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

Profile Picture: James Scully

April 28th, 2020

The Kentucky Derby has been rescheduled for Sept. 5, but NBC Sports will televise a virtual race, matching all 13 Triple Crown winners at Churchill Downs on May 2. It will be preceded by a rebroadcast of American Pharoah’s 2015 Triple Crown run, and fans can watch the virtual “Kentucky Derby at Home” party from 3-6 p.m. ET.

It’s been more than 100 years since the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, in 1919. To provide context for each Triple Crown victor, I’ve taken a look back at other prominent sporting achievements in a four-part series. Part I, Part II, and Part III cover the first nine Triple Crown winners.

Given the recency of American Pharoah and Justify, I will focus upon a pair of Triple Crown winners from the 1970s in Part IV.

Seattle Slew (1977)

Blessed with an intense determination to run fast, Seattle Slew carried his speed over a route of ground with authoritative, gate-to-wire victories in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

The first undefeated Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew was bet down to odds-on favoritism in every start at age 3, and he became a foundation sire at stud.

John Madden coached the Oakland Raiders to a 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the 1977 Super Bowl. Walter Payton established a new single-game NFL rushing record in November, when he compiled 275 yards in a 10-7 win over the Vikings. The Pittsburgh Panthers, led by Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, rolled to a 27-3 win over Georgia in the 1977 Sugar Bowl.

Pele retired on Oct. 1. Ernie Banks, a two-time National League MVP and 14-time All-Star, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Guillermo Vilas won two majors in tennis (French Open and U.S. Open), and Tom Watson doubled up in golf (British Open and the Masters).

Red Rum accomplished an unmatched treble, when he rallied from 30 lengths behind to win a thrilling Grand National. The great steeplechaser also captured the Grand National in 1973 and 1974. Steve Cauthen was named the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and AP Athlete of the Year, after he won 407 races and became the first jockey to exceed $6 million in single-season purse earnings.

Coach Al McGuire led Marquette to its only NCAA title in college basketball. The Portland Trail Blazers won their only NBA Championship, with Bill Walton named 1977 Finals MVP. The New York Yankees won the first of back-to-back World Series, and the Montreal Canadiens were in the midst of a four-year run of consecutive Stanley Cup victories.

Affirmed (1978)

Affirmed was known for his rivalry with Alydar. The future Hall of Famers squared off in an epic Triple Crown series.

Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, after Alydar launched his rally too late, and the final legs were much closer. After he edged Alydar by a neck in the Preakness, Affirmed dueled every step of the way with his bitter rival in the Belmont and won a head-bobbing finish. Affirmed won 22 of his 29 starts.

The Yankees won their 22nd World Series title in 1978, with a defeat of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Pete Rose’s 44-game hit streak, which tied for the National League record, came to an end Aug. 1. Baseball’s all-time hits leader (4,256) became the 13th player to reach 3,000 on May 5.

Wilt Chamberlain was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. “The Big Dipper” remains the only NBA player to average at least 30 points and 20 rebounds during a single season. He scored 31,419 points (30.1 per-game average) and brought down 23,924 rebounds (22.9 per-game average) during his career.

The Dallas Cowboys recorded the second of their five Super Bowl wins. Kentucky won its fifth NCAA title in college basketball, and Notre Dame won its 10th football national championship, after an 11-1 campaign and a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas. After they made the playoffs with a 44-38 record, the Washington Bullets notched their only NBA championship, with a 4-3 series win over the Seattle Supersonics. The Canadiens won the third of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles and 21st overall.

Argentina captured its first of two World Cups with a dramatic defeat of the Netherlands in the final. Martina Navratilova won the first of her 18 Grand Slam titles, when she took a classic women’s Wimbledon final over seven-time champion Chris Evert. Bjorn Borg posted the third of five consecutive men’s Wimbledon victories. Gary Player won his third and final Masters, and Jack Nicklaus won his third and final British Open.

American Pharoah (2015)

American Pharoah snapped a 37-year Triple Crown drought. The Kentucky Derby was the only challenge, a hard-fought, narrow decision under the Twin Spires, and the frontrunning colt followed with easy wins in the Preakness and Belmont. American Pharoah became the first horse to capture the “Grand Slam” when he romped in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Floyd Mayweather made more than other athlete in 2015, with earnings of $300+ million, according to Forbes Magazine. Serena Williams won three of the four Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon), and Jordan Spieth shot a record-tying 270 (18-under par) in the Masters to win his first major at age 21. Chris Froome earned his second Tour de France victory in three years.

The New England Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl, after Russell Wilson threw an interception at the goal line in the final seconds. The Golden State Warriors won the first of three NBA championships in a four-year stretch, and the Chicago Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup title in six years (and fourth overall).

Justify (2018)

The first Triple Crown winner to retire undefeated, Justify won all six of his starts in a 112-day period. The brevity of his racing career makes historical comparisons difficult, but the chestnut was brilliant. After he rolled to a facile Kentucky Derby triumph, Justify showed his determination to gut out a half-length Preakness win in the slop at Pimlico.

The Boston Red Sox won their ninth World Series in 2018 and fourth since 2004. The Warriors swept Cleveland in the NBA Finals, for their third championship in four years and second straight with Kevin Durant. Villanova earned its second NCAA basketball championship in three years.

France won its second World Cup with a 4-2 defeat of Croatia in the final. Europe defeated the United States to retake the Ryder Cup, and Norway led all countries with 39 medals (tied with Germany in gold medals at 14) during the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

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