HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO WIN THE AMERICAN TRIPLE CROWN?

Between 1948 and 1973, no horse won the Triple Crown. The drought was even longer between Affirm’s Triple Crown in 1978 and American Pharoah’s in 2015. But these 25-year and 37-year gaps are misleading because Triple Crown victories have come in bunches. Three horses won the Triple Crown in the 1930s, four in the 1940s, three in the 1970s, and two more in the most recent four years. That’s twelve of the 13 Triple Crown champions.

One hundred years ago in 1919, Sir Barton became the first colt to sweep the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, although the terminology “Triple Crown” did not emerge until the 1930s. Thus Sir Barton was crowned a Triple Crown winner in retrospect, but not at the time he actually achieved the feat.

How challenging is it to win the Triple Crown?  There are two ways to look at it and they yield much different answers.

First, 100 years of Triple Crown history transpired between Sir Barton’s initial Triple Crown win in 1919 and Justify’s in 2018. Thirteen Triple Crown winners in this span of time computes to a success rate of 13% (the percentage is higher, of course, if an adjustment is made for the years in which the Kentucky Derby winner did not compete in the Preakness and/or Belmont). Most people would agree that a 1 in 7.7 chance of winning anything constitutes uphill odds but certainly would not qualify as extraordinary. Thirteen percent does not equate to a unique accomplishment, though it seemed that way when no horse conquered the Triple Crown for 25 years (1948-1973) and then 37 years (1978-2015).

The second way to look at Triple Crown success makes it seem to be an almost impossible task. Jockey Club records show that 2,076,789 Thoroughbred horses were registered in North America between 1916 (when Sir Barton was foaled) and 2015 (when Justify was foaled). This does not include foreign-bred horses that ran in American Triple Crown races, but that number is relatively insignificant. Therefore, only 13 horses from about 2.1 million horses registered between 1916 and 2015 won the Triple Crown (.0000062). This is rare beyond rare. Even if one assumes that half the registered Thoroughbreds were fillies, who don’t ordinarily run in Triple Crown races, 13 Triple Crown champs from 1.4 million male foals is a very, very small percentage.

If someone asks how difficult it is to win the Triple Crown, the answer depends on how you do the math.

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