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'West is Best' in Recent Triple Crown History

by Jon White

June 27, 2018

The Los Angeles area is well known for bad traffic, good weather and earthquakes. It’s also become a hotbed for Triple Crown winners.

There have been only two Triple Crown winners in the last 40 years, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. Both horses have been based in Southern California with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

Actually, the recent strength of the Southern California-based 3-year-olds in the three Triple Crown contests goes beyond just American Pharoah and Justify. Ten of the last 15 Triple Crown races have been won by a SoCal-based runner. These are those 10 races:

2018 Belmont Stakes (Justify)
2018 Preakness Stakes (Justify)
2018 Kentucky Derby (Justify)
2016 Preakness Stakes (Exaggerator)
2016 Kentucky Derby (Nyquist)
2015 Belmont Stakes (American Pharoah)
2015 Preakness Stakes (American Pharoah)
2015 Kentucky Derby (American Pharoah)
2014 Preakness Stakes (California Chrome)
2014 Kentucky Derby (California Chrome)

Five of the last 15 Triple Crown races have been won by a runner not based in Southern California.

2017 Belmont Stakes (Tapwrit)
2017 Preakness Stakes (Cloud Computing)
2017 Kentucky Derby (Always Dreaming)
2016 Belmont Stakes (Creator)
2014 Belmont Stakes (Tonalist)

SoCal’s Baffert, all by himself, has won six of the last 15 Triple Crown races while becoming only the second person to train two Triple Crown winners. The only other trainer to win the Triple Crown twice was the legendary “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who achieved the feat with Gallant Fox in 1930 and his son Omaha in 1935.

It will be interesting to see if SoCal does well again in the 2019 Triple Crown races. Who knows? Considering the way the Triple Crown has been won in clusters, perhaps we will get the third Triple Crown winner of this decade next year.

There were three Triple Crown winners in the 1930s (Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935 and War Admiral in 1937).

There were four Triple Crown winners in the 1940s (Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946 and Citation in 1948).

There were three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s (Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978).

Heck, I wouldn’t put it past a certain white-haired trainer to take a serious run at another Triple Crown sweep next year.


Baffert was all smiles last Saturday at Santa Anita Park when Justify was paraded between the fourth and fifth races. The big, grand-looking chestnut colt took a few circles around the walking ring, then was paraded on the track before making an appearance in the winner’s circle.

A little while later, Baffert was back in that same Santa Anita winner’s circle after American Anthem won the Grade II San Carlos Stakes.

American Anthem, backed down to 4-5 favoritsm, and St. Joe Bay, virtually ignored by the bettors at 42-1, staged a furious battle all the way down the stretch to a photo finish. American Anthem won by a head. St. Joe Bay gave it his all, but had to settle for second. Horse Greedy ended up third, 1 3/4 lengths behind St. Joe Bay.

Now 4, American Anthem is two for two this year. Prior to the San Carlos, the Kentucky-bred colt won a seven-furlong allowance/optional claiming contest by 1 3/4 lengths at Churchill Downs on June 1.

The San Carlos was American Anthem’s third win in a graded stakes race. He was victorious in a pair of races last year named in honor of two of the greatest trainers of all time. American Anthem in 2017 won the Grade III Lazaro Barrera here and Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont Park.

American Anthem was assigned a career-best 105 Beyer Speed Figure for his San Carlos triumph. His top Beyer previously had been a 102 in the Woody Stephens.

Baffert trained American Anthem’s sire, Bodemeiser, who won the 2012 Arkansas Derby by 9 1/2 lengths. Bodemeiser subsequently finished second to I’ll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.


When Justify paraded between races last Saturday, it brought back memories for some longtime racing fans of another large, striking chestnut, Silky Sullivan, who was paraded at Santa Anita many times after his retirement from racing in 1959 until his death in 1977 at the age of 22.

Silky Sullivan, without question, was one of the most popular racehorses in the history of California racing. He produced some of the most incredible come-from-behind victories ever seen. To this day, more than half a century later, one sometimes still hears the phrase “a Silky Sullivan finish.”

In “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America,” William H.P. Robertson wrote that Silky Sullivan was “one of the most glamorous horses to appear in America since Man o’ War.”

Silky Sullivan “was a gleaming chestnut of such prodigious muscular development that he seemed of a different breed, more like an artist’s romantic conception of a war charger than a racehorse,” Robertson wrote. “He was a sight to see under any circumstances, and in action he was spectacular.”

What Silky Sullivan did in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita on Feb. 25, 1958, still boggles the mind. Silky Sullivan won by a half-length after being 41 lengths behind in the early going. No, 41 is not a typo.

Bill Shoemaker rode Silky Sullivan for the first time that day. Many years later, I asked Shoemaker’s agent, Harry Silbert, what he remembered about Silky Sullivan’s victory from 41 lengths off the pace. Silbert told me that he was sitting next to Silky Sullivan’s trainer, Reggie Cornell, in the box seats for that race.

“Reggie had told Bill that it was very important not to rush the colt,” Silbert said. “Well, Silky Sullivan dropped so far behind early you couldn’t believe it. I’m telling you, he was a sixteenth of a mile behind the next-to-last horse. I didn’t think he had a prayer, so I put my binoculars down. Reggie looked over at me and said, ‘I told him not to rush the colt, but this is ridiculous!’

“Just then,” Silbert continued, “I picked up my binoculars again, and Silky started his move. And he won! For him to win from that far back was, well, unbelievable.”

Silky Sullivan would go on to win the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby that year by 3 1/2 lengths after being 26 lengths behind early. But Silky Sullivan never threatened on a muddy track in the Kentucky Derby. He finished 12th, 20 lengths behind the winner, Tim Tam.

Silky Sullivan probably was paraded more times in California than any other racehorse. The racehorse who attained that same distinction in the Pacific Northwest was Turbulator.

Turbulator was paraded at Longacres near Seattle and at Playfair in Spokane on many occasions after his retirement from racing in 1974 until his death. He paraded for the final time between races at Playfair on Sept. 30, 1989. Turbulator died at the age of 24 on Nov. 7, 1989.

At Playfair in 1969, Turbulator won seven races in nine weeks. During that seven-race winning streak, the distances ranged from six furlongs to two miles. Talk about versatility.

At Longacres in 1970, Turbulator set a world record for 6 1/2 furlongs. Also in 1970, he broke the track record for 1 1/16 miles at Longacres that had stood for 16 years.

At Playfair in 1970, Turbulator carried 134 pounds and came from 20 lengths behind to win the Washington State Breeders Handicap at Playfair by two lengths.

In the 1 1/16-mile Washington Championship at Longacres in 1972, Turbulator was 8 1/2 lengths behind at the eighth pole. He rocketed home to win by a half-length over Grey Papa. Grey Papa at that time was at the top of his game, having recently become the world-record holder for six furlongs.

When Turbulator won the 1972 Washington Championship, he did so despite being farther back at the eighth pole than Silky Sullivan had been in any of his victories. When Silky Sullivan came from 41 lengths off the pace to win, he was seven lengths behind at the eighth pole. That was the farthest behind at the eighth pole that Silky Sullivan ever was in any of his victories.

A come-from-way-back running style was just one of the reasons Turbulator became the most popular Thoroughbred in the history of racing in the Northwest. Another reason for being such a huge fan favorite was his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story.

Turbulator did not begin his racing career until he was a 4-year-old. As a 2-year-old in 1967, he became very ill and nearly died. As a 3-year-old while on a farm, he injured his right knee so severely that his breeder, owner and trainer, Tom Crawford, tried to trade the horse to a neighbor for two cows. When the neighbor took a look at the horse’s damaged knee, the neighbor understandably declined to make the swap.

Before the Turbulator ran in the Independence Day Handicap at Longacres on July 4, 1970, he was the subject of a feature story written by Bob Schwarzmann that appeared in the Seattle Times. Schwartzmann recounted the time that Crawford had unsuccessfully tried to trade the horse for two cows.

I was at Longacres with my father on that beautiful summer day in 1970 when Turbulator ran in the one-mile Independence Day Handicap. There was a spill approaching the clubhouse turn. Judgelyn, with Ken Doll riding, clipped heels and fell. Turbulator jumped over the fallen rider just before entering the clubhouse turn, then roared home to win by two lengths in an excellent 1:34 4/5. The crowd went wild.

After the race was over, I scurried from my seat next to my dad in the bleachers near the sixteenth pole in order to be standing just outside the winner’s circle when Turbulator returned to pose for pictures. As Tom Crawford led Turbulator into the winner’s circle, a fan yelled out something that I will never forget.

“He’s worth more than two cows now, Tom.”


Triple Crown winner Justify again is No. 1 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll. And as was the case last week, Justify received all but one of the first-place votes.

Like last week, the lone dissenting first-place vote went to Mind Your Biscuits. The absurd vote for Mind Your Biscuits again was cast by Anthony Stabile, a broadcaster for the Horse Racing Radio Network as well as someone who has appeared on television at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.

Justify is six for six this year, with four victories at the Grade I level, including a Triple Crown sweep.

Mind Your Biscuits is one for three this year, with his lone 2018 victory coming outside the United States in the Golden Shaheen in Dubai. In his two U.S. starts this year, Mind Your Biscuits finished second in an allowance/optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 9 and second in the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park on June 9.

Stabile explained why he put Mind Your Biscuits at No. 1 again this week to the NTRA’s Jim Mulvihill.

“Mind Your Biscuits has had an interesting and ambitious campaign,” Stabile said. “To go to Dubai and win the Golden Shaheen in such dramatic fashion again, then come back and run arguably the best race of his life in the Met Mile speaks to his tremendous talent. Maybe others have more talent, but I think he’s the best racehorse out there right now.”

Justify certainly has had more of a “campaign” this year than Mind Your Biscuits. Justify has raced six times this year, twice the number of starts made by Mind Your Biscuits.

You want ambitious? How about trying to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. Justify became the first horse to do that since Apollo in 1882.

You want ambitious? How about trying to win the Kentucky Derby after having made only three previous career starts. Justify became only the third horse in the 144-year history of the Kentucky Derby to do that. The others were Regret in 1915 and Big Brown in 2008.

You want ambitious? How about trying to become a Triple Crown winner without having raced at 2. Justify is the first horse in the history of the sport to do that.

I stick by what I wrote last week. To put Mind Your Biscuits at No. 1 instead of Justify is about as ridiculous as it gets.

Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 369 Justify (36)
2. 285 Accelerate
3. 244 West Coast
4. 175 Unique Bella
5. 155 Mind Your Biscuits (1)
6. 153 Bee Jersey
7. 131 Monomoy Girl
8. 118 Abel Tasman
9. 93 City of Light
10. 60 Army Mule

NEXT WEEK: My ranking of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of the year.