The Triple Crown and sports: An intersection of history, Part I

Profile Picture: James Scully

April 23rd, 2020

The Triple Crown is the most significant achievement in Thoroughbred racing, but the three-race series will be postponed in 2020, with the Kentucky Derby rescheduled for Sept. 5 and dates pending for the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

Thirteen horses have achieved Triple Crown glory since 1919, a 100-year period that covers different eras in American sports.

To provide context for each Triple Crown winner, let’s take a look back at other prominent sporting accomplishments the same year.

Sir Barton (1919)

Winless from five starts, Sir Barton broke his maiden when he made his 3-year-old debut in the 1919 Kentucky Derby.

After he led wire-to-wire at Churchill Downs, the chestnut colt came back to romp in the Preakness four days later. Sir Barton posted an easy win in the Withers S., before he rolled to a five-length decision in the Belmont.

A pair of NFL titans, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears (initially the Decatur Staleys), were established in 1919. Jack Dempsey, nicknamed The Manassa Mauler, won the world heavyweight championship on July 4. The popular champion reigned for seven years. The Cincinnati Reds won the first of their five World Series.

World War I ended in November of 1918, and sporting events that were canceled because of the conflict resumed in 1919. Walter Hagen, who ranks third behind Jack Nicklaus (18) and Tiger Woods (15) with 11 major golf victories, captured his second U.S. Open. Jim Barnes won his second PGA Championship.

Centre College, a private liberal-arts institution in Danville, Kentucky, led college football in scoring and posted a 9-0 record, including wins at Indiana, Virginia, and West Virginia. College football statistician Jeff Sagarin retroactively selected Centre as the co-national champion for the season.

Unfortunately, the Stanley Cup was canceled after four games, with the series tied 2-2 between the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans, after the majority of Montreal’s players contracted the Spanish Flu.

Gallant Fox (1930)

The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont had been premiere races for 3-year-olds for decades, but it wasn’t until Gallant Fox came along in 1930 that the series became known as the Triple Crown.

Famed turf writer Charles Hatton coined the terminology after Gallant Fox captured all three races in 29 days, with the Preakness preceding the Derby that year. The “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons-trained colt won nine of his 10 starts at age 3. The lone setback came against 100-1 longshot Jim Dandy in the Travers.

Notre Dame repeated as college football champions in 1930, Knute Rockne’s 13th and final season as head coach. The Irish went 10-0, including a 7-6 victory over unbeaten Army before more than 100,000 fans at Soldier Field, and ended the year by extending their win streak to 19 games. Green Bay won its second straight NFL championship. The Packers stretched their win streak to 23, then lost to the Chicago Cardinals in Week 9, and finished the season 10-3-1.

Bobby Jones became the only golfer to win a single-season “grand slam,” when he took the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open, and British Amateur (the Masters didn’t begin until 1934, and the PGA Championship was restricted to professionals). Helen Wills Moody, who retired with 19 grand slam titles, continued to rule women’s tennis, with victories in the French Open and Wimbledon. Bill Tilden notched his 10th and final grand slam win with a victory at Wimbledon.

The inaugural FIFA World Cup took place in Uruguay, where the host nation defeated Argentina, 4-2, in the final. The Philadelphia Athletics, who eventually relocated to Oakland, won 102 games and captured their second straight World Series, the last as a franchise in Philadelphia. The Montreal Canadiens earned their third Stanley Cup championship, over the Boston Bruins.

Omaha (1935)

A son of Gallant Fox, Omaha provided owner/breeder Willliam Woodward and Fitzsimmons with their second Triple Crown winner in 1935. Even though he only won only an allowance from nine starts leading up the Kentucky Derby, Omaha rallied from of the pace to comfortably prevail. After a six-length score in the Preakness a week later, Omaha finished second in the Withers, then completed his Triple Crown sweep with a 1 1/2-length decision in the Belmont.

Babe Ruth retired on June 2, 1935. The Detroit Tigers won their first World Series that season, with a 4-2 series victory over the Chicago Cubs. James Braddock, who was nicknamed “Cinderella Man” by Damon Runyan and played by Russell Crowe in the 2005 Ron Howard movie, made an improbable comeback to win the world heavyweight championship, when he upset Max Baer by unanimous decision.

Jay Berwanger, a star tailback for the University of Chicago, won the first Heisman Trophy. In the 1935 Rose Bowl, Alabama completed a perfect season with a 29-13 defeat of Stanford. Bear Bryant, who went on to win six national titles as a coach of the Crimson Tide, played in the game, along with Hall of Famer Don Hutson.

Bahram won the English Triple Crown in horse racing (Two Thousand Guineas, English Derby, and St. Leger). Gene Sarazen captured the second edition of the Masters, his seventh and last major title. Fred Perry, an eight-time major champion, won the French Open and Wimbledon.

War Admiral (1937)

A sensational frontrunner, War Admiral recorded wire-to-wire wins as the prohibitive favorite in all three legs of the Triple Crown and established a track record when he completed the 1 1/2-mile Belmont in 2:28 3/5. The smallish dark bay colt did not resemble his sire, the legendary Man o’ War, but proved to be his best offspring. War Admiral was undefeated in eight starts during his 3-year-old season, and won 21 of his 26 starts overall.

The New York Yankees notched their sixth World Series title in 1937, behind Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, and Lefty Gomez. The Baseball Hall of Fame, which began a year earlier, counted Connie Mack, John McGraw, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, and Cy Young among the players inducted into its second class.

The Washington Redskins won their first NFL championship, with a 28-21 win over the Chicago Bears. The Pittsburgh Panthers were selected college football national champions by the Associated Press, after the team finished 7-0-1, with wins against Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Penn State in a key three-game November stretch. The Detroit Red Wings won their second Stanley Cup.

Don Budge, who became the first (and only) American male tennis player to win the Grand Slam a year later, captured Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Hilde Krahwinkel Sperling took home her third consecutive French Open title.