CRAWFORD | The toughest of them all? Where does the thoroughbred - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | The toughest of them all? Where does the thoroughbred Triple Crown rank?

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Secretariat made the Triple Crown look easy in his 31-length victory in the Belmont. (AP file photo). Secretariat made the Triple Crown look easy in his 31-length victory in the Belmont. (AP file photo).
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It has been called the toughest accomplishment in sports. With 37 years having elapsed since the last thoroughbred racing Triple Crown, the sport has an argument.

Three races in six weeks, two of them longer distances that most thoroughbreds will run the rest of their lives, with a crop of “new shooters” jumping up in the last of those tests, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

We're four years away from the 100th anniversary of the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton in 1919, and only 11 horses have managed the feat. But there have been 13 near-misses since 1978. In addition to those 11 who won the Triple Crown, 34 others won both the Derby and Preakness and had a shot in the Belmont.

CRAWFORD | Triple Crown-winning jockeys are hopeful, but skeptical

Thirteen others won both the Preakness and Belmont after losing or not running in the Derby (including the great Man o'War), and  11 won both the Derby and Belmont, but lost in the Preakness.

In all, that makes 58 horses who won two of the three races, plus the 11 who won all three, in 95 years.

When you look at it that way, it seems a lot less improbable, even if no one has been able to do it lately.

Nobody's arguing how tough a feat it is. But how does it stack up to other big challenges in sports, statistically and in degree of difficulty? Let's take a look.

BASEBALL'S TRIPLE CROWN. It consists of leading your league in batting average, home runs and RBI. In 137 years, it has happened 17 times, but only five times since World War II. Think 37 years has been a long time to wait for a horse racing Triple Crown, there was a 45-year gap between Carl Yastrzemski winning the American League Triple Crown in 1967 and Miguel Cabrera winning for the Detroit Tigers in 2012. The National League has been even tougher. No NL player has won a batting Triple Crown since Joe Medick in 1937.

As far as near misses, there are plenty. Dozens of players have led the league in home runs and RBI, but didn't lead it in batting average. It's the nature of power hitting. Getting two out of three doesn't carry the same degree of difficulty. Getting all three, however, is every bit on a par with horse racing's feat.

GOLF'S GRAND SLAM. For my money, this might be the most difficult, given that only one man — Bobby Jones — has ever accomplished it. Jones did it in 1930, when it consisted of the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open, British Open and The Amateur.

The modern Grand Slam consists of The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. No player has ever won all four of those in a single year. Five players have won all four over the course of a career — Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen. A dozen others have won three of the four in their careers.

The “Tiger Slam,” so called because Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championships to finish the 2000 season and The Masters to open 2001, is as close as any modern player has gotten, and indeed he is given credit for a Grand Slam by winning all four consecutively by many players.

TENNIS GRAND SLAM. The definition and years of the tennis version of the Grand Slam have varied, but this much is clear — no one has accomplished winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open since Rod Laver did it in 1969, when the amateur era of tennis ended and the open era began.

Tennis fans, therefore, have waited far longer than horse racing fans for another Grand Slam winner. Laver also accomplished the feat in 1962, and Don Budge in 1938. Since 1920, the first year all four tournaments were contested, they are the only three men to accomplish the feat of winning all four. (there was a five-year hiatus for World War II.)

When it comes to near-misses, only 13 men since 1933 have won three of the four Grand Slam titles in a single season. Only two men have won the first three events and been in contention in the U.S. Open — Jack Crawford in 1933, Lew Hoad in 1956.

So not only have tennis fans waited a good while for a Grand Slam, they've waited a long time even for near misses. Roger Federer won three of the four Grand Slam Tourneys three times, but never captured the French Open during that span.

In women's tennis, there have been three Grand Slam singles winners, most recently Steffi Graf in 1988. (Graf not only won all four Grand Slam tournaments that year, she also captured the Olympic Gold Medal in women's singles.) Amazingly, Martina Navratilova never managed it, thanks to a couple of wins by Chris Evert. Navratilova won 10 out of 14 Grand Slam tournaments from 1982 to 1985. Evert won the other four, keeping her rival from sweeping all four in any one year.

Margaret Court won all four Grand Slam tournaments in 1970, and Maureen Connolly Brinker in 1953.

TRIPLE CROWN OF MOTORSPORT: The Indianapolis 500, The 24 Hours of LeMans and The Monaco Gran Prix (or the Formula One World Championship). Regardless of which of those versions you use, only one man has pulled it off -- Graham Hill in 1969. I don't know how many drivers even attempt all three anymore, which makes it less of a yardstick. Juan Pablo Montoya, who won this year's Indy 500, is among those who do try to accomplish that triple. He and Jacques Villeneuve are the only modern drivers to have won two legs of the Triple Crown of Motorsport.

In NASCAR, the current triple crown includes the Daytona 500, Aaron's 499 and the Coca-Cola 600. Since 2005, no driver has won more than one leg of that triple crown in any given season. Only three drivers have done it in their career -- Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. No driver has swept all three in a single season.

OTHER NOTABLE ACCOMPLISHMENTS:

NBA: There's no name for it, but averaging a triple-double for a season remains one of the most elusive goals in the sport. Only one player in the league's history ever has managed it: Oscar Robertson, who averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists in 1961-62. Magic Johnson was just half an assist per game away from doing it in 1981-82.

NFL: Only seven players have rushed for 2,000 yards in a season. It's a test of physical endurance in one of the most brutal sports in the world. O.J. Simpson was the first to do it, in 1973. Adrian Peterson was the last, in 2012. Because of the 16-game NFL schedule, it's not as tough as it used to be. But it's not easy.

OLYMPICS: Only 11 people have won five or more gold medals in the Olympic Games, led by Michael Phelps with a record eight golds in 2008. Swimming, however, is a different animal, offering multiple medal opportunities. For most sports, you get just one shot.

UNDEFEATED SEASONS: It's always difficult. There has been only one undefeated NFL champion, the 1972 Miami Dolphins. The last college basketball team to win an undefeated championship was Indiana University in 1976. In the past 60 years, there have been seven teams to win undefeated titles. In addition to IU in '76, there were San Francisco in 1956, North Carolina in 1957, and UCLA in 1964, '67, '72 and '73.

Four teams (including Kentucky in 1954) had undefeated regular seasons but did not play in a postseason tournament. And 16 others have completed undefeated regular seasons but lost in NCAA Tournament play.

In women's NCAA basketball, 11 teams have won undefeated national titles since 1973, including four in the past six seasons.

CONCLUSIONS:

So what does it all mean? Well, whatever you want to make of it. I can't give you a definitive answer, but I can give you my own ranking of toughest.

1. Golf's Grand Slam. It hasn't been done in the modern era, and nobody appears close to doing it. Tiger Woods may be as close as we get for a while.

2. Baseball's Triple Crown. Miguel Cabrera's feat was amazing, but don't expect it every year. Yes, power hitters can win two of the three categories pretty easily, but hitting for average is another animal, and it's the rare player who can do both. 

3. Racing's Triple Crown. It has gotten increasingly difficult. The spacing of the races, and their distances, don't fit modern racing schedules. I do expect someone will do it fairly soon. Too many horses are winning the first two legs, someone will jump up and win the Belmont, too. Maybe this is the year.

4. Undefeated NCAA men's championship. With the growth the tournament to 64 teams, this has become more challenging over time. We saw the difficulty of this up close with the University of Kentucky this season. You can be perfect for a long time, it takes something else to be perfect forever. I don't see anyone doing it. But when a team can come as close as Kentucky did, you can always hope.

5. Undefeated Super Bowl champion. Only one team in history has won the Super Bowl without a loss. I don't see that changing anytime soon with the parity in the league and the scheduling and draft philosophy in place to help ensure it. The 2007 New England Patriots gave it a good ride, but lost in the Super Bowl. The Packers in 2011 were 15-1 but ran into a hot New York Giants team in the playoffs. Pittsburgh went unbeaten in 2004 but won just one playoff team, ditto for Minnesota in 1998. I put it below an NCAA championship because there are fewer games, but it's just as unlikely.

Have other suggestions? Disagreements? Did I leave major accomplishments out? Feel free to weigh in below in the comments section, or later today from noon to 3 when I host The V Show on ESPN 680 and 105.7 FM in Louisville.

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