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

Profile Picture: James Scully

April 24th, 2020

The Kentucky Derby has been postponed from May 2 to Sept. 5, but NBC will still televise a virtual race May 2 that matches all 13 Triple Crown winners at Churchill Downs in a 1 1/4-mile race.

Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown in 1919, and the 13 horses who have captured the three-race series cover different eras in American sports.

To provide context for each Triple Crown winner, I’ve taken a look back at other prominent sporting achievements during the same year. I covered Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), and Omaha (1935) in Part I.

Here is Part II.

Whirlaway (1941)

Bred and owned by Calumet Farm, Whirlaway had a thick, long tail that extended far behind him. “Mr. Longtail” did not handle turns well, and many of his losses came because he would get out badly into the stretch, but the Ben Jones-trained colt was on his best behavior in the Kentucky Derby. He established a new track record for 1 1/4 miles (2:01 2/5) and posted a record-equaling eight-length win.

Whirlaway won 32 of his 60 starts, and he is the only Triple Crown winner to also capture the Travers and repeat as Horse of the Year at age 4.

Ted Williams had a batting average of .406 in 1941, the last major league baseball player to hit at least .400. Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hit streak came to an end July 17. A penalty flag was used for the first time in a college football game in 1941.

The New York Yankees defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers to win their ninth World Series. The Boston Bruins swept the Detroit Red Wings to win their third Stanley Cup.

Many worldwide sporting events were not played because of World War II.

Count Fleet (1943)

Count Fleet posted dominant, wire-to-wire wins in all three legs of the Triple Crown. Owner John Hertz (of the rental-car empire) almost sold the temperamental colt at age 2, but jockey Johnny Longden persuaded Hertz to keep the dark bay son of 1929 Kentucky Derby winner Reigh Count. Count Fleet posted a record-setting, 25-length victory in the Belmont and established a new track record for 1 1/2 miles (2:28 1/5), but he exited the race with an ankle injury and had to be retired.

Quarterback Sid Luckman led the Chicago Bears to their third NFL championship in four years. Notre Dame achieved its fourth national championship in college football, and first under head coach Frank Leahy, and Angelo Bertelli became the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner, after the Irish went 9-1.

The New York Yankees won their 10th World Series, and Spud Chandler was named American League MVP after he compiled a 20-4 record, with 134 strikeouts and a 1.64 earned-run average (the lowest until 1967).

World War II continued to force the cancellation of sporting events worldwide.

Assault (1946)

Assault suffered a paddock accident as a weanling, which resulted in the nickname “Clubfooted Comet.” While the front foot injury affected his gait, the Max Hirsch-trained Assault ran straight and true to earn Horse of the Year honors in 1946. The smallish colt romped by eight lengths to upset the Kentucky Derby at 8-1 and won eight stakes during his 3-year-old season.

Jackie Robinson was a year away from breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but he became first black player in the International League since the 1800s when he joined the 1946 Montreal Royals, the top farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The St. Louis Cardinals won their sixth World Series, over the Boston Red Sox in seven games, and first baseman Stan Musial was named AL MVP, on the strength of a .365 batting average.

Notre Dame began a four-year stretch where it went 36-0-2 and won three national championships and played one of college football’s “games of the century," a 0-0 tie against Army in Yankee Stadium. Team founder George Halas returned to coach after he served in World War II from 1942-1945, and the 1946 Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants, 24-14, to win their seventh NFL championship. The Montreal Canadiens won their sixth Stanley Cup.

The Tour de France and FIFA World Cup were canceled, as Europe continued to recover from World War II, but major golf and tennis events resumed. Ben Hogan won his first major, the PGA Championship. He went on to become one of only five players to win all four majors (British Open, Masters, PGA, and U.S. Open), and is tied with Gary Player for fourth on the all-time list with nine major wins. Sam Snead, who won a record 82 PGA Tour events during his career, captured his first British Open.

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