It’s the most elusive feat in two very different sports. In horse racing, a thoroughbred must win the three most significant events on American soil over the course of five short, grueling weeks. In baseball, a hitter must lead his league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in over the longest, most grueling season in American team sports.
Each feat, of course, is called the Triple Crown. And I, for one, am desperate to see the achievement.
It’s been 34 years since Affirmed won the 1978 Belmont Stakes to become thoroughbred racing’s 11th Triple Crown champion. The drought is the longest since Sir Barton became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1919. (The longest horse-racing fans had waited before was 25 years, between Citation in 1948 and the legendary Secretariat in 1973.) As impossible as the challenge may seem, it hasn’t always been this way. Four horses won the Triple Crown over an eight-year stretch in the 1940s and three pulled the trick over a six-year period in the 1970s. (A fourth Triple Crown in the Seventies was all but certain until Spectacular Bid famously stepped on a needle before the 1979 Belmont.)
Can I’ll Have Another make the pantheon of Triple Crown champions a dandy dozen on June 9th in New York? Does the chestnut beauty have what 11 horses since 1978 have not: that one extra slice of spirit, will, muscle, heart, determination? Needless to say, the Belmont (at a mile-and-a-half) is the toughest of the Triple Crown races to win, and that’s without the pressure of carving your name in marble for eternity. I’ll Have Another may not feel the weight of 34 years on his considerable shoulders, but you can bet his trainer (Doug O’Neill) and jockey (Mario Gutierrez) will be trembling when the gates open at the Belmont. Between 1997 and 2004, six horses won the Derby and the Preakness, including perceived titans (Charismatic and War Emblem) and darling long shots (Funny Cide and Smarty Jones). But not one of them finished ahead of the pack at the Belmont.
Regrettably, we won’t get the chance to see one of horse racing’s greatest rivalries culminate, as Bodemeister — runner-up to I’ll Have Another at both this year’s Derby and Preakness — is being held out of the Belmont. (Trainer Bob Baffert claims his horse needs the rest.) Perhaps this is a break in I’ll Have Another’s — and history’s — favor. But I also wonder if I’ll Have Another needs the pace-setting Bodemeister as the great Affirmed needed Alydar (runner-up in all three races in 1978). ***
If we can’t have a four-legged Triple Crown champion in 2012, might we find one in the national pastime? Baseball’s crownless drought is actually longer than horse racing’s. Not since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with 44 home runs, 121 RBIs, and a .326 batting average in 1967 has a hitter achieved the greatest single-season achievement in the sport. (And it hasn’t happened in the National League since the Cardinals’ Joe Medwick pulled it off ... in 1937.) Here’s a partial list of sluggers you may know who did not win a Triple Crown: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Albert Pujols. Only 12 players have been fitted for the Crown (with Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams each achieving the feat twice).
Which brings us to the current season as enjoyed by Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton. Through Sunday, Hamilton leads the American League with 18 home runs, 47 RBIs and a jaw-dropping .389 batting average. And it’s that last figure that gives Crown watchers real hope.
Homers and RBIs go together like hot dogs and mustard. Since 1968, 23 players have led the National League in both departments. In the American League, 18 hitters have accumulated the necessary totals for two-thirds of the Crown. But all 41 times, these players came up short for that pesky batting title.
Hamilton, of course, has already won a batting championship (.359 in 2010). His current lead over Chicago’s Paul Konerko is 22 points, with Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter a distant third (.347). This could be The Year.
A team will win the NBA championship next month. And I guarantee you a team will do the same thing in 2013. A golfer will have the weekend of his life in a few short weeks and be crowned U.S. Open champion. This will repeat itself in 2013. But a Triple Crown? I’ll take one in either of its grand forms. It’s the kind of sports story that can define a generation. And, I’m convinced, it will be worth the wait.