By 1997, horse racing fans were thirsty for a Triple Crown winner. It had been 19 years since Affirmed beat Alydar in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, and eight years since Sunday Silence came to Belmont Park with a chance for a sweep. Only once since the name Triple Crown was coined in 1930 by turf writer Charles Hatton had there been a longer gap – the 10 years from Citation's 1948 Triple Crown triumph until Tim Tam's failed attempt in 1958 when second to Cavan.
Bob Baffert was relatively new to the national scene when Silver Charm took the 1997 Derby and Preakness, holding off a fast-closing Captain Bodgit by a head at Churchill Downs and Free House by the same margin at Pimlico. No one expected a cakewalk for the gray colt owned by the late Robert Lewis and his wife Beverly, though fans made the son of Silver Buck the even-money favorite to close the deal.
By now, credit card company Visa had replaced Chrysler as sponsor of the Triple Crown Challenge and the $5-million that went to a winner of all three races. Visa proved a great partner for racing, heavily promoting the Triple Crown – the Belmont in particular – and a crowd of more than 70,000 turned out to see if the Charm could make the mile and a half trip.
Bob Lewis made the trip all the way from California, chartering a jet for 150 friends and putting them all up at the Garden City Hotel near Belmont Park. Lewis was an affable man but was nobody's fool. A beer-distributor by profession, he would light up a room with his smile, but he also could negotiate a hard bargain behind closed doors.
The $5-million Triple Crown Challenge was widely believed to be a $5-million bonus, but in fact it was $5-million in purses and bonus money to the horse that won all three races. With about $1.6 million in purses for the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, that made the bonus a mere $3.4 million. Lewis thought Visa was engaging in false advertising and let them know about it, calling it “fraud” to one executive involved with the Triple Crown.
Lewis won the battle, getting Visa to agree to increase the Triple Crown Challenge for the duration of the company's sponsorship to a $5-million bonus plus purses.
He lost the war, however, when Touch Gold ran past Silver Charm and Gary Stevens in the final sixteenth of a mile to beat a game and determined Silver Charm by a length. Chris McCarron, perhaps learning from the mistake Jack Van Berg said he made aboard Alysheba in 1987, turned in one of the best rides of his career aboard Touch Gold. He took the early lead, relinquished it down the backstretch as entrymate Wild Rush and Silver Charm engaged in a heated battle, then pounced on the dueling rivals Silver Charm and Free House in deep stretch with what almost seemed a sneak attack to their outside.
Lewis may felt the agony of defeat on the inside, but outwardly took the loss of the race and the $5 million in stride. That night, hosting all of his friends in a post-race celebration back at the Garden City Hotel, he was as gracious in defeat as he had ever been in victory.
Little did he know or expect he would be back in that same position two years later.
Baffert returned the very next year with Real Quiet, an unlikely Triple Crown candidate early in his career after losing his first seven starts, including two at a small track in New Mexico. But the horse Baffert called “The Fish” because of his slender physique got better with each race during his 3-year-old campaign.
Owned by Mike Pegram, the son of Quiet American beat Victory Gallop by a half-length in the Kentucky Derby and was 2 1/4 lengths best over that same foe in the Preakness. As he had done with Silver Charm, Baffert sent Real Quiet back to his Churchill Downs barn following the Preakness, breezing him twice, then shipping to Belmont Park confident his horse was fit and ready and not showing any effects of the demanding Triple Crown series.
Neither was Victory Gallop, owned by the Preston brothers of Texas and trained by Elliott Walden. He was back for another crack at Real Quiet.
Real Quiet's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, allowed his mount to settle into midpack in the early going as longshot Chillito set sensible fractions. Down the backstretch with a half-mile to run, Real Quiet took off after the leader and set sail for the wire. He held a four-length advantage with only a furlong to go, but Victory Gallop and Gary Stevens – who rode Silver Charm for Baffert one year earlier – were gaining ground with every stride.
Real Quiet shifted out just before the finish, but as the two reached the wire, Victory Gallop put his nose in front. Some speculated Real Quiet would have been disqualified for interference had he won, but it was a moot point.
“How can you go a mile and a half and get beat a nose?” Baffert wondered.
Attention focused on Desormeaux almost immediately. Had he moved Real Quiet too soon, just as Ron Franklin had done with Spectacular Bid in 1979?
“He didn't move early,” Baffert said of Desormeaux 14 years later. “Real Quiet made the lead, and he sort of shut it down. When that horse engaged him at the end, though, he wanted to take off again.”
Charismatic, in 1999, became the third horse in as many years to gun for the Triple Crown. Owned by the Lewises, the Summer Squall colt was trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who had dropped him into a $62,500 claiming race earlier in the year after a couple of disappointing efforts. He was 31-1 in the Derby and 8-1 in the Preakness, beating Menifee on both occasions.
A record crowd of 85, 818 turned out to see if Charismatic would make history, and he was finally favored, at 8-5 odds, for the Belmont. Baffert was trying to play the spoiler this time, sending the champion filly Silverbulletday against the colts, and Menifee was back for another try.
Silverbulletday set the pace, but Chris Antley put Charismatic in close pursuit, gaining the advantage on Belmont's sweeping far turn. It was soon apparent, however, Charismatic wouldn't have enough to hold off a pair of longshots, Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse, the former getting the win with Charismatic a distant third.
Charismatic took a bad step near the finish and Antley jumped off just past the wire, grabbing onto the horse's broken left front leg and preventing further damage. His racing career was over. All anyone could do was speculate whether the fractured cannon bone had slowed Charismatic as the longshots passed him at the top of the stretch.
Incredibly, for the third time in five years, Bob Baffert was in position to win the Triple Crown in 2002. It was with another unlikely horse, War Emblem, purchased privately by the trainer on behalf of the late Saudi Prince Ahmed Salman following a victory in the Illinois Derby in April. War Emblem was a front-running colt by Our Emblem who won the Kentucky Derby by four lengths and the Preakness by just under a length. But his chances to win the Triple Crown went out the window when the gates opened for the Belmont and War Emblem stumbled badly under Victor Espinoza. A collective gasp went up from the record crowd of 103,222. The colt never saw the lead, and wound up eighth behind 70-1 shot Sarava as the 6-5 favorite.
Even with a good start, Baffert said War Emblem's work was cut out for him. “The only one of the three (Triple Crown attempts) I would have done differently was War Emblem,” Baffert said. “I always took my horses back to Kentucky, but there was a heat wave that came through there and it was really hot. He was having trouble with it. He was a light horse to begin with – less than a thousand pounds – and he lost some weight. He was the only one I took to New York where I felt leery.
“We had our chances,” Baffert added. “It just didn't happen.”
It didn't happen for Funny Cide, trainer Barclay Tagg, and the ownership group of Sackatoga Stable in 2003. The New York-bred gelding by Distorted Humor defeated favorite Empire Maker in the Kentucky Derby, then romped in the Preakness when Empire Maker's connections opted to point for the Belmont. Some criticized jockey Jose Santos for squeezing too much from the little gelding at Pimlico, saying he should have saved something for the final leg of the Triple Crown three weeks later.
Trainer Bobby Frankel's confidence in Empire Maker grew as the Belmont approached, while Tagg fretted over a workout four days before the race that may have cooked Funny Cide: five furlongs in :57 4/5.
A rainy, miserable day didn't stop 101,864 fans from coming out to Belmont to cheer on the New York-bred, but most of them went home disappointed after Empire Maker easily cruised past the even-money favorite with a quarter mile to run and went on to victory. Funny Cide wound up third, admired by many, but unable to end the Triple Crown drought that had now reached 25 years.
Smarty Jones took the racing world by storm in 2004 when Roy and Patricia Chapman's homebred colt by Elusive Quality ran his unbeaten streak to seven in the Kentucky Derby, then crushed his foes two weeks later in the Preakness, winning by 11 1/2 lengths. His trainer, John Servis, was in the national spotlight for the first time, and his jockey, journeyman Stewart Elliott, was far from being a household name – even in racing households.
A morning workout before the Belmont at Philadelphia Park, where Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones got his start, attracted more people than most racing days at the track, and fans from throughout the Northeast were looking forward to a “Smarty Party” on Belmont Day.
Sure enough, they turned out, 120,139 of them, packing nearly every square inch of mammoth Belmont Park, and they roared with delight as Elliott took 3-10 favorite Smarty Jones to the lead down the backstretch and around the far turn. But many of them hadn't noticed Smarty Jones was having to fight off challenges, from Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, not really relaxing as his jockey and trainer would have liked. That had the effect of softening him up for the stretch drive, much like the body punches a boxer absorbs in the early rounds make him ripe for a knockout later on.
Birdstone delivered the knockout punch. Eighth in the Kentucky Derby, Marylou Whitney's homebred son of Grindstone closed resolutely, taking the advantage in the final yards and crashing the party like an unwanted guest. Backers of Smarty Jones cursed Elliott for moving too soon in the race, but was it the horse or him?
Whitney, ever the sportslady, apologized for beating the people's horse. It wouldn't be the last time a runner from the barn of New Yorker Nick Zito would stage a Belmont surprise.
In 2008, Big Brown looked to many people to be invincible, coming to the Triple Crown unbeaten, just as Smarty Jones had done four years earlier. He was a convincing winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but the Triple Crown trail was not a smooth one for the Boundary colt's owners and trainer. Trainer Rick Dutrow talked openly about giving Big Brown a regular dose of anabolic steroids, something that was perfectly legal at the time but controversial nonetheless, particularly since Dutrow's record involved numerous infractions with racing authorities. And Michael Iavarone, the head of the IEAH Stables that bought into Big Brown during his 2-year-old campaign from Paul Pompa, had a checkered past in the securities and financial world. The karma wasn't good.
It only got worse in the weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. Foot problems that bothered Big Brown earlier in the year resurfaced and the colt missed a few days of training because of a quarter crack on his hoof. Neverthless, the boastful Dutrow guaranteed victory on the national telecast and went off the 3-10 favorite on a hot and humid day with temperatures in the 90s that wasn't pleasant for man or beast.
Big Brown didn't get away smoothly, veering outwardly from his number one post position. From there, things only got worse. Restrained early by Desormeaux, Big Brown was steadied sharply in the early going, then was bumped on the first turn. He began to gain ground on the front-running Zito trainee Da' Tara on the long run down by the backstretch, but when Desormeaux asked him to challenge for the lead, Big Brown didn't respond.
As the field rounded the final turn, Big Brown was retreating toward the rear, and Desormeaux eased him down the stretch as Da' Tara posted the shocking upset for Zito and owner Robert LaPenta.
Iavarone and his family watched in horror, wondering what had happened to Big Brown, who had been so invincible in every previous race. What happened? Was it the missed training due to the quarter crack? Dutrow scoffed at that theory. The trainer admitted he had not given Big Brown any more steroid injections after the Kentucky Derby, and many wondered whether the absence of the muscle building drug made a difference. Dutrow said “no” to that one, too.
The next morning, Iavarone was still searching for answers, but none ever came. “Chalk this one up to a question mark,” he said.
I'll Have Another may need no excuses if he delivers the kind of performance that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Trainer Doug O'Neill and his brother, Dennis, who picked the son of Flower Alley out of a 2-year-old sale in Ocala, Fla., feel the colt is getting better as the Belmont Stakes approaches.
A victory will make him racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. A defeat would make I'll Have Another the 12th 3-year-old to try and fail in the Belmont Stakes since Affirmed's 1978 sweep, just another near-miss horse.
Which one will it be?
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