06/04/2012 1:53PM

Belmont Stakes 2012: Racing's Triple Crown tough to compare with other sports

Barbara D. Livingston
Unlike athletes in other sports, I'll Have Another will have only one shot at horse racing's Triple Crown.

The last time a horse won a Triple Crown, Tom Hammond had the best seat in the house. He stood next to announcer Chic Anderson as Affirmed outdueled Alydar down the stretch at Belmont Park in 1978.

“Maybe the greatest race I’ve ever seen,” said Hammond, the two-time Eclipse Award winner and host of NBC’s Triple Crown coverage. “Maybe second best, just behind Winning Colors losing to Personal Ensign in the ’88 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.”

It has been 34 years since Affirmed’s feat has been repeated, the longest drought in Triple Crown history. Though there was a 25-year span between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973, Hammond believes fundamental changes in breeding practices – for speed instead of endurance – and in the Triple Crown season itself – such as the proliferation of new shooters who skip at least one leg prior to the Belmont – have made the always difficult challenge of winning all three legs of the Triple Crown tougher than it has ever been.

“It’s not supposed to be easy,” Hammond said. “But it has become more difficult than anybody envisioned. There’s no question it has become one of the most difficult things to achieve in all of sports.”

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

Just how difficult is the horse racing Triple Crown compared to other similar feats in sports? Here are the most analogous title sweeps:

Major League Baseball triple crown: It has been 44 full seasons since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting triple crown as the leader in batting average, home runs, and RBIs to become the 15th member of that club. There have been dozens of close calls since – 40 times at least one player led his league in two of the three categories, usually home runs and RBIs. But those two categories are generally won by big, burly power hitters and “it’s hard to win the batting-average title being a slowpoke,” said Paul Lo Duca, who played 11 years in the major leagues before joining TVG as a horse racing analyst.

Lo Duca likes Texas Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton’s chances for eventually claiming a triple crown – he currently leads the AL in HRs and RBIs – provided he stays in the lineup every day, something that has proven more difficult for modern-day players than for those in Yastrzemski’s era.

“Back in the ’60s, ’70s, if you broke a pinky or pulled a hamstring you kept playing,” Lo Duca says. “Guys didn’t go on the disabled list.”

Tennis grand slam: In singles competition, only two men – Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962, 1969) – and three women – Maureen Connolly Brinker (1953), Margaret Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988) – have won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open in the same year. Much like in horse racing, the athlete has to display a mastery of different skills. In this case, it’s different surfaces (artificial, clay, grass) and styles of play (baseline, serve-and-volley, etc).

Golf grand slam: This is sort of the Messiah debate of the sport – some argue it has come and others are still waiting. Before the Masters even existed, Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open, British Open, U.S. Amateur, and British Amateur in 1930. Then there was the “Tiger Slam.” In 2000, Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship and then won the Masters in 2001. He was the first to hold all four trophies at the same time.

“Your game might fit one course but not the other two or three in the majors that year,” said Mike McAllister, managing editor of PGATour.com, noting that only the Masters is played at the same course every year. “The U.S. Open is generally won by a guy who is very accurate and hits enough fairways and greens to win a low-scoring tournament. The British is always a links course with the wind blowing, so you have to keep it low. The Masters is more lengthy, it’s for more of a bigger hitter. The PGA is kind of sitting there, too. Not all four courses in same year cater to the same style of golfer.”

Suffice it to say, it’s not easy to achieve this type of immortality in any of these sports. But there’s one key difference in horse racing: A horse only gets one chance to run in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. A baseball player, golfer, or tennis pro will have multiple chances. That’s why Hammond says the Olympics may be a better analogy to the Triple Crown.

“I don’t know that anything really compares to the Triple Crown, but for many athletes the Olympics is only one shot, so in that sense it is comparable,” said Hammond, who also covers the Olympics for NBC. “It’s so unusual for a 3-year-old horse to ever run these Triple Crown distances. It’s not something the modern horse is trained or bred to do. It would be like asking an Olympian to go completely out of their specialty, for a sprinter to run at a middle distance or a middle-distance runner to go long-distance, or like having a runner try to win on three different distances on three different tracks in five weeks.”

But if anybody can pull it off, Lo Duca likes trainer Doug O’Neill’s chances with I’ll Have Another because of his successful history of bringing back horses on short rest.

[I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: Derby, Preakness winner runs for Triple Crown]

“Doug O’Neill is the right guy in the right spot,” Lo Duca says. “If I want somebody up at home plate with two outs and two runners on and down by three runs, it would be Josh Hamilton. If I wanted somebody to bring a horse back on three weeks’ [rest] to run 1 1/2 miles, I’d want Doug O’Neill.”

It will be a tall task for I’ll Have Another to complete the Triple Crown sweep, succeeding where 11 others have failed since 1978. But to somebody who had a bird’s-eye view of the last time it happened, this could be the moment we’ve been waiting for.

“I’ll Have Another has something that I think Affirmed had: a will to win,” Hammond said. “In a tight situation, they find a way to win. I’ve seen that in track athletes as well. They will themselves to  victory. Affirmed was like that. He wouldn’t let Alydar beat him. I think I’ll Have Another has a little touch of that.”

Elusive sports feats

Sport Achievement Last time it happened
Horse racing Triple Crown 1978 - Affirmed
Major League Baseball Batting triple crown 1967 - Carl Yastrzemski
Men's tennis Grand Slam 1969 - Rod Laver
Women's tennis Grand Slam 1988 - Steffi Graf
Men's golf Grand Slam 1930 - Bobby Jones*

* U.S. Open, British Open, U.S. Amateur, and British Amateur. Masters did not exist yet.