in that regard (of which I plead guilty), the success of Mage in this year’s Derby should leave little doubt that the means of getting to a classic winner’s circle is rapidly evolving and changing.

Indeed, this has become fairly obvious over the past couple of decades with regards to the Preakness (G1). Even before Justify added the 2018 Preakness to his list of wins, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown had been won since 2000 by four other colts who had not raced at age two: Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006), Curlin (2007), and Cloud Computing (2017).

The Belmont (G1) hasn’t been quite as friendly to horses without two-year-old form as the Preakness, but nearly a decade before Justify completed his Triple Crown sweep, the “Test of the Champion” was taken by the stout Summer Bird (2009). In fact, Summer Bird’s closest pursuer was Dunkirk, another who did not debut until age three.

We don’t know yet whether this recent aversion to running a Kentucky Derby starter (aside from the winner) back in the Preakness is a cyclical fad or one that will become a more permanent one. What we do know is that Mage is set to become the only horse scheduled to take in both races this year, and that has set up something fairly unique in modern Triple Crown history.

While Mage will undoubtedly go off favored at Pimlico on Saturday, the likely second choice is the Brad Cox-trained First Mission, who will be aiming for classic glory with just three starts under his belt since debuting on Feb. 18. Thus, the two leading fancies for this classic were both unraced at two.

I can’t speak for the entire histories of the three classics, but the only other occurrence of this happening in recent times was in the 2018 Belmont, a special circumstance when Triple Crown-seeking Justify led the market over Hofburg, who wound up finishing third.

All things considered, the Preakness looks set to be dominated by lightly-raced colts who have only emerged since the beginning of the new year. It might be only a matter of time before this becomes increasingly more common in the other two classics as well.