A nose. That’s all that separated Real Quiet from racing immortality. He was beaten by the smallest of margins in the 1998 Belmont Stakes, the longest and toughest leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.
Affirmed was the last to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, 34 years ago. Since then, 11 horses have won the first two only to come up short in the Belmont, felled by a safety pin picked up in a stall, a stumble out of the gate or a jockey’s judgment.
Now it’s I’ll Have Another’s turn to try to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.
The chestnut colt chased down pacesetter Bodemeister in the final 100 yards to win the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Two weeks later, he surged past Bodemeister a few yards from the finish line in the Preakness to win by a neck.
Bodemeister won’t be back to challenge I’ll Have Another in the Belmont. But 10 other rivals are likely, including Derby also-rans Dullahan, Optimizer and Union Rags. The others are horses that skipped one or both of the first two legs, leaving them well-rested for the 1 1/2-mile run around the deep, sandy dirt track.
“It ain’t like the old days where everyone used to run in all three,” said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who is 1 for 13 in the Belmont. “It’s taxing on the horse to run in all three. If somebody is hiding behind the bushes waiting to jump you when they’re all fresh, they can beat you.”
Smith will be aboard one of the fresh ones in next Saturday’s Belmont. He’ll ride Paynter, who skipped the Derby and Preakness.
Nineteen times since 1944 horses have come to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown.
Big Brown was the last horse to take a shot in 2008. But he bombed out in the Belmont, mysteriously getting eased at the top of the stretch and leaving nearly 95,000 fans stunned at the sight of the colt with the bad feet failing to finish.
The final 1 1/2 miles on the Triple Crown trail can do a number on a horse, trainer and jockey.
Sometimes, a horse finds trouble in his own stall.
On the morning of the 1979 Belmont, a safety pin was discovered embedded in Spectacular Bid’s hoof. He didn’t appear lame, so he ran in the race. His teenage jockey, Ron Franklin, gunned the colt to the early lead before he eventually faded to third.
Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and Smarty Jones in 2004 were the only three since Affirmed’s victory to lose by a length or less.
In Real Quiet’s case, he owned a five-length lead with a quarter-mile left in the Belmont. Victory Gallop, second in the Derby and the Preakness, moved up on Real Quiet and jockey Kent Desormeaux. The horses crossed the wire in a photo finish, but Victory Gallop got his nose in front. A stride past the finish line, Real Quiet had regained the lead.
“I thought he won it,” said Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer who had his hopes dashed with both Silver Charm and Real Quiet.
In 1997, Baffert watched from the stands as Silver Charm fought off Free House for the lead with a quarter-mile to go and appeared to have clear sailing to the wire.
Then Touch Gold made a move on the far outside. Jockey Gary Stevens didn’t see his rival and Silver Charm was beaten by three-quarters of a length.
When the gates sprang open in the 2002 Belmont and War Emblem nearly fell to his knees, Baffert knew his horse was doomed.
The winner was 70-1 shot Sarava. War Emblem came home in eighth, beaten by 19 1/2 lengths.
Smarty Jones may have moved too soon. The small black colt had trouble relaxing with horses on either side of him. So jockey Stewart Elliott guided him into the lead entering the backstretch with a mile remaining.
Around the far turn, Smarty Jones led by nearly four lengths before Birdstone came flying past him in the stretch and left Smarty with a one-length defeat.
Birdstone’s trainer, Nick Zito, and owner, Marylou Whitney, both apologized afterward for spoiling the Smarty Party.
There was nearly an asterisk Triple Crown.
In 1968, Forward Pass was credited with a win in the Derby after Dancer’s Image was disqualified. Forward Pass went on to win the Preakness, but finished second in the Belmont.
The Triple Crown is run on a compressed schedule, with the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont just five weeks apart. A horse gets just one chance to win them all since the Triple Crown is for 3-year-olds only.
The Derby is a 1 1/4-mile free-for-all with a crowded field of 20 untested horses. At 1 3/16 miles, the Preakness is the shortest of the three races and the one in which horses begin proving themselves.
The Belmont may be the trickiest of them all.
Nicknamed “The Test of the Champion,” the race is uncharted territory for 3-year-olds and their jockeys who have never gone that far in their lives and likely won’t again.
It’s full of strategy, with jockeys making split-second decisions on pace, placement and when to start their final run to the wire. Go too soon and a colt could be gassed for the 1,097-foot stretch run. Wait too long and risk letting the lead horses get away.
“It’s very deceiving. The turns are so big, so wide and swooping,” said Smith, who once rode regularly at America’s biggest track. “Where the half-mile pole is on a normal track, it’s the 3-4 pole at Belmont so it can throw you off.”
I’ll Have Another’s jockey, Mario Gutierrez, has never ridden at Belmont.
Smith gives a slight edge to jockeys with experience at navigating the sprawling track.
“You can use those big turns to do different things and throw a race wide open depending on the pace,” he said.
Sometimes, it’s the surface that derails potential Triple Crown history makers.
The Belmont tripped up Funny Cide in 2003, when the gelding couldn’t handle a muddy track and finished third, five lengths behind Empire Maker.
Riding tactics can play a part, too, since the Triple Crown contender runs with a bull’s-eye on his back.
“They’re all going to try and beat him,” Smith said. “If you have him in your sights, you’re certainly not going to let him out any sooner than you would in any other race.”