By Ray Paulick
One morning in the spring of 1997 I was in the Churchill Downs grandstand to watch Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm post an important workout for trainer Bob Baffert prior to the Belmont Stakes, when another Baffert horse came breezing by with a long, fluid stride, looking like a million dollars.
“Who's that?” I asked Baffert, who was watching intently as the bay colt rounded the clubhouse turn as the rider tried to pull him up following the work.
“The Fish,” Baffert replied. “He's a 2-year-old.”
Funny name for a horse, I thought, but he sure looks like a good one.
A few weeks earlier, Jackie Duke, an associate of mine when I was editor of the Blood-Horse, had gotten an even closer look at the colt, whose real name, it turns out, was Real Quiet, a son of Quiet American purchased by Baffert for Mike Pegram the previous year at the Keeneland September yearling sale.
Jackie was in the Churchill Downs barn area to shoot a conformation video for the magazine. She made arrangements with another trainer to offer expert commentary, but when he suddenly got camera shy Baffert was enlisted to pinch hit. And no one has ever called the California-based horseman camera shy.
Jackie and her cameraman stood outside Baffert's barn when he brought out Real Quiet and offered some pointers on equine conformation. Looking at the horse head-on, Baffert pointed out how narrow he was, just like a “tropical fish”—thus, the nickname. Then, standing alongside Real Quiet he talked about the big engine inside the horse's chest and how his powerful shoulders indicated he was the type of runner that wanted to go a distance of ground.
Little did any of us know, Baffert included, how right he was.
Real Quiet was anything but precocious. He debuted about six weeks after the video was shot, finishing seventh of 11 runners in a five-furlong maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs. He ran again without success, and again.
For his fourth start, Baffert sent Real Quiet to Santa Fe in New Mexico to run against winners in an allowance race in what was a prep for a rich futurity there in August. He ran third each time, then was back in against maidens at Del Mar, where he finished fourth going a mile. It wasn't until his next start, his seventh, that Real Quiet broke his maiden going 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita during the Oak Tree meeting.
That victory earned Real Quiet a trip back to Churchill Downs, where he finished third to Capetown on Nov. 29 in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Two weeks later, he was in California again, edging Artax to win the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity at Hollywood Park. It was his ninth start of 1997 and his second victory.
Real Quiet failed to win his first three starts of 1998, though he ran well enough to earn a trip to the Kentucky Derby, where he was the understudy in Baffert's barn to the unbeaten Indian Charlie, an In Excess colt who defeated Real Quiet by 2 1/4 lengths in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.
That year's Kentucky Derby featured a hot early pace. The speed collapsed, and by the time the field reached the top of the stretch, Baffert was running one-two with favorite Indian Charlie and 8-1 shot Real Quiet. But Indian Charlie faltered, and Real Quiet drove to the lead, opening up on the field and holding off the late closing charge of Arkansas Derby winner Victory Gallop to win by a half-length.
Two weeks later in the Preakness, Real Quiet was even more convincing. Rated in mid-pack by Kent Desormeaux, he rushed past the field so quickly approaching the quarter pole he nearly blew the turn. Among those he passed was Victory Gallop, who was the 2-1 favorite over Real Quiet, with the Derby winner second betting choice at 5-2. Under Gary Stevens, Victory Gallop raced closer to the lead in the Triple Crown's middle jewel than he had in the Derby, but had nothing left for the stretch drive. Real Quiet won by 2 1/4 lengths.
Fans finally made Real Quiet the 4-5 favorite for the Belmont Stakes. Baffert, who had won the Triple Crown's first two legs the previous year with Silver Charm and jockey Stevens only to lose the Belmont when Touch Gold caught him in the final yards, was in the same position again in 1998 with Real Quiet. This time he felt had a horse that was really capable of getting the mile and a half distance that is the “test of the champion.”
A crowd of 80,162 packed Belmont Park ready to witness history. Instead of watching the race from the press box, I had gotten a couple of seats just past the finish in the top deck of the track's grandstand, and stood nervously with my wife, Carol, as the field of 11 3-year-olds moved into the starting gate.
Breaking from post seven, Real Quiet raced in mid-pack as Chilito and Grand Slam volleyed for the lead. Approaching the far turn, with a half mile still to run, Desormeaux began urging Real Quiet. Too early, I thought, as memories of Spectacular Bid's momentous failure in 1979 under inexperienced Ron Franklin flashed in my mind.
But Real Quiet opened up on the field, leading by four lengths with only a furlong to run. Everyone around me was screaming, preparing to celebrate racing's first Triple Crown winner in 20 years. I looked at my wife and shook my head. Victory Gallop was flying and Real Quiet was gasping. Desormeaux allowed him to drift out, hoping it might slow the Cryptoclearance colt's momentum, but it was to no avail. Gary Stevens and Victory Gallop got there just in time, foiling Baffert's hopes for a Triple Crown triumph in as many years. For Pegram, the nose defeat cost $5-million in bonuses from Visa and additional money in stallion syndication incentives.
Of course, had Real Quiet held on, there was the strong likelihood of a stewards inquiry and possible disqualification. That would have been an even tougher pill to swallow than the nose defeat.
It was quite a run, a Triple Crown for the ages and a rivalry that won't be soon forgotten. And neither will that first impression The Fish made on me that early Kentucky morning in the spring of '97.
Yesterday morning, when I learned of Real Quiet's death in Pennsylvania, I had a vivid recollection of that Churchill Downs workout and the Blood-Horse's conformation video that featured The Fish, along with Baffert's comments. Mostly, though, I thought of 1998 Triple Crown, the fun and electricity it brought it to the sport. It was anything but quiet.
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