Where did the Triple Crown winners prep?

Apr 27, 2020 Kellie Reilly/Brisnet.com

As we look forward to the virtual “Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown,” let’s review how the 13 Triple Crown winners prepped at the beginning of their sophomore seasons. This exercise reveals changes in both geography and timing.

Triple Crown winners and where they prepped for success
Sir Barton

The method of Sir Barton (1919) is unthinkable today. The H.G. Bedwell trainee had no prep race but made his first start of the season in the Kentucky Derby, which was also his first start beyond 6 furlongs. Still a maiden going into the Derby, interestingly he was never tried in a maiden race. Sir Barton competed exclusively in stakes company in New York throughout his juvenile campaign. 

Gallant Fox and Omaha

The next two Triple Crown champions, the father/son duo of Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935), prepped in the Wood Memorial at New York’s old Jamaica Racetrack. Gallant Fox captured that lone tune-up 13 days in advance of what was the first jewel in his year, the Preakness.

Their Hall of Fame trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, gave Omaha a pair of preps. After winning a mile and 70-yard allowance, he wheeled back five days later and finished third in the Wood, one week ahead of the Derby. Aside from the maiden Sir Barton, Omaha is the only other Triple Crown winner who had not yet won a stakes before the Derby.

War Admiral

War Admiral (1937) was the first Triple Crown sweeper to return in a sprint, using a 6-furlong allowance at Maryland’s old Havre de Grace as his warm-up for the 1 1/16-mile Chesapeake 10 days later. The George Conway pupil won both, then had two weeks until the Derby.

Citation and Whirlaway

Calumet Farm superstars Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948) are outliers, each taking seven starts in their build-up to the Derby for Hall of Famer Ben Jones. Both wintered in Florida, starting out in sprints at old Hialeah Park, but then their paths diverged as Whirlaway shipped to Kentucky and Citation took a detour to Maryland.

Whirlaway raced in five sprints before stretching out again – winning one of two at Hialeah, again taking one of two at old Tropical Park, and then winning another at Keeneland. Back up to two turns for the Blue Grass, he bore out to wind up second. Whirlaway also settled for the runner-up spot in Churchill Downs’ Derby Trial – four days out from the Run for the Roses.

Citation, prepared by Jones’ son Jimmy until Derby Week, won six of his seven preps. Tackling older horses in both of his Hialeah sprints, he won an allowance as well as the Seminole H. Then he stepped up in distance, but reverted to his own age group, to take the 1 1/8-mile Everglades H. and Flamingo. His lone loss all year came in Havre de Grace’s Chesapeake Trial, but order was restored in the Chesapeake five days later. Like Whirlaway, Citation made the Derby Trial his final prep, only he won that tune-up four days before the Derby.

In between the Calumet champions, the Wood Memorial reasserted itself as a stepping stone for Count Fleet (1943) and Assault (1946), but the latter ran again in the interim.

The Don Cameron-trained Count Fleet spent his winter holiday at Oaklawn Park, a sojourn that the Hot Springs, Arkansas, track commemorates with the annual Count Fleet Sprint H. (G3). Count Fleet didn’t race as a sophomore until returning to New York. He swept both of his warm-ups at Jamaica, a mile and 70-yard allowance and the Wood four days later, with the Derby a further two weeks hence.

Assault’s Hall of Fame trainer, Max Hirsch, employed the sprint-to-route playbook at Jamaica. Prevailing in the 6-furlong Experimental Free H., Assault successfully stretched out in the Wood. He squeezed in a prep over the Churchill track, finishing fourth in the Derby Trial four days out.


Secretariat (1973) is the last Triple Crown winner (at this writing) to stick to the New York route, making all three of his spring starts at Aqueduct. After streaking through the 7-furlong Bay Shore and the mile of the Gotham, the Lucien Laurin star was a lackluster third in the 1 1/8-mile Wood. At the time, some critics believed the loss pointed to a possible stamina limitation for the son of Bold Ruler. Two weeks later, Secretariat consigned that “bad take” to oblivion as he began his march to immortality in a record-setting Derby.

Seattle Slew

Seattle Slew (1977) won all three of his preps on a Florida to New York pathway. Sprinting at Hialeah before wiring the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo, the Billy Turner trainee stayed perfect in the Wood Memorial two weeks ahead of Derby.


Affirmed (1978), the first Triple Crown winner to prep in California, won all four of his stepping stones. Trainer Laz Barrera sent him out in a Santa Anita sprint allowance, followed by the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. In his time, he was able to take advantage of another local option, the April 16 Hollywood Derby – then a dirt race – almost three weeks out from the Derby. 

American Pharoah

California-based American Pharoah (2015) was the first Triple Crown championlaunched from Oaklawn’s prep races. The Bob Baffert celebrity raided Hot Springs for the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, dominating both and having three weeks before lining up at Churchill Downs. 


Baffert pulled off an unprecedented feat with Justify (2018), the only Triple Crown winner unraced as a juvenile. Thus his three springtime starts had a different quality from the others. While his Triple Crown colleagues had experience at two and built upon that foundation, Justify was learning the ropes. He’s also unique among the 13 in having raced at only one track prior to the classics, Santa Anita. Justify graduated from sprint maiden to mile allowance to Santa Anita Derby hero in the span of seven weeks, then had four weeks to gear up for the Kentucky Derby.


The Prep Takeaways

The decades have brought a change in the center of gravity, from New York-centric preparations toward points south and west. Kentucky was a factor until the Derby Trial fell out of favor, perhaps in part due to the next trend.

The preferred interval of time between races is another striking development. While the earlier Triple Crown winners often wheeled back quickly and turned in their final preps closer to the target – either the four days’ rest from the Derby Trial or within a couple of weeks – the time frame for the three most recent champions is longer, from three weeks to as many as four for Justify. 

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