Triple Crown elusive, but more in baseball than in horse racing

Bill Tanton

May 18, 1993|By Bill Tanton

After Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero ran fifth in the Preakness last Saturday, another year of waiting began.

There will be no Triple Crown champion this year, of course, now that Prairie Bayou has won the second jewel.

In fact, there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since Steve Cauthen, who was at Pimlico as an ABC-TV broadcaster Saturday, rode Affirmed to victory in the Derby, Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. And that was 15 years ago.

No wonder the eloquent Jack Whitaker, in his post-Preakness essay, referred to the Triple Crown as "the most elusive championship in sports."

Will there ever be another Triple Crown winner? After the Preakness, I asked that of three well-known horsemen. All of them stated emphatically that, yes, there will be.

"One will come along," said trainer King Leatherbury, who, before this week is out, is expected to saddle the 5,000th winner of his career. "It'll take a real good horse, but we'll get another Triple Crown winner."

Billy Boniface, who trained Preakness winner Deputed Testamony in 1983, agreed with Leatherbury.

"What it'll take," said Boniface, who is a third generation horseman, "is a combination of a good horse and good luck. But some horse'll do it."

"Oh, sure, we'll have another Triple Crown winner," said Marylander Harry Meyerhoff, whose Spectacular Bid won the Derby and Preakness in 1979. "Spectacular Bid could have and should have won the Triple Crown."

To this day, Spectacular Bid remains the last favorite to win the Derby, as well as the last 2-year-old champion to win America's greatest horse race.

Bid, who now stands at Milford Farm in New York, looked for all the world as if he would be the winner in the Belmont Stakes that year.

Triple Crown winners were on a roll at the time. We had had one for two straight years leading up to Bid's bid -- Affirmed in '78 and Seattle Slew the year before that. No longer did people think it would take a near-miracle to produce another.

But heavily favored Spectacular Bid finished third to Coastal at Belmont Park.

"He stepped on a pin in his stall on the morning of the race, somewhere between 5 and 6 a.m.," said Meyerhoff.

"A pin came out of his bandages and he played with it and hurt himself. That bothered him in the race. Plus, [jockey] Ronnie Franklin didn't change leads at the top of the stretch as he should have.

"Another horse -- Sunday Silence -- did the same thing we did just a few years ago [1989]. He won the Derby and the Preakness but he missed in the Belmont [finishing second to Easy Goer].

"We might win the Triple Crown next year. My son, Tom, and I have three 2-year-olds who are undefeated [Blushing Jack, Burgee and Slew's Eagle]."

Undefeated?

"Yeah," said Meyerhoff. "They haven't started yet."

There was a time when people seriously doubted there would ever be another Triple Crown winner. In 1972, returning on the train from New York after the Belmont, Kelson Sturgeon, then Pimlico's publicity director, expressed that opinion to me.

"There are too many thoroughbreds being foaled nowadays," he said. "Back when Gallant Fox and Omaha won the thing there weren't that many 3-year-olds competing for a Triple Crown. The odds are too great against it now."

Naturally, the next year Secretariat won it, ending a 25-year drought. Thus, the '70s produced three Triple Crown winners, while the '80s and '90s have produced none.

As for Whitaker's claim about the elusiveness of the title, I submit that an even more difficult one to win is the Triple Crown in baseball. That goes to the player who leads the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.

The last major-leaguer to achieve that was Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, when he hit .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBI. The Orioles' Frank Robinson won a Triple Crown the year before that (.316, 49, 122). No National Leaguer has won a Triple Crown since the Cardinals' Joe Medwick in 1937 (.374, 31, 154).

Interesting coincidence: There have been 11 thoroughbred Triple Crown winners. There also have been 11 baseball Triple Crown winners, although the feat has been accomplished 13 times. Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby each did it twice.

Sports have not seen a racing Triple Crown winner in 15 years. Baseball hasn't had one in 26 years, although it may have one this year the way Barry Bonds is tearing it up with the Giants.

Jack Whitaker was right when he said the Triple Crown is the most elusive championship. He just had the wrong sport.

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