A long-time family friend who I interviewed for my master’s thesis on New York City’s Off-Track Betting Corporation was lamenting NYRA’s decision back in 2008 to run both the Brooklyn Handicap and Metropolitan Handicap on Belmont Stakes day, making it impossible for a horse to win all three races that had comprised the New York Racing Association’s handicap Triple Crown for older horses.
Comprised of the Metropolitan Handicap (an 8 furlong-race), Suburban Handicap (presently called the Suburban Stakes and run at a mile-and-a-quarter or 10 furlongs) and Brooklyn Handicap (now the Brooklyn Invitational Stakes and run at 1 1/2 miles or 12 furlongs), these races have punctuated New York’s early summer thoroughbred landscape since 1891, 1884 and 1887, respectively. While the Suburban and Brooklyn have been run at distances ranging from 1 1/8 to 1 1/2 miles over the years, the “Met Mile” has always been set at eight furlongs. Unlike the other two races, the Metropolitan has allowed three-year-old horses to compete.
So why has my friend been so upset?… Because NYRA’s Handicap Triple Crown had produced only four horses who successfully negotiated the gauntlet – Whisk Broom II in 1913, Tom Fool in 1953, Kelso in 1961 and Fit to Fight in 1984. Contrast this mind-boggling rarity with the Triple-Crown series for three-year-olds, which has been captured no fewer than 13 times – Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018).
Two reasons for the rarity in the handicap series are obvious: First, those horses entering the winner’s circle for each successive leg of the handicap series invariably picked up weight for the subsequent race. In order to complete the sweep, they would likely be at a greater weight disadvantage and asked to carry that weight over a distance of 10 to 12 furlongs. Second, there was the small matter of competing with the best thoroughbreds of their current class as well as some of those from previous years … as opposed to the best thoroughbreds from strictly their own three-year-old campaign.
The history of NYRA’s handicap has featured several memorable races, perhaps none as thrilling as the one produced by a four-horse field in the 1976 edition of the Suburban Handicap, featuring six-year-old Forego, five-year-old Lord Rebeau and four-year-old Foolish Pleasure (watch on YouTube and listen to the call of Dave Johnson at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktKGmsOX18w). One has to wonder what might have happened if the ’76 edition, at 1 3/16 miles at Aqueduct and its sharper turns, had been run at the 1 1/2 mile distance of the previous season at Belmont with its 1 1/2 mile oval. Watch and you’ll see why so many of us old-time railbirds rue the disappearance of NYRA’s Handicap Triple-Crown series.