When Gallant Fox won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, horse racing historians began scrambling through old Daily Racing Forms to see who else had won the newly coined Triple Crown. They found that only one – Sir Barton – had taken all three races; poor Zev didn’t make the cut.
Zev was the first horse to run in all three races of the Triple Crown and lose one – the beginning of dozens of agonizing “what-ifs” that horse racing fans would debate over the next 100 years. Until Zev’s defeat in the Preakness Stakes, a handful of horses had won 2 of 3, only to have their owners refuse to run them in the Kentucky Derby. This list includes the great Man O’ War.
And Zev might have been the second Triple Crown winner if it weren’t for a kick in the gut.
Trouble in the Preakness
On May 12, 1923, four years after Sir Barton took all three races, Zev lined up at the webbing as the favorite for the Preakness Stakes, which was then run before the Kentucky Derby. But seconds before the barrier rose up, signaling the start of the race, a horse named Blanc Seing began acting up and kicked Zev in the midsection with his right hind hoof. The blow could be heard 20 to 30 feet away, according to a bystander.
The race started, and Zev never recovered, finishing 11th out of the 12 horses. No one knew what had befallen the horse until the spectator wrote the Baltimore Evening Sun with his recount of the incident 14 years later.
He didn’t seem like a superhorse at first; he lost his first five races as a 2-year-old. He turned things around quickly, though, reeling off five wins in a row to become Juvenile Champion in 1922.
Zev rebounded from his crushing defeat in the Preakness by winning the Rainbow Handicap in Jamaica. In the Kentucky Derby, jockey Earl Sande took Zev, a 19-1 longshot at this point, straight to the lead and never looked back, winning by a comfortable 1 1/2 lengths over Martingale. Vigil, the Preakness winner, finished third.
He then turned it on, winning the Withers Stakes a week later and then taking the Belmont Stakes, once again going wire to wire to win by 1 1/2 lengths again. He faced Epsom Derby winner Papyrus in a U.S. vs. Great Britain showdown and won by an astounding 6 lengths. The colt finished the season with 12 wins in 14 starts and earned Horse of the Year honors.
Zev raced as a 4-year-old, but didn’t fare as well, winning 6 of 17 starts. During his career, though, he had two five-race winning streaks and one seven-race streak. And it could have been more if it weren’t for that sucker punch.