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Ranking the Triple Crown winners

Ron Turcotte rides Secretariat to win the Belmont

Ron Turcotte rides Secretariat to win the Belmont Stakes and capture the Triple Crown in this June 9, 1973 photo. Credit: AP

None of the 11 is alive, yet all are immortal. Sweeping the Triple Crown -- three races at varying distances in five weeks in three states -- is brutally difficult for a 3-year-old thoroughbred. It hasn't been done since Affirmed in 1978, and on Saturday, I'll Have Another will get his chance in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes. Here's one man's opinion about how the 11 Triple Crown winners rank:

1 SECRETARIAT (1973)

Most racing historians consider "Big Red,'' a huge chestnut with three white socks and a thin white blaze, and 1920 Preakness-Belmont winner Man o' War the Alpha males of 20th century horses. Secretariat raised the bar for greatness impossibly high when he set track records in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, and was denied another in the Preakness by a malfunctioning timer. He moved "like a tremendous machine'' under Ron Turcotte in an astounding triumph at Belmont Park, acing "The Test of the Champion'' by 31 lengths in 2:24. Records are made to be broken, but not those.

2. CITATION (1948)

Citation's trainer, the late Jimmy Jones, and many other old-timers who saw both run, would rank Secretariat No. 2. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, Jones, then 91, said in his gravelly voice, "Secretariat? He couldn't handle a wet track. Citation could run on anything. He could sprint and go long.'' If you check the past performances, you can't argue with the Hall of Famer from Parnell, Mo. Citation's sustained excellence was amazing. He was 14-for-16 (two seconds) before dominating the classics by a total of 17 lengths under Eddie Arcaro.

3. SEATTLE SLEW (1977)

Only the speedy Slew swept the series while undefeated, and his $17,500 price tag as a yearling made him the ultimate four-legged bargain. He went 14-for-17 during a glorious career in which he was odds-on in 10 consecutive starts. His greatness extended far beyond his racing days, because he became the best stallion among the Triple Crown winners. "Slew had a very, very powerful pedigree,'' his trainer, Billy Turner said, "and it's been no surprise to anybody that he was such an outstanding sire.''

4. AFFIRMED (1978)

Unlike most superstars, Affirmed didn't specialize in blowing away opponents. He teased Alydar before breaking his heart, taking the Derby, Preakness and Belmont by gradually shrinking margins -- 1½ lengths, a neck, a head -- for 18-year-old jockey Steve Cauthen. "Affirmed didn't waste any energy,'' he said recently. "And when it came to a battle, he thrived on it.'' The most recent sweep was the third in six years. Back in the Seventies, the question wasn't "Will it ever happen again?'' but rather "Who'll do it this year?"

5. WHIRLAWAY (1941)

Many exceptionally talented people are eccentric, and so are some brilliant horses. Ben Jones, trainer of a record six Derby winners, called Whirlaway "The Half-Wit" because of his penchant for running ridiculously wide on turns. Jones finally cured that habit by putting a one-cup blinker over Whirlaway's right eye, figuring that even this nut case wouldn't bolt toward what he couldn't see. The deep closer also was known as "Mr. Long Tail" for his bushy appendage. He and Arcaro sailed through the classics by a combined 16 lengths.

6. WAR ADMIRAL (1937)

Moviegoers know him as the villain in "Seabiscuit,'' the regally bred antagonist to "The People's Horse'' in the Pimlico Special, a 1938 match race that riveted a nation in the midst of the Great Depression. The year before, the smallish War Admiral was the good guy -- unless you bet against him -- admired for his magnificent conformation and an 8-for-8 record. He was the front-running king of spring, leading all the way in Louisville, Baltimore and Elmont.

7. GALLANT FOX (1930)

Seattle Slew won the breeding derby among the Triple Crown winners, but only Gallant Fox sired one. Five years later, Omaha repeated the feat. The Depression began the autumn before Gallant Fox began a 9-for-10 campaign in which he provided an escape for many Americans. Back then, thoroughbred racing, along with baseball and boxing, ruled the sports pages, so Gallant Fox was an even bigger hero than you might imagine.

8. COUNT FLEET (1943)

The front-running Count excelled during World War II, when racing and breeding were cut back dramatically. He faced a total of only 14 opponents in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. His dominance may not have been as great in another era, but he provided badly needed diversion in a horrific time. Count Fleet never was anywhere but in front throughout the classics, which climaxed with a 25-length romp at odds of 1-20 against only two rivals. The Belmont chart's footnotes said he was only galloping, so if Johnny Longden had pushed him, he might have won by 30, or maybe more.

9. OMAHA (1935)

Like his father, Omaha didn't do much as a 2-year-old, going 1-for-9. But he closed quickly in many of those races, so owner William Woodward and trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons still had high expectations. Woodward hoped the son of Gallant Fox would be "just like him,'' and it turned out that way. He won the Derby by 1½ lengths and a week later took the Preakness by six. He won a five-horse Belmont by 11/2 lengths in the slop. At 4, he became the only Triple Crown champion to cross the Atlantic, winning twice in England before losing by a nose in the 2½-mile Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.

10. ASSAULT (1946)

Assault rarely gets much attention when Triple Crown winners are assessed, yet his eight-length Derby margin shares the record with Whirlaway and two others. The only Texas-bred to sweep the series was called "The Club-Footed Comet" because his right front foot became deformed after he stepped on a sharp object when very young. Nowadays, a Triple Crown winner might be worth more than $100 million at stud. Unfortunately, Assault had no value there because he proved to be sterile.

11. SIR BARTON (1919)

Nobody knew he'd won the first Triple Crown, because it would be almost 20 years before the term came into common use in America. After going 0-for-6 at age 2, Sir Barton didn't seem bound for glory. Besides being a late bloomer, he had bad hooves, once losing all four shoes in a race. He also was lazy and grouchy, disliking animals and all people except for his groom. His second owner, J.K.L. Ross, called him "an irascible, exasperating creature.'' But when he started winning the big ones -- the Derby as a maiden, the Preakness four days later -- all was forgiven.

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