One year after his Triple Crown hopeful Silver Charm suffered an agonizing loss to Touch Gold in the Belmont Stakes, trainer Bob Baffert, the hero of racing in the late 1990’s, returned to Big Sandy in 1998 with another chance in Real Quiet.
This showdown between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and late-running rival Victory Gallop, the Derby and Preakness runner-up, will never be classified as just a horse race. A tale of a rangy, unheralded, $17,000 colt nicknamed “The Fish” trying to end a drought dating back to 1978? Yes.
A story of two jockeys, veterans, one under fire for his rides with something to prove and the other playing the role of spoiler this time around? Of course.
A mind-blowing ending with multiple subplots? You bet.
Jockey Gary Stevens felt the sting of Triple Crown heartbreak in that defeat aboard Silver Charm. This time, he would be the one delivering the punch to the gut via an exquisite ride aboard an Ontario-bred who was originally bought with the Queen’s Plate in Canada in mind.
Jockey Kent Desormeaux, confident and proud of the horse that was considered one of Baffert’s bench players before the Triple Crown trail, endured criticism for his handling of Real Quiet. They said he moved too soon on the colt, whose trademark was a bold middle move with an explosive burst of speed.
Baffert defended him.
“Sometimes when a horse wants to go and you hold him back, he’s not going to have that same punch,” Baffert said.
Real Quiet wasn’t just running for history. His owner, Mike Pegram, was in line to pocket a $5 million bonus from Visa, then-sponsor of the Triple Crown. The saga of this common-looking colt with uncommon speed, with his embattled pilot and popular trainer, was reaching an unforeseen plateau.
Not everyone was convinced. Various scribes at Belmont dismissed his chances in the Test of the Champion. Some went as far as to say even if he did win, he wasn’t really worthy because it was a weak crop hampered by injuries to its marquee prospects.
Momentum was in Real Quiet’s favor a week from the race. He was training superbly at Churchill Downs ahead of his date with destiny. With fans now convinced, the bandwagon filled up, and Baffert’s effervescent nature landed horse racing on front pages daily.
Meanwhile, Victory Gallop was falling out of favor among pundits. He developed a nasty skin rash after the Preakness that caused him to miss training and left him with just one opportunity to work before the Belmont. The taxing Preakness effort also caused him to shed weight. Hard luck extended to Victory Gallop’s young trainer, Elliott Walden, who broke his ankle in a pick-up basketball game prior to the race and was forced to navigate on crutches. He enlisted the help of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who would saddle Victory Gallop on Belmont day.
Still, the Victory Gallop team was undeterred. Walden met with Stevens the day before the race and they devised a plan. They knew Real Quiet’s weakness – and it played right to Victory Gallop’s strength.
“Let Real Quiet make his move,” Walden instructed Stevens. “Don’t try to go with him.”
Clear skies greeted the crowd of 80,162 and a fast track set the stage for one of the most memorable editions of the 12-furlong race.
Victory Gallop marched into the paddock a different horse. “He had a glow in his eye,” Stevens said. Other than a small area on his back, the colt’s coat showed no signs of the issue that had plagued him just a week ago. He shined. When Stevens climbed aboard and gathered the reins, the colt swelled up, arched his neck and started prancing.
As Stevens guided Victory Gallop to the tunnel, he heard a voice shouting something his direction. He knew who it was. He didn’t shift his focus.
It was Baffert.
“I know what he was trying to do,” Stevens said. “He was trying to get me out of it. That’s his job.”
Baffert wasn’t without his own agitators. As the trainer made his way up to his seat, he passed a gaggle of hecklers. One held up a sign that said: “Bob, not today.” It didn’t help that when Baffert got to his seat, his son mentioned the sign, like it was an omen.
As expected, speedy Chillito and Robbie Davis set the early pace with Grand Slam and Jerry Bailey tagging along closely. Limit Out joined the leaders and formed a trio up front that escorted a stalking Real Quiet in the prime spot.
“I folded into the first turn and had him right between horses,” Desormeaux said. “He didn’t get a grain of sand in his face.”
Desormeaux kept his colt behind the speed until they maneuvered into the second turn.
“I moved him to the outside and he just started cantering,” he said. “He was in an absolute canter.”
Meanwhile, Victory Gallop remained at the back of the pack, weaving his way through traffic and biding his time.
“I was bumped the first time at the five-sixteenths pole, when I was going between horses,” Stevens said.
In a moment that still elicits goose bumps, Real Quiet zoomed by Chillito with a sudden turn of foot that put him squarely on the lead.
“It was very difficult to hit the three-eighths pole and see Real Quiet opening up on me and not move, not push the button,” Stevens said. “I wanted to push the button, believe me.”
The margin grew. The crowd roared. Real Quiet was separating himself from the rest of the field.
“When he turned for home on the lead, I wanted to cry,” Baffert said.
Real Quiet was all alone nearing the eighth-pole.
“I had flashbacks to Churchill Downs (the Derby), that we might not get there,” Walden said.
The Fish and the silver-haired trainer were about to deliver the moment the racing world had dreamed of for 20 years.
Or so it appeared.
Desormeaux, sensing trouble, turned to look behind him and saw a hard-charging Victory Gallop bearing down.
“My momentum was changing,” he said. “I knew he was starting to slow down being lost on the lead.”
Suddenly, Victory Gallop, on the outside, was alongside his rival and going head-to-head. With his mount struggling just a few strides from the finish, Desormeaux tugged blinkered Real Quiet’s head in an attempt to get him to see his challenger.
“I pulled his head up a little too hard,” Desormeaux said.
It caused Real Quiet to shift into Victory Gallop.
“It more or less stopped our colt,” Stevens said of the contact.
The pair reached the wire in unison. Stunned fans didn’t know whether to celebrate or head for the aisles. Who won?
Baffert asked trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Lukas said, ‘You’ve got it.” Baffert remained cautious.
“I absolutely had no idea (who won),” Stevens said.
To add to the confusion, someone had lodged an objection, but no one knew who or why. It was Stevens, who had called to an outrider when he was pulling up to notify stewards that he had been bumped.
It wouldn’t matter.
Victory Gallop won the Belmont Stakes by a nose.
“He put in his run and he flattened out at the end,” Baffert said. “The Fish floundered and that was it.”
Veteran jockey Chris McCarron, who was third aboard Thomas Jo, delivered words of encouragement to Desormeaux in the jockeys’ room. He told Desormeaux not to worry about it. He was still a champion and there would be more to come.
Asked by a reporter if he felt the loss was his fault for a premature move, Desormeaux responded, “Somewhat, yes.”
Baffert interrupted. “It was not his fault. It’s not his fault. If he would have waited, that horse wouldn’t have had that punch. That’s his style.”
Last year, it was Stevens feeling the pinch. He watched Desormeaux going through the same turmoil in the paddock, one year later.
“He probably feels like he’s let the whole country down,” Stevens said. “He has nothing to be ashamed of.”
Baffert suffered through the nose loss by Cavonnier to Grindstone in the 1996 Kentucky Derby, Silver Charm’s defeat and now strike three. Although the light in his eyes had dimmed, the light remained.
“Eventually I’m going to win this thing,” he said.