The Handicap Triple

Today’s 115th running of the Suburban Handicap at Belmont is the last leg of the Handicap Triple Crown, a concept with which I’ve become enamored over the last few months and that is largely ignored by the rest of the racing world. It’s not as if trainers circle the dates of the Handicap Triple Crown races and identify a prep schedule to get their horses there.

In a dreadfully named 1973 article in Sports Illustrated, Whitney Tower notes the rarity of the Handicap Triple Crown winner and compares it to the three-year-old Triple Crown:

While it may seem surprising that only eight colts have won the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont) since Sir Barton got the act started in 1919, it is even more remarkable that in 80 years only three older horses—Whisk Broom in 1913, Tom Fool in 1953 and Kelso in 1961—have accounted for the Handicap Triple Crown.

Since Tower’s comment, three more horses have won the three-year-old Triple Crown, and one more the Handicap Triple Crown—whether this is because the Handicap version is that much harder to achieve, or because so few horses have attempted it, I can’t say. With more time, I’d research the number of horses who have raced in the Met Mile, the Brooklyn, and the Suburban in the same year—but that’s a project for another day.

Today, we’re looking at the bookend winners of this honor: the first horse to do it, and the most recent.

Whisk Broom II (Broomstick – Audience) won all three handicap races in 1913 (referred to as the “triple event”), capturing the Suburban on June 28th of that year under 139 pounds, the highest ever carried by a winner in the Surburban, according to the National Museum of Racing. Whisk Broom was foaled in this country and owned by Harry Payne Whitney (the same guy who owned Mother Goose, today’s feature for fillies), but began his racing career in England:

Sent to England as a yearling, Whisk Broom began to achieve fame almost from his
first start. At all distances up to a mile he was considered one of the fastest
horses in England, and although the English authorities of the turf did not
class him as anything but a sprinter, and only good for distances at a mile and
under, they took no liberties with him in the matter of weights, packing up to
140 pounds on the Broomstick horse. (New York Times)

This faith in Whisk Broom’s ability to carry heavy weight is what spurred Mr. Whitney to send the horse back home, after, according to the Times, he was assigned 145 pounds.

The Met Mile was Whisk Broom’s first race in this country, and I am inferring that the Brooklyn and the Suburban were his second and third, so he came from England and won this honor in his first three tries in American racing. His sire, Broomstick, had set the record for a mile and a quarter nine years earlier in the Brighton, and Whisk Broom is said to have smashed that record in his Suburban by more than two seconds: the official time for Whisk Broom’s Suburban is 2:00. There was much dispute, however, about the time, which the Times reports:

The fractional time as given by the official timer showed 24 seconds for the
first quarter, 47 1-5 for the half mile, and 1 minute 12 seconds for the first
three quarters, after which the angles from which he viewed the race made it
impossible for Mr. Barretto to properly clock the leader.

As is customary when an event out of the ordinary is in progress, many of the trainers and owners put their “clocks” on the race, and inquiry developed that in nearly every case the watches were at variance with that of the official timer.

When questioned as to the time he returned, Mr. Barretto, the official
timer, was confident that there had been no mistake. Because of his presence in
the timer’s stand, which was in immediate alignment with the regular finish,
while the Suburban finish was twenty-five yards further on, it was suggested
that he had clocked the winner at the wire under him, but he said positively
that he had stopped his watch when the wielder of the flag at the finish of the
race had dropped it.

There’s been a lot written about the timing of the race, but ninety-five years later, Mr. Barretto’s “official” time stands, as NYRA shows Whisk Broom crossing the wire at exactly the 2:00 mark.

I can’t help noting one other passage from the Times write-up of Whisk Broom’s Suburban:

Ten thousand persons witnessed the series of six races under conditions which
were ideal both for copetition (sic) and sightseeing. Old Sol was on his best
behavior, and his torrid rays were somewhat tempered by a fine breeze across the
field throughout the afternoon.

I can’t get over that Old Sol line—what editor would let that in today?

Seventy-one years after Whisk Broom’s win, Fit to Fight became the most recent winner of the Handicap Triple. In between, Kelso and Tom Fool won it, Kelso in 1961 and Tom Fool in 1953.

I went back to the New York Times for the report on Fit to Fight’s accomplishment, and I was, unsurprisingly, struck by the differences in how racing was reported in 1913 and in 1984. Steve Crist gets a byline, unlike those many anonymous reporters writing about the races in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And those historical reports focus almost exclusively on the writer’s perspective, unlike today’s, which draw extensively on interviews with a horse’s connections, largely absent from the early stories. As for the weather, Steve Crist simply mentions that the crowd was “rain-drenched” and the track sloppy on the day of Fit to Fight’s Brooklyn, in 1984 the final race in the series–no mention of “Old Sol’s” absence.

Both Fit to Fight and Whisk Broom were seen as being at best milers, yet each raced beyond his ideal distance in order to capture the title, with Fit to Fight running a mile and a half in the Brooklyn, leading Crist to characterize his Handicap Triple as “the most versatile ever.” Despite that distinction, Crist acknowledges that Fit to Fight “might not be Hall of Fame quality”; writing in Sports Illustrated, William Leggett characterized Fit to Fight this way:

It has been 23 years since the great Kelso accomplished the [Handicap Triple
Crown]; in the 91 years that the Handicap Triple Crown has existed, only three
horses before Fit to Fight had won it: Whisk Broom (1913), Tom Fool (1953) and
Kelso. All three are enshrined in Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga, where Fit to Fight is now sure to find a niche.

In truth, Fit to Fight doesn’t really rank with those racing legends. He has been run sparingly for four seasons and until this year’s Metropolitan he hadn’t won a Grade I race. Still, Fit to Fight has shown moments of, if not greatness, then certainly
gameness.

Despite Leggett’s prediction, Fit to Fight did not “find a niche” in the Racing Hall of Fame, the only one of the four Handicap Triple Crown winners not to be inducted.

The three races of the Handicap Triple—the Met Mile, the Brooklyn, and the Suburban–carry the sort of racing history that I love, and I also like the idea of giving older horses a series of races in which honors are bestowed. Given the way horses are currently raced and, more importantly, retired, it seems, sadly, that the days of the Handicap Triple Crown are over; the New York racing calendar discourages horses from running in these races, as this year, the Met Mile was run on May 26th and the Brooklyn was run less than two weeks later, on June 6th.

In 115 years, only four horses have won the Handicap Triple Crown. Is it an honor to have achieved that title when so few horses contest it? If the title isn’t valued, is it significant that only a few horses have won it? Perhaps not from a breeding standpoint, though the sort of versatility a horse has to show to win it would indicate breeding value, and Fit to Fight certainly went on to have a successful breeding career, siring 40 stakes winners and according to The Blood-Horse, consistently ranking among the leading sires of winners.

If I owned a good horse and if I had a lot of money and if the calendar permitted, I’d point him to the Handicap Triple. It’s the racing romantic in me, and I’d like to honor the history of the races and the horses who ran in them. None of those three things is likely to happen, though, much less all three, and so unfortunately, it seems all too possible that Fit to Fight will be the Handicap Triple Crown winner ever.

Sources:
Crist, Steven. “Fit to Fight Wins and Sweeps Triple.” Nytimes.com. 22 July 1984. 27 June 2008.

Leggett, William. “This Was His Crowning Achievement.” Vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com. 30 July 1984. 27 June 2008.

“World’s Record for Whisk Broom.” Nytimes.com. 29 June 1913. 27 June 2008.

Tower, Whitney. “Another Blow By A Windy Gal.” Vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com. 4 June 1973. 27 June 2008.

3 thoughts on “The Handicap Triple

  1. Great post! It is interesting to note that the handicap triple was Whisk Broom’s only 3 starts in the U.S. I wonder how many other horses are in the Hall of Fame with only three American starts?

  2. Lovely dovetail: At the end of Jonathan Yardley’s column in this Sunday’s Washington Post Book World, he writes, “Beware of journliasts who think they’re poets.” I, like you, however, love the “Old Sol,” line. By the time Crist — a fine writer, to be sure — came around, that foggy old stuff had all been cleaned up, after a nearly disgraceful period — let’s call it the Oscar Madison era — in which sexism (the Whitney Tower story headline, Joe Namath’s talk show) was at its peak. Maybe I’m getting loose with history, but I’m probably not too far off. You make an absolutely fascinating point about the writer’s in the old days telling what happened through their point of view, rather than trying to round up the utterings of the participants. These days, those utterings are usually achingly banal: “We’re just going to play one game at a time and see what happens.” Often, the utterings are full of smoke (“I bet on the other horse,” Dutrow said yesterday after Frost Giant won the Suburban at 40-1). I write them, but I rarely read “game” stories, almost always turning to the columnists to find out what the heck happened out there. Herein, to me, lies the brilliance of Tony Kornheiser’s radio show. Unlike most sports shows — and his often veers away from athletics — Kornheiser almost never interviews athletes and coaches; he interviews other commentators and writers. He wants the impressions of the knowledgable whose business is to make sense through opinion of what others are seeing. There is a general belief (I’m not sure if it is a written rule anywhere) to try to have a minimum of three sources in your news stories at newspapers, and I’m pretty sure that is in place to foster a perception of balance and depth (not to mention legitimacy). This is a good thing; but, sheesh, don’t you think we’ve gone too far too fast — from “old Sol” to “Winstrol” in what, when you think about it, is a pretty short period of time? Maybe that’s why people don’t read newspapers as often as they used to: The news is usually bad and they’re not that much fun. — J.S.

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