Chasing the Triple Crown

A few days before Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, I drove from Churchill Downs to Stoner Creek Stud outside of Paris, Kentucky, the home of the 1943 Triple Crown winner, the immortal Count Fleet. Old-timers used to tell me Count Fleet was one of the two or three greatest horses that ever raced in America. Count Fleet was 33 years old when I drove out to see him, and he looked that old when the groom brought him out to show him to me. His back was swayed, his coat a shag of long hairs, and his eyes weak and watery.

The Count was the last surviving member of that elite group of horses who had won the Triple Crown. The other seven were gone: Sir Barton (the first to win it, in 1919) died in 1937. Gallant Fox (1930) succumbed in 1954. Omaha (1935) and War Admiral (1937) both died in 1959. Whirlaway (1941) left us in 1953, dying of a heart attack on his way to a breeding shed in France. Citation (1948) keeled over in 1970, and Assault (1946) died in 1971. That left Count Fleet.

His groom reached over and patted the Count on the neck. "There has always been a living Triple Crown winner," the groom said. "Ever since Sir Barton won. You could always go visit one, like you're visiting this horse today."

The groom asked me if I knew Secretariat's people. "I saw the horse and his groom, Ed Sweat, just this morning," I told him.

"Next time you see him, you tell him that there has always been a Triple Crown winner alive and he better win it this year or that string will be broken," he said. "I don't think this old horse is gonna make it to the end of the year."

Next morning, I told Ed Sweat that story of Count Fleet. He whistled softly. "That horse is still alive?" Eddie said. "Don't you worry. We got it covered."

Secretariat won the Derby, of course, on his way to the Triple. Count Fleet died seven months later, on Dec. 3, 1973. Since then, Secretariat has died, but Seattle Slew and Affirmed are still alive, Slew at 25, Affirmed at 24. They could go at any time. History is speaking to you.

Lewis grinned and turned to Baffert. "What do you say, Bob? Can he do it?"

Baffert nodded. "He'll be ready," he said.

Baffert was right ... almost. The two grays came charging toward the wire as one, with Free House on the outside, a half-length back. A true herd animal, very sociable, Silver Charm liked running with horses, and tended to wait on horses if he got too far ahead, as he had waited for Free House in the Preakness. "He must think Free House is a cuz or something," Baffert said. He waited again in the Belmont. With Free House next to him, he failed to see Touch Gold, to the right of Free House, bounding the fastest of all down the middle of the track. He ran right by them both. Seeing him go by, the Charm dug in again. He was gaining in the end but he fell short, losing by half a length.

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