History & Tradition of the Triple Crown

The Kentucky Derby museum celebrates the Kentucky Derby’s history and traditions. The museum was inaugurated in 1985, and underwent a major renovation in 2010 after flood damage (Associated Press 2010). The Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing is a group of three famous horse races that includes the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness Stakes.

The Kentucky Derby museum includes historic exhibits, artifacts, and archives that celebrate the Derby’s history (Nickerson 2009).

The Kentucky Derby museum includes a café where visitors may enjoy lunch five days a week. The café is located at 704 Central Avenue in Louisville, Kentucky. The Derby is always playing on the café’s television screens in keeping with the museum’s theme. The café serves Mint Juleps all year as the Mint Julep is the official Derby drink. The Derby café also serves The Longest Shot, a souvenir drink. The drink will run café-goers $184.90 in keeping with an unlikely winner in Derby history. In 1913, a horse with very long odds went on to win the Derby: a $2 ticket would have paid out $184.90. In celebration of this unique moment in Derby history, the café continues to serve this souvenir drink at this price (Explore Louisville 2013).

The Kentucky Derby Museum underwent a massive renovation following extensive flood damage. The Museum experienced roughly $4 million in damages due to a flood on Aug. 4, 2009. The flood began in the curator’s office, and quickly extended to the collection and archival rooms. In light of the storm, museum workers cooperated to attempt to save as much material as possible. Workers formed a human chain to attempt to move relevant artifacts and paintings on the bottom shelves. Art insurers celebrated the museum workers’ efforts, as they quickly and effectively moved nearly a thousand pieces in an hour and a half during a blackout. Ultimately, the flood destroyed the first floor and lower levels of the museum, with nearly a foot of water drenching exhibits and research materials. Though no Derby artifacts were damaged, significant archival and research material was lost in the flood. The museum lost 27,457 items according to the claims submitted to their insurance companies. These items were not irreplaceable for the most part, but were a significant portion of the Museum’s collection. Seven administrative and storage offices were destroyed. The two museum horses, miniature horse Winston and full-size horse Phantom on Tour, were unaffected by the flood (Derby Museum 2009).

Some items were sent to the Chicago Conservation Center as part of a mass conservation effort. The items sent were the most valuable in the collection; these totaled roughly 40 items. The Center is a leader in art restoration and conservation, and the largest organization of its kind in the field. The items sent to the Center ranged in value from $100 to $16,000. They were taken in a climate-controlled van from Kentucky to Chicago. The conservation efforts the center undertook included efforts to prevent mold, the reinforcement and stabilization of paintings, and thorough cleaning. The restoration process took several months to complete (Derby Museum 2009).

The Museum underwent major renovations and reopened on April 18, 2010 in time for the 2010 Kentucky Derby. Though a significant renovation had been planned, the flood damages accelerated the time schedule and increased the expected size of the renovation project (Associated Press 2010; Nickerson 2009; Derby Museum 2009).
The 2010 renovation was valued at $5.5 million. The renovation enabled museum coordinators to re-design nearly every exhibit at the Museum, as nearly every exhibit was affected by water damage. The tribute to farriers was the only exhibit to not be altered. Many of the exhibits were thrown out or necessitated extensive repairs. Since the damage was so extensive, the museum closed for 9 months to enable the renovation efforts to proceed (Derby Museum 2009; Associated Press 2010).

The Derby Museum also utilized the renovation opportunity to create a new mission statement: “Share the FUN of the Kentucky Derby Experience”. Museum exhibits were re-designed with this new mission statement in mind. Additional exhibit themes were added, these included “celebrity attendance, the infield experience, fashion and a deeper look into the life of the horse from foal to Derby contender” (Derby Museum 2009).

In addition to changes to the museum exhibits, the museum’s infrastructure was also altered. The museum’s footprint was not altered, though several walls were knocked down or moved. (Derby Museum 2009).

The renovation funds came from grants and general museum fundraising. The gift shop and tours were temporarily relocated to the Churchill Downs Store at the Derby Track’s Gate 17 (Derby Museum 2009). The grand re-opening was named “The Launch Party” (Nickerson 2009).

The Triple Crown is a series of three horseraces that takes place in the United States. These include the Belmont Stakes, the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness. Horse racing aficionados worldwide closely follows these races. Winning the Triple Crown can be extremely lucrative; past winners have reported lifetime earnings of over a million dollars (La Roche 2012).

These three races are among the oldest in the United States, though they did not all begin simultaneously. The Belmont Stakes is the oldest, beginning in 1867. Its distance is set at 1 ½ miles. The race was named after August Belmont, a New Yorker who worked in the finance industry. The Preakness Stakes then followed it in 1873. Its distance is 1 3/16 miles, though its distance has varied. The Kentucky Derby was inaugurated in 1875. The race runs 1 ¼ miles, and is the most well-known of all the events. All three were termed the Triple Crown in the 1930s. The present day order – the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness Stakes and ending with the Belmont Stakes – was established in 1931. The Derby takes place on the first Saturday in May, and the Preakness and the Belmont follow it at two and three weeks after the Derby, respectively (ESPN 2012).

Sir Barton first won the Triple Crown in 1919. Though not favored to win, Sir Bartton won one of the races by an impressive five lengths. This was all the more impressive as horses only had a four day break between races in the early 20th century, whereas now they have two weeks (Klein 2012).

There have been 11 total winners—horses who have won all three legs of the races. An additional 30 have won the first two races, though they lost out to the trophy in the third race. The trophy winners, in chronological order, have been Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978). Though both male and female thoroughbreds compete in the Triple Crown, a female thoroughbred has never won the Triple Crown (Klein 2012).

The fastest horse to ever win the Triple Crown was Secretariat in 1973. He set the longstanding record for the Kentucky Derby at 2 minutes, 24 seconds. He holds track records for all three races (Walker 2013). 

There was no winner for the latest Triple Crown in 2013, as three different horses won the three races. These were Palace Malice, who won the Belmont Stakes, Orb, winner of the Kentucky Derby, and Oxbow, who won the Preakness. The 2013 Triple Crown was notable due to the age of one the winning jockeys: Mike Smith rode Palace Malice to victory at 48 years old, considered by the sports world to be too old to be a successful jockey (Ross 2013).

This lack of a conclusive Triple Crown winner has been a longstanding concern. There has not been a horse that has won the prestigious tournament for 35 year. Some veterinarians connect this occurrence to the introduction of Lasix to racehorses on raceday. The medication is commonly administered to the majority of horses, even though studies have shown that Lasix harms long-term horse health. These horses’ careers are often cut short and the horses may suffer breakdowns. The three horses that won each of the individual races in the Triple Crown demonstrated physical ailments that could be indicative of Lasix consequences. Orb appeared to be experiencing dehydration and cramping; these symptoms appeared to rob him from the Belmont prize. Some veterinary experts suggest completely removing drugs from horse racing in order to increase horses’ health and allow for a single hose to dominate the Triple Crown (Gustafson 2013).

Poor breeding practices have also been faulted for the poor performance of this last decade’s horses in comparison to those in years past. Sports commentators criticize a gene pool that is too narrow, or a focus on creating fast, young horses rather than durable competitors. Some horse racing experts hypothesize that today’s training is inferior to that horses were subject to in previous decades. This is particularly perplexing given the decreasing times in human sports, as athletes have reaped the benefits of better nutrition, training, and medical care. However, the changing nature of the track surfaces does make comparing horse performance across decades difficult (Walker 2013).

Modern horsebreeders acknowledge the fragility of today’s horses in comparison to those that competed prior. In fact, many do not even race their horses in all three of the Triple Crown races. In addition, the Crown is particularly difficult to win due to the characteristics of the three races. The two shorter distances – the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness—are run first. The Belmont, however, is an extremely long race. Many horses overspend themselves in the beginning of the Belmont race; they do not expect the race to be so long. Ultimately, a particular running style is most successful at the Belmont. This running style, unfortunately, is incompatible with the running style that predisposes horses to victory at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Horses often accelerate around the turn to win the Derby or the Preakness. In contrast, a steady pace is the best strategy for the Belmont (Beyer 2012).

Some sports commentators acknowledge that horses in modern times have been running slower. In the past decade, none of the Kentucky Derby winners have succeeded in setting a top 10 record. In Preakness, only one winner in the last decade has ranked among the top 10. The Belmont stakes has exhibited similarly slow track times (Walker 2013).

The Triple Crown is a historic set of three horse races that takes place in the United States. These races date back to the 19th century, and the three races were first termed the Triple Crown in the early 20th century. One of these three races is the Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby museum celebrates the Kentucky Derby’s history. The museum experienced significant renovations after the 2010 flood, though museum coordinators were able to rebuild the damaged exhibits, and the museum continues to educate visitors on Derby history to this day.


Explore Louisville. 2013. “Derby Café: At the Kentucky Derby Museum,” Explore Louisville, http://www.gotolouisville.com/play/0/43174/derby-cafe-at-the-kentucky-derby-museum/details.aspx

Derby Museum. 2010. “Kentucky Derby Museum turns adversity to opportunity with a $5.5 million dollar exhibit renovation project,” Kentucky Derby Museum, 2 Nov, < http://www.derbymuseum.org/news/?p=175 >

Associated Press. 2010. “Kentucky Derby Museum to reopen with new exhibits,” USA Today, 1 Feb. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/travel/destinations/2010-02-01-kentucky-derby-museum_N.htm>

Nickerson, L. 2009. “Renovated Kentucky Derby Museum to reopen in April 2010,” Examiner.com, 3 Nov. <http://www.examiner.com/article/renovated-kentucky-derby-museum-to-reopen-april-2010>.

Derby Museum. 2009. “Derby Museum Flood Updates Blog”, Derby Museum, <http://kdmflood.wordpress.com>.

Ross, D. 2013. “Palace Malice wins Belmont Stakes to conclude vintage Triple Crown,” The Guardian, 10 Jun. < http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2013/jun/10/palace-malice-belmont-stakes-oxbow-orb>.

Gustafson, S. 2013. “Essay: Medication Continues to Stifle America’s Triple Crown Hopes,” The New York Times, 11 Jun. ESPN. 2013. “Triple Crown,” ESPN.com, 20 Sept. < http://espn.go.com/sports/horse/topics/_/page/triple-crown>.

Beyer, A. 2012. “Triple Crown bid is a race against history,” Daily Racing Form, 25 May. < http://www.drf.com/news/triple-crown-bid-race-against-history>.

La Roche, J. 2012. “Meet the 11 Amazing Horses Who Won The Triple Crown,” Business Insider, 8 Jun. < http://www.businessinsider.com/triple-crown-winners-2012-6?op=1>.

Walker, C. 2013. “Triple Crown thoroughbreds aren’t running as fast,” Baltimore Sun, 11 May. < http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-05-11/sports/bs-sp-preakness-speed-20130511_1_triple-crown-secretariat-seattle-slew>.