As Real Quiet burst clear by four lengths under Kent Desormeaux at the eighth pole in the 1998 Belmont Stakes, it looked as if America finally would celebrate a 12th Triple Crown. Then Victory Gallop began closing in, and one of the most memorable stretch duels of all time was on.
"I thought we'd win,'' trainer Bob Baffert recently told HRTV. "I got goose bumps. Then I saw Victory Gallop coming and thought, 'Come on, Lord, you've taken me this far, don't take it away from me.' ''
The bay colts hit the wire together, and even after a series of slow-motion replays, it was impossible to tell whose nose got there first. A few endless minutes after race caller Tom Durkin said, "History in the waiting,'' Victory Gallop's number went up and the racing world came down.
Baffert said owner Mike Pegram was philosophical about the ultimate brutal beat, which also cost him a $5-million bonus. "I remember Mike saying, 'Well, it wasn't meant to be.' ''
That's been true since Affirmed, ridden by Steve Cauthen, held off archrival Alydar, with Jorge Velasquez, for the third time in that long-ago spring of 1978. On June 9, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another will get his chance to join the 11 immortals.
Cauthen thinks I'll Have Another could end the drought. "It looks like he'll have a great chance,'' he said. "This horse looks like he's got that same fighting spirit as Affirmed."
If Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed could sweep the classics, why hasn't it happened for so long?
Selective breeding, not Mother Nature, created the thoroughbred, a creature as frail as it is magnificent. Murphy's Law can kick in at any time with physically immature 3-year-olds, so unless the racing gods anoint you as the chosen one, you're out of luck.
"You can't have anything go wrong," said Doug O'Neill, who trains I'll Have Another. "You can't have any hiccups, and I think that's probably why no one's won the Triple Crown since '78. Because it's so difficult to travel to three different states in that short a period of time and not encounter one little cough, one little hot foot or one little pimple. So you've got to be lucky to get through each race in good shape."
Starting in 1979, even when a Triple Crown hopeful looked unbeatable, something bad always happened. Four years ago, Big Brown's chronic hoof problems flared before the Belmont, in which he dislodged a shoe before Desormeaux pulled him up. In 2004, Smarty Jones endured a relentless speed duel, putting away two challengers before Birdstone came from far back to deny him 70 yards from glory.
The sad stories never end. Funny Cide couldn't handle a wet track in 2003. The year before, Baffert's War Emblem, a one-dimensional front-runner, nearly fell and was banged at the break. He never made the lead and plodded home eighth. In 1999, third-place Charismatic broke a leg and was vanned off 100 yards past the wire. In 1997, Baffert's Silver Charm seemed home free before Touch Gold nailed him with 50 yards to go. In 1981, Summing skipped the Derby and Preakness before knocking off Pleasant Colony. In 1979, trainer Bud Delp blamed Spectacular Bid's defeat on stepping on a safety pin.
It's also hard to beat a tough rival three consecutive times. Affirmed barely did it, with the margins diminishing -- 1½ lengths, a neck, a head. Sunday Silence couldn't stop Easy Goer on his home track in 1989. Like Easy Goer and Victory Gallop, Bet Twice (1987) was second at Churchill Downs and Pimlico before crushing Alysheba at Belmont.
Some blame the almost inevitable traffic problems in an overcrowded field. Trainer Graham Motion won last year's Derby with Animal Kingdom, who broke slowly in the Preakness and lost by a half-length. In the Belmont, he was bumped hard and stumbled badly leaving the gate, finishing sixth after fracturing his left hind leg in the collision.
"Having experienced it myself firsthand,'' Motion said, "I feel very strongly that the reason there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner is because of the field size. Animal Kingdom came up to those three races really well, and I never imagined having a horse that would do that. So I don't think it's about being such a grueling challenge.
"I think in days gone by, we didn't have a full field come back in the Preakness and Belmont. And now there's so much luck that goes into it. There's always going to be 20 horses in the Derby, so to me, that's what changed the complexion of the Triple Crown."
Others say three long races in five weeks demand far too much from the modern thoroughbred, bred more for speed than stamina. Patrice Wolfson co-owned Affirmed with her late husband, Louis. Last year, she suggested that horses were tougher back in the day, when Affirmed's trainer, Laz Barrera, liked running them every two weeks. "Racing has changed," she said, "maybe for the better, sometimes not."
Michael Matz trains Union Rags, who will try to spoil I'll Have Another's bid. "It's a very rough stretch for a 3-year-old," he said. "To run a mile and a quarter, come back in two weeks at a mile and three-sixteenths, then go a mile and a half, that's asking a lot."
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of 13 Triple Crown events, has lobbied for shortening the Derby to 11/8 miles and the Belmont to 1¼. He'd keep the Preakness distance the same but would run it a week later and push back the Belmont to late June or early July.
Motion disagrees. "I don't think the Triple Crown series needs to be changed," he said. "A sweep is going to happen one day, and it's a remarkable thing to accomplish. I don't think we need to make it any easier."