NEW YORK -- The last jockey to win the Triple Crown knows exactly what he’ll tell Victor Espinoza should he pilot California Chrome to victory Saturday.
“Welcome to the club,” Steve Cauthen will say. “It’s an exclusive club.”
It’s a club of 10, with three living members. Their next meeting is this weekend at the 146th Belmont Stakes, where Espinoza will try to make it a breathing quartet by stamping out the longest stretch between Triple Crown winners ever.
It’s been 36 years since Cauthen, then barely 18, rode Affirmed to glory in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
Cauthen’s triumph came one year after French-born Jean Cruguet was in the irons for Seattle Slew’s sweep and five years after Canadian Ron Turcotte did the same with Secretariat.
Could Cauthen have possibly thought after Affirmed outdueled Alydar in 1978 that he would remain the club’s new guy this long?
“I wasn’t really thinking about that at all at the time,” Cauthen said in a phone interview Thursday, “but probably not.”
Not after he became the third Triple Crown winner in a six-year span. Since 1978, 12 horses won the first two legs and couldn’t convert at the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, nicknamed the Test of the Champion.
The hype of this year’s Belmont Stakes, from a drought perspective, is more comparable to 1973.
Turcotte took Secretariat to the Belmont seeking to snap a 25-year dry spell. From 1964 through ‘72, five horses won the Derby and Preakness and came up short at the Belmont.
“[The drought] was a real big topic,” Turcotte said. “But there was not as much pressure as you would have thought. I was so confident I was going to win the race. We were going to see something special.”
They did. The end of the 25-year skid was surpassed by the 31-length margin of victory, the largest for any Triple Crown race ever.
However, Secretariat was an incredible 1-to-10 favorite in a field of five. Chrome was an early 3-to-5 favorite for Saturday’s race among a field of 11. Never has a Triple Crown winner beaten this many horses in the finale.
Secretariat and Chrome do have this in common -- they drew the exact same post positions in the Derby (5), Preakness (3) and Belmont (2).
In 1977, Cruguet didn’t have the weight of a drought on his shoulders with then-undefeated Seattle Slew, which won the Belmont by four lengths. No other horse won the Triple Crown without a loss to its name.
“The first quarter of a mile to me the race was over,” Cruguet said in a teleconference last week. “They couldn’t get to him. Nobody went faster than me.”
Cauthen and Affirmed were a head faster than rival Alydar at the 1978 Belmont. He remembers the scuttlebutt after his Triple Crown, that it was becoming too easy. But that wasn’t the case.
“We were spoiled with three really good horses [Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed],” NBC Sports analyst and two-time Belmont Stakes-winning jockey Jerry Bailey said.
Experts say it’s actually become a tougher and tougher feat. Horses aren’t trained to run distances as long as 1 1/2 miles anymore. But that can be a handicap for entire fields.
What’s working more against Chrome specifically is the fact that the Nos. 2-6 finishers in the Derby skipped the Preakness to prepare for the Belmont. Danza, third at the Derby, has since withdrawn.
“They’re fresher, more rested,” said NBC Sports reporter Randy Moss, who has covered all but one of the near Triple Crown misses since 1978. “They have an advantage, a big advantage.”
Only one of the last 12 Belmont Stakes winners also raced both the Derby and Preakness. Six of the Belmont winners in that time ran the Derby and skipped the Preakness.
“It’s more than just luck,” Moss said. “There are tangible reasons why it’s harder to win now than it used to be.”
Since 1978, Cauthen has watched 11 jockeys try and fail to join his exclusive club at Belmont Park, including Espinoza with War Emblem in 2008. A 12th, Mario Gutierrez, did not start due to I’ll Have Another’s scratch in 2012.
“I’ve never rooted against any of them,” Cauthen said. “But like everybody else, I have no control. I just watch with anticipation.”