Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

American racing expert Barry Irwin would side with Secretariat as his top choice for the virtual running of a race to determine the best of the country’s 13 Triple Crown winners.

This Saturday’s Kentucky Derby has been postponed to September due to the coronavirus, but Churchill Downs has come up with a race to keep racing in the spotlight.

From Sir Barton — successful in 1919 — to Justify — winner in 2018 — racing fans will be able to pick their favourite Triple Crown winner in a three-hour programme on NBC on May 2.

“The anticipation of which Triple Crown winner will emerge as the ultimate champion is thrilling,” said Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs.

Irwin, who celebrated his 77th birthday last week, was a regular attendee at SA bloodstock sales until a few years ago when he voiced his dissatisfaction with those controlling the sport.

One of his SA purchases was Secret Heart, a daughter of Fort Wood. Exported to the US, the mare produced the speedy filly Pluck, who made it a red-letter day for Irwin when winning the 2010 Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf.

But Irwin’s favourite horse will surely be Animal Kingdom, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby under jockey Johnny Velazquez and went on to capture the $10m Dubai World Cup in 2013.

Irwin’s choice of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat looks spot on as the son of Bold Ruler — trained by Lucien Laurin and ridden by Ron Turcotte — was particularly impressive in the Belmont Stakes, winning the New York race by a staggering 31 lengths. He retired as the winner of 16 of his 21 starts.

One of the favourites among racing fans in Saturday’s virtual race will be 2015 victor American Pharoah. Trained by the legendary Bob Baffert, the son of Pioneer Of The Nile was ridden to his Triple Crown triumph by jockey Victor Espinoza.

Jockey Steve Cauthen is a household name among US racing enthusiasts and he won the 1978 Triple Crown on Affirmed for trainer Laz Barrera. The winner of 22 of his 29 starts, the son of Exclusive Native became the first $2m earner in thoroughbred racing.

A full day of online festivities is planned on Saturday designed to encourage the perfect interactive Kentucky Derby at home.

“For many fans, the first Saturday in May has become a part of their family’s yearly traditions,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs racetrack.

“While we eagerly look forward to the 146th Kentucky Derby now scheduled for the first Saturday in September, we will celebrate the annual excitement of our traditional date with our fans and community by offering ways for us to join together for a great cause,” said Flanery.

Churchill Downs has pledged to match up to $1m of donations with funds to be directed to the Team Kentucky Fund and Direct Relief.

The virtual race, created by Inspired Entertainment, will use data algorithms including historical handicapping information about each horse which helps determine the probability of their potential finishing positions.

Final word from Irwin: “We just can't wait for racing to resume on a major scale.”

List of US Triple Crown winners:

1919: Sir Barton

1930: Gallant Fox

1935: Omaha

1937: War Admiral

1941: Whirlaway

1943: Count Fleet

1946: Assault

1948: Citation

1973: Secretariat

1977: Seattle Slew

1978: Affirmed

2015: American Pharoah

2018: Justify