Update: American Pharoah won the Triple Crown! To understand how exceedingly difficult this accomplishment was in 2015 versus 1978, and why it’s more like a sports record falling than a championship being won, please continue reading below. To gloat about my being wrong, scroll all the way down to find an email address for me.
Or, if American Pharoah does win the Triple Crown, by winning the Belmont Stakes horse race in New York this evening, it will be in huge defiance of the odds, of science, and of the competition.
As of 2:30PM this afternoon, gambling odds on American Pharoah are resting at 3-5. If you’re unfamiliar with gambling, the odds continuously shift to balance the number of bettors who are wagering either for or against an outcome, so that the bookies won’t end up having to pay out more money than they earned. 3-5 means gamblers are giving American Pharoah a 62.5% chance of winning. That makes American Pharoah the favorite. And, historically, favorites only win horse races somewhere around 32%-35% of the time.
Fivethirtyeight also has a more in-depth, though out-of-date, analysis of the odds to winning the Triple Crown.
Since the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, the science and biology of horse racing has only gotten more and more complicated. This Wired article contains the details: Everything from giving horses diuretics to jamming glycogen-loading pastes in their mouths has come into racing since the horse Affirmed won the Triple Crown in ’78.
A simple maxim is that complex systems have more points of failure. While trainers are in an arms race to try out the latest and greatest advancements, they also don’t fully understand the effects of the tools they are deploying to make their horses recover faster, or how those tools interact with each other to affect the horse.
They don’t have a lot of chances to figure it out, either. The Kentucky Derby had 18 starters this year, a pretty average number, all wanting a shot at the Triple Crown. Once American Pharoah wins, many of the other horses are dropped out of competition, or at least have their training scaled back, because there’s no point anymore. That happens every single year. Fewer shots at figuring out how to get a horse from 1 win to 3 leads to fewer results by which to measure the correct usage of all those ever-changing scientific advances. And of course, every horse responds differently.
This one is simple: fresh horses. American Pharoah has to race against fresh competition that hasn’t endured his grueling schedule. How is that fair? The championship of every sport that involves humans is based on the premise that every team or individual had to take a near-identical path to the end.
Some leagues, like the NFL, give the best teams a first-round bye, but whether that is an advantage is hotly debated. Many fans, coaches, and players fear that bye-weeks leave teams rusty and less-ready than the competition. But for a horse, who has been properly trained to run flat-out, there’s no debate: rest is the most important factor in race preparation.
That’s for you readers to decide. But one thing that I’m certain of is that part of the reason there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1978 is that it has become a more difficult feat. Nothing stays the same. The net effect of all these incremental changes to training and preparation for 3 races over the course of nearly 40 years could just be that a previously attainable goal is now impossible. That puts the Triple Crown up there with the .400 batting average, 56-game hitting streak, and 30-win pitcher in baseball as a record that may simply be unbreakable.
The Triple Crown isn’t a single achievement. It’s more like a record. Finishing times have stayed pretty consistent for a century. So winning it is not about the limits of horse physiology, or a mental breakthrough like when Roger Bannister first ran a 4-minute mile, but about the conditions of the competition. In baseball, the home run record stood for so long because conditions remained relatively static until performance-enhancing drugs became popular. Unless conditions change in horse-racing, another horse won’t win the Triple Crown.
If American Pharoah does win today, now you know why it should stand as the greatest Triple Crown victory of all time.