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

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April 27th, 2020

Fans will have to wait an additional four months for America’s most famous horse race, as the Kentucky Derby has been rescheduled from May 2 to Sept. 5, but Churchill Downs will still celebrate with a virtual "Kentucky Derby at Home" party on the first Saturday in May.

NBC will televise a virtual race, which matches all 13 Triple Crown winners, May 2.

The first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, came along more than 100 years ago. To provide context for each winner, I’ve taken a look back at other prominent sporting achievements from those times in a four-part series. Part I and Part II cover the first seven Triple Crown winners.

Part III focuses upon arguably the two greatest racehorses to win the Triple Crown.

Citation (1948)

The Triple Crown didn’t seem difficult in 1948, when Citation became the fourth winner in seven years. However, horse racing wouldn’t see another for 25 years.

With the same connections as Whirlaway (Calumet Farm, Ben/Jimmy Jones, and Eddie Arcaro), Citation won 19 of his 20 starts at age 3 and defeated 1947 Horse of the Year Armed twice while he prepped for the 1948 Kentucky Derby.

By the great sire Bull Lea, Citation won all three legs of the Triple Crown by open lengths. He added an 11-length score in the Jersey Derby between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and “Big Cy” reeled off a record 16-race win streak.

“I never saw a better one,” Jimmy Jones said.

Citation injured his ankle when he won his final 3-year-old start in December, which forced him to miss the 1949 season, and he was never the same horse. But his connections kept him in training in California, so he become Thoroughbred racing’s first millionaire.

“He would have been better off if he had never run in those races in California,” Jimmy Jones said. “He should never be judged on his races after that injury.”

The Olympics (winter and summer) returned in 1948, after a 12-year absence because of World War II. The United States won the most gold medals (38) and total medals (84).

Joe Louis, who served in the U.S. Army from 1942-1945, knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott on June 25, the 25th successful title defense for the world heavyweight champion (the most by any champion in any division), and retired afterward (he came out of retirement because of tax problems).

Babe Ruth died Aug. 16.

The Kentucky Wildcats, college basketball’s winningest program, won the first of eight NCAA championships. The Michigan Wolverines, led by All-American Dominic Tomasi, repeated as college football champions, with a 9-0 record. They won seven games by double digits, and stretched their win streak to 23.

Ben Hogan took the PGA Championship and U.S. Open titles.

The Cleveland Indians, who needed pitching help late in the season, signed Negro League great Satchel Paige. Paige was the oldest rookie in major league history at age 42, and he helped Indians win their second and last World Series, over the Boston Braves, in six games.

The Philadelphia Eagles edged the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL Championship Game, while the Cleveland Browns, with the legendary Paul Brown as head coach, thrashed the Buffalo Bills to take the All-America Football Conference championship (Cleveland won four straight titles before the AAFC folded in 1949, and three AAFC teams joined the NFL).

Secretariat (1973)

After he was named Horse of the Year at age 2, Secretariat exceeded expectations in 1973, when he became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. “Big Red” broke track records when he romped through all three legs — Kentucky Derby (1:59 2/5), Preakness (1:53), and Belmont (2:24).

Bred in Virginia, the Penny Chenery homebred son of Bold Ruler smashed the world record in the Belmont, where he won by an astonishing 31-length margin.

The bright chestnut showed his versatility in the fall, when he recorded a pair of spectacular wins on turf in his final two starts. Secretariat is regarded by many as the greatest Thoroughbred in American racing history.

The Miami Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins, 14-7, in Super Bowl VII and became the only NFL team to produce a perfect season. The 1973 college football champion was named by the UPI and other wire services before the postseason. Alabama received the distinction over fellow unbeaten Notre Dame, but the Irish defeated the Crimson Tide, 24-23, in a thrilling Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve to earn the AP title.

The Oakland Athletics won the second of three consecutive World Series titles, and the seventh in the organization’s history, in seven games, over the Yogi Berra-managed New York Mets, who captured the National League pennant with a record-low .509 win percentage.

UCLA went 30-0 and stretched their win streak to 75 (it eventually reached 88) with a seventh straight college basketball national championship. Bill Walton scored 44 points (21-of-22 on field-goal attempts) to lead the Bruins to an 87-66 win over Memphis State in the final.

The New York Knicks won their second and last NBA championship with a defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals, and the Montreal Canadiens notched their 18th Stanley Cup triumph.

Australian tennis great Margaret Court earned her final Grand Slam singles titles. She reached 24 total, with victories in the Australian Open, French Open, and U.S. Open. Billie Jean King defeated Chris Evert, who beat Court in the semifinals, in the Wimbledon final.

Jack Nicklaus added a 12th golf major to his résumé in the PGA Championship, and Johnny Miller established a new final-round record (63) to win the U.S. Open by a stroke.

George Foreman pummeled Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight boxing championship. After he defeated Muhammad Ali in 1972, Frazier was knocked down six times by Foreman, before the fight was stopped in the second round, with Howard Cosell repeatedly stating, “Down goes Frazier!”

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