NEW YORK – Three-quarters of a length from winning a Triple Crown one year, a scant nose in denying someone else the next.
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has a better perspective when it comes to the role of spoiler with a Triple Crown on the line in the Belmont Stakes.
Stevens was aboard 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm when Touch Gold ran past them in the final strides to win the Belmont by three-quarters of a length. A year later, Stevens returned with Victory Gallop and nipped Real Quiet at the wire after an agonizingly long wait for the photo finish decision.
To say he had mixed emotions is putting it mildly. Stevens felt unbridled joy coming down the stretch with Silver Charm, only to experience the “most disappointing moment of my life.” His win in ’98 was bittersweet – happy to win, sad that racing again was denied its first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
With I’ll Have Another getting ready for his attempt to become thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion, Stevens pushed the rewind button on his Triple trials and tribulations.
Trainer Bob Baffert’s Silver Charm took the lead from Free House with an eighth of a mile to go, but 75 yards from the wire Stevens saw another horse out of the corner of his eye. It was Touch Gold, and by then it was too late for Silver Charm to respond.
“I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders before the Belmont Stakes because it’d been so long since we had a Triple Crown winner,” said Stevens, a racing commentator for NBC. “And the joy that I felt the last 16th of a mile was 100,000 times more than what I felt in Kentucky Derby. The disappointment I felt two strides from the finish line was the most disappointing moment of my life. And there’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about that especially at this time of the year.”
Fast forward to the Belmont a year later. Baffert was back again with Real Quiet, who came into the stretch with a big lead only to start staggering toward the finish line with an eighth of a mile to go. Stevens never thought he had a chance aboard Victory Gallop – the runner-up in the Derby and Preakness – but the two kept bearing down on the leader and the horses hit the wire together. Triple denied, by a nose.
“I knew exactly what Kent Desormeaux was feeling when he came back,” Stevens said. “And there’s really nothing you can say.
“I was silently rooting for Real Quiet if I couldn’t be the guy that could beat him. I was happy I won, but at the same time there was disappointment because I knew how great Real Quiet was.”
Stevens said both horses could have won the Triple Crown, but didn’t “either by poor judgment on my ride or Kent Desormeaux’s ride.
“But that’s just another factor of why it’s so hard to do,” he said. “It’s not just the horse, but the human that’s on his back that’s got to make all the right decisions.”
Baffert said I’ll Have Another’s rider, Mario Gutierrez, may have an edge others in his spot didn’t.
“I think a young rider like that, who just comes in, handles it differently,” Baffert said. “It’s not like it’s a pressure situation for them. I think he’s just lucky he even has a mount in the race.
“He doesn’t think about the history. He’s too young. It doesn’t have true meaning until they get older.”