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The Top 10 national sports stories of 2015

Posted at 10:29 AM, Dec 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-24 13:29:59-05

American Pharoah's sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes for horse racing's first Triple Crown since 1978 was selected the sports story of the year Thursday in an annual vote conducted by The Associated Press.

Eighty-two ballots were submitted from U.S. editors and news directors. Voters were asked to rank the top five sports stories of the year, with the first-place story receiving five points, the second-place story four points and so on.

American Pharoah's Triple Crown win received 317 points and 43 first-place votes.

The No. 2 sports story, the "Deflategate" scandal that ensnared Super Bowl-winning Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, had 191 points and 13 first-place votes.

Here are 2015's top 10 stories:

1. TRIPLE CROWN: In the 37 years since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner — the longest drought in the sport's history — an unlucky 13 horses had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to fail to complete the sweep at the Belmont Stakes.

But American Pharoah took the lead from the start of the grueling 1 1/2-mile race and kept extending it. The bay colt with the unusually short tail went on to win by 5 1/2 lengths for jockey Victor Espinoza, trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat.

It was Baffert's fourth Triple Crown try and Espinoza's third, both records.

American Pharoah went on to cap his spectacular year with a victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. He then retired at age 3 and will stand at stud for $200,000, one of the highest prices for a horse in his first year as a stallion.

2. DEFLATEGATE: The New England Patriots routed the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC championship game Jan. 18 to return to the Super Bowl, but the on-field action was soon overshadowed by the scandal dubbed "Deflategate."

The NFL would go on to spend more than $3 million for the investigation by Ted Wells, whose 243-page report found it was "more probable than not" that two Patriots employees deliberately released air from Patriots game balls to below the league-mandated minimum at the game and Brady "was at least generally aware."

Brady, who had earned Super Bowl MVP honors when the Patriots won their fourth title, would be suspended four games. But a judge lifted the ban a week before the season, criticizing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for dispensing "his own brand of industrial justice."

3. FIFA CORRUPTION: In an early-morning raid of a Zurich luxury hotel May 27, the U.S. government started a chain reaction that would take down soccer leaders around the world.

The 47-count indictment for racketeering and bribery was just the beginning. By year's end, FIFA's president, Sepp Blatter, and his one-time likely successor, UEFA President Michel Platini, had been suspended for eight years for unethical conduct by the sport's governing body.

4. WARRIORS WIN: Too small, not athletic enough. That was the knock both on the Golden State Warriors as a whole and on their star, Stephen Curry. Instead, the sweet-shooting Warriors won their first NBA title in four decades behind the league's MVP, beating LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.

Turns out that Golden State can play even better. The Warriors opened the following season with a record 24-0 start.

5. SPIETH CHASES GRAND SLAM: No one had gone wire to wire at the Masters in nearly four decades, but that victory was just the start of the year for 21-year-old Jordan Spieth. He won the first two legs of a Grand Slam, halfway to becoming the first modern player to complete the feat.

The only other men since 1960 to get that far were Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods — and none of them came as close to the third leg as Spieth, who was tied for the British Open lead with two holes to play before finishing one shot out of a playoff. He was also in the final group of the PGA Championship, where he was runner-up by three shots to Jason Day.

6. SERENA CHASES GRAND SLAM, TOO: In tennis, a player was even closer to completing a Grand Slam. Serena Williams was two victories from becoming the first since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year. But in one of the sport's biggest upsets, unseeded Roberta Vinci stunned the 21-time major champion in the semifinals in New York.

Getting that far hadn't been easy, though. Eleven of Williams' victories at the majors came in three sets, including eight when she rallied from a set down. Hobbled by injuries all season, she was so sick in the final days of the French Open she considered withdrawing — yet somehow pulled out three-set wins in the semis and final.

7. WOMEN'S WORLD CUP: Four years after a heartbreaking loss to Japan in the Women's World Cup final, Carli Lloyd and her U.S. teammates made absolutely sure there would be no repeat in the rematch. Lloyd scored a hat trick in the first 16 minutes as the Americans won 5-2 in Canada for their first title since 1999.

With record TV audiences back home watching the prime-time matches, the U.S. looked shaky early in the tournament before some timely lineup changes by coach Jill Ellis put Lloyd in position for a scoring spree. All-time goals leader Abby Wambach got to end her career with her first World Cup championship.

8. ROYALS CROWNED: Kansas City was one win from a world championship in 2014, yet the small-ball Royals weren't considered favorites in 2015. The players in the clubhouse knew better, and they came from behind yet again in Game 5 of the World Series to beat the New York Mets in 12 innings for their first title since 1985.

9. MISSOURI FOOTBALL: Just two days after Missouri's football players threatened to boycott a game, the president of the university system stepped down. Tensions about race and other student welfare issues had been simmering for weeks before the athletes joined the protest in support of a graduate student who was holding a hunger strike.

As Tigers defensive end Charles Harris put it: "Let this be a testament to all of the athletes across the country that you do have power."

10. OHIO STATE TAKES FIRST CFP TITLE: The first College Football Playoff did exactly what it was supposed to, awarding a championship chance to a squad that seemed eliminated from title contention after an early-season loss and whose presence in the new four-team bracket was widely debated. Behind third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, Ohio State upset No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon to kick off a new era in the sport.