Triple Crown champions: Who did they beat?

Apr 29, 2020 J. Keeler Johnson/

Winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes is a tough task no matter how you slice it, but some Triple Crown champions faced tougher competition than others, making their spring sweeps all the more remarkable.

Which Triple Crown winners faced the stiffest competition during the classics? Opinions will vary depending on how you ask, but no one can deny these five runners faced above-average rivals:
Affirmed (1978)
Future Hall of Fame inductee Alydar gave Affirmed everything he could handle while finishing second by ever-diminishing margins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. Their thrilling battles are among the most legendary in the history of the sport.
But Affirmed and Alydar weren’t the only high-class runners to compete in the 1978 Triple Crown. To sweep the series, Affirmed also had to defeat Wood Memorial (G1) winner Believe It, who finished third in the Derby and Preakness, and also the undefeated Sensitive Prince, the fastest-ever winner of the Fountain of Youth (G3). While Sensitive Prince could only finish sixth in the Derby, he later won five additional graded stakes races, including the 1979 Gulfstream Park H. (G1).
Citation (1948)
Racing’s first millionaire had a pretty easy time sweeping the Triple Crown. He was never challenged while beating small fields in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and in the Kentucky Derby he rallied from second place to defeat stablemate Coaltown with relative ease.
But it would be a mistake to claim Citation beat easy competition in the spring classics. Coaltown was voted champion older horse in 1949. Derby third-place finisher My Request won 16 stakes races during a long and productive career, including the 1950 Brooklyn H. Preakness runner-up Vulcan’s Forge went on to become a high-class older horse, winning the 1949 Santa Anita H. and Suburban H., and Belmont Stakes runner-up Better Self also proved his mettle against quality competition, counting the 1949 Carter H. and 1950 Saratoga H. among his nine career stakes wins.
Justify (2018)
No Triple Crown winner had to defeat more horses in the spring classics than Justify, who beat 19 rivals under the Twin Spires plus seven challengers at Pimlico and nine at Belmont Park. They included a “who’s who” of past and future Grade 1 competitors.
Technically speaking, Kentucky Derby runner-up Good Magic was the most accomplished of Justify’s rivals—the champion 2-year-old male of 2017 counted victories in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and Haskell Invitational (G1) among his career highlights.
But over the course of five weeks, Justify also conquered 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Vino Rosso, 2018 H. Allen Jerkens (G1) winner Promises Fulfilled, 2020 Santa Anita H. (G1) winner Combatant, 2019 Dubai World Cup (G1) runner-up Gronkowski, 2017 Hopeful (G1) winner Sporting Chance, and 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) third-place finisher Bravazo. Any way you slice it, Justify tackled tough competition during the spring classics and handled the challenge with aplomb.
Omaha (1935)
Although Omaha isn’t generally ranked among the greatest or most popular Triple Crown winners, he defeated plenty of high-class rivals during his sweep of the spring classics. A large field of 17 challengers turned out to oppose Omaha in the Kentucky Derby, including leading 2-year-old filly Nellie Flag (who finished fourth) and eventual 10-time stakes winner Roman Soldier (runner-up on Derby Day).
If anything, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes fields were even tougher. The runner-up on both occasions was Firethorn, who would go on to win back-to-back editions of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Third across the finish line at Pimlico was Psychic Bid, winner of the Hopeful S. and Sanford S. as a juvenile, while the final trifecta player in the Belmont was Rosemont, who later beat fan favorite Seabiscuit in the 1937 Santa Anita H.
Secretariat (1973)
The gallant Sham might have been a Triple Crown winner if not for the misfortune of being born in the same year as the record-shattering Secretariat. The Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner was Secretariat’s most formidable rival during the spring classics, finishing second by 2 1/2 lengths in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness while recording record-breaking times in his own right.
But Sham wasn’t the only noteworthy rival Secretariat defeated during his Triple Crown sweep. Future three-time Horse of the Year and Hall of Fame inductee Forego finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, two places ahead of Shecky Greene, the champion sprinter of 1973. Flamingo (G1) winner Our Native, who finished third in the Derby and Preakness, also proved his worth beyond the spring classics by recording summer victories in the Monmouth Invitational H. (G1) and Ohio Derby (G2).
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