Triple Crowns, Grand Slams Equally Hard
In the realm of tough things to do in sports, winning the Triple Crown of horse racing ranks right up there with winning the Triple Crown of baseball.
Neither one, though, is as hard to accomplish as completing the Grand Slams of tennis and golf or matching some of the amazing serial feats in the Olympics.
Smarty Jones’ upset loss by a length in the Belmont Stakes last Saturday put the bid for thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown to bed for another year and extended a drought that has lasted since Affirmed won it in 1978.
Back then, there was talk that the Triple Crown was becoming too common, maybe too easy. Affirmed was the third horse in six years to do it, following Secretariat in 1973 and Seattle Slew in 1977. Surely more superhorses would dominate the field and cheapen the prestige of a Triple Crown.
Well, 10 horses won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but failed in the Belmont over the next 26 years, and the number of those superhorses still stands at 11, going back to Sir Barton in 1919.
Think that’s a short list over a long time? Consider that it’s been 37 years since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski won baseball’s Triple Crown -- the home run, RBI and batting average titles -- and that only 11 players (Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby twice each) ever did that.
Surely the differences between the two Triple Crowns are huge.
Horses get only one shot at theirs, running as 3-year-old colts, and they have to win three races at three distances within about a month.
The Kentucky Derby is the first and most prestigious at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles, the Preakness is more of a sprint at a sixteenth of a mile shorter, and the Belmont is the grueling “test of champions” at 1 1/2 miles. Throw in the vagaries of the weather, track conditions and changes in the fields, and it’s no wonder that it’s so hard for a horse (and jockey) to pull it off.
Baseball’s Triple Crown requires a blend of power and consistency over a six-month season, plus teammates who get on base enough to drive them in. The four greatest home run hitters -- Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays -- never did it. But No. 5, Frank Robinson, did in 1966 with 49 homers, 122 RBIs and a .316 average.
The back-to-back Triple Crowns of Robinson and Yaz broke a spell that had lasted since Mickey Mantle in 1956.
A Grand Slam in golf -- winning all four majors in a single year -- is so ridiculously difficult that no one has done it since Arnold Palmer came up with the idea in 1960.
A golfer not only has to beat each course in ever-changing conditions, he has to beat every rival four times.
Ben Hogan came the closest in 1953, winning the Masters, U.S. Open and the only British Open he ever played. The British and PGA were held the same week in 1953, which shows that the notion of a professional Slam was not a big deal at the time.
Bobby Jones won a different version of the slam in 1930 that was comprised of the U.S. Open and Amateur, British Open and Amateur. Those were the biggest “majors” of that generation, but some of his stiffest competition (Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen) couldn’t play the Amateurs.
The “Tiger Slam” of Tiger Woods in 2000-01, as incredible as that was, started with the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, went to St. Andrews for the British Open, then Valhalla for the PGA and Augusta the next spring for the Masters. There probably aren’t four courses more suited to his game than those. Unless the courses click perfectly again for him or anyone else, another century could go by before a golfer wins the slam.
The Grand Slam of tennis -- winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. titles -- is only slightly less daunting. It takes a player of remarkable versatility and stamina to win seven matches in two-week periods on hardcourts, clay and grass.
Only two men, Don Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver in 1962 and ’69, managed the feat, though both did it when all the majors except the French were on grass. Laver’s second Grand Slam was the only one by a man in the Open era.
On the women’s side, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Smith Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988 were the only ones to do it in a single year.
Looking around at other individual achievements in a series of sports events, the accomplishments of a few Olympians rank high:
* Czechoslovakia’s Emil Zatopeka winning the triple crown of long-distance running -- the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon -- at the 1952 Olympics.
* Jesse Owens in 1936 and Carl Lewis in 1984 pulling off their own grand slams of track, winning golds in the 100, 200, 4x100 relay and long jump.
* Michael Johnson’s golden double in the 200 and 400 at the 1996 Olympics.
* Mark Spitz’s sensational seven in 1972, winning gold over different distances with different strokes.
* Eric Heiden’s fabulous five in speedskating in 1980 -- golds at five distances from 500 to 10,000 meters.
Put in that context, Smarty Jones’ defeat in the Belmont is not so much a disappointment as a realization of how hard Triple Crowns, Grand Slams and other special achievements are to come by.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for Associated Press.