Revisiting the years of Triple Crown winners

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

April 23rd, 2020

Did you know that the Spanish flu pandemic was finally receding just as the first horse captured American Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown in 1919?

Over the past century, 13 horses have swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. By revisiting the years of Triple Crown winners, we can go on a quick-take tour through history.


The 1919 hero, Sir Barton, won the Belmont shortly before the Treaty of Versailles was signed as a conclusion to World War I. President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, and American society was in turmoil with the Red Scare, bombings by anarchists, and racial strife. Two Constitutional amendments were on the way to implementation in 1920, the 18th (Prohibition) and 19th (women’s right to vote).


Gallant Fox (1930) came along as the Great Depression furthered its grip. Jockey Earl Sande, whose savings were wiped out by the 1929 stock market crash, came out of retirement to ride him. Ten days after the Belmont, President Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that worsened the economic crisis.


American farmers were suffering through the Dust Bowl when Gallant Fox’s son Omaha (1935) swept the three classics. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal continued apace with such initiatives as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration. But the international order was collapsing. Hitler ripped up the Treaty of Versailles and implemented the Nuremberg Laws to persecute German Jews, while Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.


Pope Pius XI condemned Nazism and atheistic Communism in two landmark encyclicals in early 1937, the year War Admiral wore the crown. Two days before the Kentucky Derby, the Hindenburg airship went down in flames, and in July, Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific. Then the Japanese invasion of China foreshadowed war.


Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II in 1941, the year of Whirlaway’s Triple Crown. The U.S. had already been the "arsenal of democracy," with the Lend-Lease program helping Great Britain withstand the prolonged German bombing of the Blitz. Hitler launched the invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, a couple of weeks after the Belmont.


Count Fleet’s 1943 Kentucky Derby was almost canceled due to wartime restrictions including gas rationing. His Triple Crown overlapped with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, put down by the Nazis who were under increasing pressure from the Allies. The U.S. and British took North Africa and invaded Italy, while the Soviet forces regained territory, symbolized by the German surrender at Stalingrad. The Japanese were ejected from Guadalcanal, and a future President – John F. Kennedy – was hailed as a hero after his boat (PT-109) went down in action in the Solomon Islands.


By the time of Assault (1946), the postwar world was barely taking shape. Winston Churchill warned of the Soviet menace in his "Iron Curtain" speech, Nazi war criminals were convicted following the Nuremberg Trials, and atomic bomb tests were conducted at Bikini Atoll. President Harry S. Truman had to deal with inflation and strikes as the U.S. economy transitioned from total war footing.


Unlike Citation (1948), the odds-on favorite throughout his Triple Crown, Truman was a surprise winner of the U.S. Presidential election. He issued an Executive Order to desegregate the armed forces, while South Africa was institutionalizing apartheid. Gandhi was assassinated in a recently independent India; the State of Israel was born the day before Citation’s Preakness, and immediately embroiled in war with the Arab states; the Marshall Plan began pouring aid into Western Europe; and the Soviet blockade of West Berlin prompted the Berlin Airlift, starting just a couple of weeks after the Belmont.


Secretariat (1973) was a bright spot amid crises both foreign and domestic. President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal was metastasizing, with televised Senate hearings commencing two days prior to the Preakness. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned for unrelated corruption. The nation’s long slog in Vietnam was brought to an end through the Paris Peace Accords. Another Arab-Israeli conflict, the Yom Kippur War, sparked an OPEC oil embargo and energy crisis.


Seattle Slew (1977) ran lights-out in the Belmont, and the next month, the lights literally went out during New York City’s blackout. That same summer, Elvis Presley died. On the foreign policy front, President Jimmy Carter concluded the Panama Canal treaties.  


After Affirmed (1978) joined the Triple Crown club, Carter brought Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin together at Camp David in a breakthrough for Mideast peace. The U.S. and the People’s Republic of China agreed to establish full diplomatic relations. Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became the first non-Italian Pope in centuries, John Paul II.


It felt like centuries until the next Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah (2015), in a year blighted by the rampaging atrocities of ISIS.


Justify (2018) has a much happier association with the rescue of the boys’ soccer team from the cave in Thailand.

Tune into Churchill Downs’ virtual "Kentucky Derby at Home" party on NBC on May 2, from 3-6 p.m. ET.