by Clark Groome
Since Sir Barton was the first Triple Crown winner in 1919, only 11 other horses – Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1934), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978) and American Pharoah (2015) – have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to capture the title.
The three races, each a different length, are run over a period of five weeks. Horses that don’t win the Derby often sit out the Preakness so they can be fresher for the mile-and-a-half Belmont than those who manage to win the first two legs of the competition.
Just how hard is it? More horses, 12, lost their Triple Crown bid in the 37 years between Affirmed and American Pharoah than there had been winners. Some of those 12 – Spectacular Bid (1979), War Emblem (2002), the extraordinarily popular Philly horse Smarty Jones (2004), the mysteriously pulled up Big Brown (2008) and last year’s California Chrome – looked to be as close to a sure thing as this horse racing marathon allows. None won.
While the 37-year drought between winners was the longest period without a winner, there were 25 years between Citation’s 1948 victory and Secretariat’s spectacular performance in 1973.
One indication of just how hard this three-race competition is and how special those who conquer it are was reflected in what has always been my favorite bit of sport trivia: Secretariat is the only athlete ever to appear on the covers of the nation’s three premiere weekly magazines – Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated – in the same week.
So the long wait is over. Clearly the 90,000 fans at Belmont were pleased with the results, giving American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza as long an ovation as I’ve ever heard.
To put the Triple Crown into perspective, let’s look back to 1978 and to what’s happened in sport in the ensuring 37 years.
In 1978 Jimmy Carter was president, Milton Shapp was Pennsylvania’s governor and Frank Rizzo was Philadelphia’s mayor. Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won the Oscar for best picture and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” captured the Tony as best musical. Eugene Ormandy was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director.
In 1978 there were 28 teams in the NFL, 26 in Major League Baseball, 22 in the NBA and 18 in the NHL. The NFL now has 32 teams; MLB, the NBA and the NHL 30.
During the interval between the two Triple Crown champs, there were 37 Super Bowls, with the Eagles participating and losing two: 1981 and 2005; 36 World Series (none played in 1994 due to labor issues) with the Phillies winning in 1980 and 2008 and losing in 1983, 1993 and 2009; 38 NBA championships (including the one currently underway) of which the 76ers won 1 (1983) and lost 3 (1980, 1982, 2001); and 37 Stanley Cup playoffs (including this year and the absent 2004-05 season), five of which (1980, 1985, 1987, 1997, 2010) included the Flyers in the finals, none of which they won.
Summer Olympic Games took place in Moscow, Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London, with the Winter Games being held in Lake Placid, Sarajevo, Calgary, Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver and Sochi.
It was at Lake Placid in 1980 – cue Al Michaels’ “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” – that the underdog United States ice hockey team beat the theretofore-unbeatable Soviet team and went on to win the Gold Medal.
In 1985, Rollie Massimino’s surprising Villanova Wildcats won the NCAA basketball title by defeating favored Georgetown 66-64.
Tiger Woods came roaring onto the pro golf circuit by winning the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes. This was followed by 13 more major victories over the next decade.
It was a busy time, filled with great accomplishments in every sport. Every sport, that is, but horse racing where the hope for a new Triple Crown winner was dashed with alarming regularity.
That drought is over. American Pharoah has reset the clock. It was quite a race on Saturday. The horse, jockey Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert deserve our gratitude and our respect. They have accomplished one of the hardest feats in sports and almost made it look easy.