Triple Crown virtual challenge fills in for Derby

Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, hosts one of the great American sports parties on the first Saturday in May when 3-year-old thoroughbreds create legends.

Except this year when the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated crowd gatherings. Instead of 160,000 people celebrating the Run for the Roses, the venerable horse racing track is shuttered.

However, creative thinkers at the Downs came up with a most intriguing substitute for fans. On Saturday, through the magic of technology, the track is sponsoring a head-to-head virtual reality race with the field consisting of the 13 horses that have won the Triple Crown.

Billed as a stay-at-home Derby day, the event goal is to raise $2 million to aid coronavirus emergency relief efforts. But the race will seek to answer an unanswerable question. Of all of the famed horses that won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year, who was the best?

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This is a sports trivia lover’s delight. It is an attempt to settle a bet for all time, to stifle bar goers’ debates, much like who was better, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens or Usain Bolt?

Even with empirical time clockings or statistics for comparison, it is tricky to match eras when circumstances, stadiums, rules all differed. An outfit called Inspired Entertainment, Inc. used historical data and algorithms to sort this out for the horse race.

The Kentucky Derby standing alone is the Super Bowl of horse racing. The Derby, Preakness and Belmont together are like the World Series. But a World Series winner is determined each year. A winner of the Triple Crown is more of a Halley’s Comet thing, where such a splendid and fortunate animal comes around only once in a while.

The rarity is testament to how difficult it is to perform the feat of winning all three of the special races. The Derby is 1¼ miles. The Preakness is 1 3/16 miles. The Belmont is 1½ miles. Those increments do not seem much different, but for horses going all out they are and dictate different strategies.

The Belmont separates champions. It is longer than any other race a thoroughbred will run in the United States, and it comes last in the series.

The inaugural Kentucky Derby was contested in 1875. The first Preakness took place in 1873, though there were years no race was held. The Belmont made its debut in 1867 but also missed a couple of years.

Sir Barton won all three of the big races in 1919, the first time a horse had done so. Although the Triple Crown term did not appear in print for the first time until 1923, it became a more common term in 1930 when Gallant Fox duplicated Sir Barton’s feat.

Omaha, 1935, War Admiral, 1937, Whirlaway, 1941, Count Fleet, 1943, Assault, 1946, and Citation, 1948, followed, exciting the populace in a periodic pattern a few years apart to regenerate the thrill of the chase.

Then came a long drought. It took until 1973 with the galvanizing, electrifying, thundering emergence of Secretariat for another Triple Crown winner to be honored. Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978 helped make the ‘70s a golden era.

Inexplicably, emphasizing the exceptional nature of the accomplishment, 37 years passed before American Pharoah joined the list in 2015. Justify joined this exclusive club in 2018. Bob Baffert trained American Pharoah and Justify. Jim Fitzsimmons trained Gallant Fox and Omaha. They are the only men to train two Triple Crown victors.

Saturday, the only horses ghosting their way into the starting gate are champions. The race, part of a double feature, with a replay of American Pharoah’s Derby win, will be part of a 3 to 6 p.m. NBC TV show.

There is no betting on the Triple Crown match, but Churchill Downs long-time odds-maker Mike Battaglia chose “Big Red,” Secretariat as a 7-2 favorite, with Citation a 4-1 selection and Seattle Slew and Affirmed next at 5-1. Several of the oldest champs were listed at 20-1.

Each of the 13 horses was great (the only two still living are American Pharoah and Justify), but who was the greatest? I say Secretariat, owner of the fastest clockings in all three races.