Triple Crown Near-Misses: Capot Fades in the Derby

For the 1949 Kentucky Derby, all eyes were on Olympia, the winner of three stakes at 2 as well as the Wood Memorial and Derby Trial.

Bettors made him the 4-5 favorite, and he wowed everyone with a first quarter in a record-tying 22 2/5 seconds. Capot, a relative longshot at 13-1, stalked Olympia, about 1 1/2 lengths off the lead.

Olympia couldn’t handle the fast pace, though, and faded, leaving Capot to take charge. He roared to the front, taking a three-length lead heading into the homestretch. But the fast pace allowed Ponder, a horse in search of his first stakes win, to come from off the pace.

Trailing by as much as 16 lengths, Ponder, at 16-1, came down the center of the track and overtook Capot with ease, winning by 3 lengths. He and his father, Pensive, became the sixth father-son combination to win the Kentucky Derby. (Ponder’s son, Needles, also won the Derby in 1956, and they became the second three-generation Derby winners behind Reigh Count, Count Fleet and Count Turf.)

Capot’s showing was good enough to make him the 5-2 second favorite behind Ponder in the Preakness Stakes. Like the Derby, Capot stayed about 1 1/2 lengths off the torrid pace set by Noble Impulse.

When Noble Impulse ran out of gas, Capot once again surged to the lead. This time Ponder was nowhere to be found, leaving Palestinian to take the charge toward the leader. This time, though, Capot held on to win by a head. Ponder finished fifth.

Curiously, Capot’s win didn’t sit well with the bettors at the Belmont Stakes, who were more impressed with Ponder and Palestinian’s strong finishes. Ponder was the 4-5 favorite , and Palestinian was the second choice at 2-1. Capot was at 5-1.

This time, jockey Ted Atkinson moved Capot to the front early and slowed down the pace considerably, saving energy for the mile and a half race. He also saved ground with a trip along the rail. Palestinian lurked in second and was only 1/2 length behind Capot with only 1/2 mile to go.

Once again, Palestinian made a move, and Ponder came from off the pace again to make it a three-horse race. But the Belmont was not long enough for them; Capot won by a 1/2 length over Palestinian, who was a 1/2 length in front of Ponder.

For his accomplishments, Capot was named 3-Year-Old Male Horse of the Year. If he hadn’t chased Olympia in the Derby, we may have had a second Triple Crown winner in a row.

April 26, 1979 – Spectacular Bid Waltzes in Blue Grass

Forty years ago today, Spectacular Bid wowed the Keeneland crowd in the Blue Grass Stakes, cruising to a 7-length win over Lot o’Gold.

Overcast skies threatened rain that day. As had been the case in several races that year, Bid’s workouts had scared away most horses. By post time, only three other horses dared to challenge him: Lot o’ Gold, a horse Bid had soundly defeated three times already, Bishop’s Choice, another colt he had beaten, and a horse named Pianist.

The horses walked through the post parade and into the starting gate, and when the bell clanged and the gates opened, all four leaped out together.

The pack went four wide around the clubhouse turn, with Bid, in the number four position, on the outside. Although Franklin urged Bid on from the start, Bid did not respond. Once they reached the backstretch, Bid, by way of his outside position, was last.

On the backstretch, Pianist held the lead, and Lot o’ Gold made a move on the inside to challenge. Finally, Bid decided it was time to run and made a move for the leaders on the outside. For a moment, Lot o’ Gold held the lead by a neck.

Then Franklin whipped Bid twice, and that was all the gray colt needed. Routinely, almost effortlessly, he responded, passing Lot o’ Gold, increasing his lead to two lengths. Seeing as no one was challenging him, he loafed out of the far turn and into the homestretch—so much that Franklin had to hit him with the whip a few times again.

The final margin of victory was 7 lengths; the time for the 1 1/8-mile race was 1:50, two seconds slower than the time for the Flamingo Stakes. He took 13 4/5 seconds to cover the last furlong when a good training time for a furlong is 12 seconds. He had no competition, but spectators began to wonder, “What’s wrong with Spectacular Bid?”

He would show them two weeks later that nothing was wrong.

Triple Crown Near-Misses: Pensive Fails in the Belmont

In the 1970s, horse racing had three Triple Crown winners in six years – something that had not been accomplished since the 1940s. But in that decade, we came close to seeing three Triple Crown winners in four years, if it weren’t for an ill-fated move by a Hall of Fame jockey to the front of the field in the middle of the longest race of the three.

Pensive was not a highly regarded colt heading into the 1944 Kentucky Derby, having won just one stakes race and suffering from tender hooves for most of his career. All eyes were on Stir Up, a gelding who had won the Flamingo Stakes and a division of the Wood Memorial.

Stir Up seemed in good position, stalking the leader, Diavolaw from third place. Pensive was in 13th place in the 16-horse field but trapped along the outside, so jockey Conn McCreary sent the Calumet Farm horse along the rail around the turn. He was 12 lengths behind at one point, but sped past the front-runners in the homestretch en route to a 4 1/2-length win.

Bettors made Pensive the 8-5 favorite one week later in the Preakness Stakes, and he didn’t let his fans down. He was in third place after a mile, 4 1/2 lengths behind Stir Up, who went to the lead early. Pensive slowly made up ground, but with less than a furlong to go, he put on the same burst of speed he used in the Derby, flying past Stir Up and Platter to win by 3/4 of a length.

He was set to become the seventh horse to win the Triple Crown as the 1-2 favorite in the Belmont Stakes, but inexplicably – as jockey Ron Franklin would do 45 years later – McCreary sent Pensive to the front chasing a speedy pacesetter, Who Goes There. He was within a length of the lead with a mile to go. Who Goes There tired, and Pensive seemed destined to finish as the Triple Crown winner.

But Pensive tired in the long Belmont homestretch, his final kick left behind on the backstretch, leaving Bounding Home to win by only 1/2 length. It was the first time a horse that had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes lost the Belmont – a feat to be replicated a frustrating number of times in the future.

The Belmont was the beginning of nine consecutive losses for Pensive, who never found his Triple Crown success again and was retired . He died in 1949 of a twisted intestine.

Pensive was the first of three generations of Derby winners, a feat accomplished only twice in Derby history. He was the sire of the 1949 Derby winner Ponder, who in turn sired Needles, the winner in 1956.