06/02/2008 12:00AM

No Crown, but plenty of class

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For anyone paying attention to the history of Thoroughbred racing over the past 40 years, it has become painfully apparent that the West has no clue when it comes to closing the deal on the Triple Crown. Best leave it to the New Yorkers, at least this time around.

Majestic Prince, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem - how many times do you have to get hit in the face with a Belmont pie before you stop going to the bakery? It must be some kind of cosmic joke, this brutal teasing of the cowpokes by the smart boys on Long Island. Sucker them in, promise immortality, and then slam the door on their fingers and howl with delirious laughter.

"You're from California. Hah! You actually thought we'd let you win the Triple Crown?!"

The men behind the horses weren't exactly chopped liver. Johnny Longden rode Count Fleet, so as a trainer in 1969 he knew what it took to win a Triple Crown. Majestic Prince fit the bill, until a tendon got in the way after his tough races in the Derby and Preakness.

Jack Van Berg was already in the Hall of Fame when Alysheba came along in 1987, as was Charlie Whittingham by the time Sunday Silence arrived for the 1989 Triple Crown. All the honors in the world didn't do either guy any good. Both Alysheba and Sunday Silence were easily beaten in the Belmont.

More recently, California has been represented by former Quarter Horse wranglers Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, with their sunglasses, big hats, creased jeans, ostrich hide boots, and fast 3-year-olds. Four times in six years, the Crown was theirs to lose. And they did.

Had any one of those star-crossed half-dozen answered the challenge of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, Californians would have established a beachhead on the roughest, least -populated shoreline of horse racing history. On their best day, under the right circumstances, any one of those six could have won the Belmont Stakes and taken the pressure off the other five.

No colt tried harder to win the Triple Crown than Silver Charm in 1997, who lost the Belmont by three-quarters of a length, or Charismatic in 1999, who broke down in the shadow of the wire, unless it was Real Quiet in 1998, who missed the ultimate reward by a bob of Victory Gallop's nose.

Mike Pegram, who owned Real Quiet, was also part of the Silver Charm entourage the year before, and not just because both colts were trained by Baffert. It was Silver Charm's owners, Robert and Beverly Lewis, who set the standard for grace under the unusual pressure of a potential Triple Crown.

"The reason I was able to handle the Triple Crown so well was because of Bob Lewis," Pegram said. "They took me in that year of 1997 and treated me like family. I still think I felt worse when Silver Charm got beat than I did when Real Quiet got beat."

The Lewises chartered a 727 and filled it with their California friends, put them up in the Garden City Hotel and sprung for entertainment in Manhattan for the whole, giddy entourage. By the day of the Belmont, Bob Lewis was suffering from a rotten bout of bronchitis, but that did not stop him from moving through the proceedings with the grace of royalty and accepting defeat with unearthly aplomb. The well-planned victory party that night turned into a celebration of the Lewises and their colt - Triple Crown be damned.

Pegram said: "I remember telling Bob Lewis at the party after Silver Charm, if that ever happened to me, I think I'd be pukin' in a bucket on national TV. Little did I know, a year later, here it is.

"But that's one of the lessons of life - learning from great people," Pegram added. "Bob Lewis was a great man. And then with the tragedy of Charismatic, he was still full of grace, far more concerned about the horse than losing a horse race. Even if it was the Triple Crown."

That's right. The Lewises owned Charismatic as well. Robert Lewis died in February 2006.

"It was never about Bob," Pegram said. "And he always elevated the people around him. I can still remember that booming voice, back at the barn after Real Quiet that day. 'Well, Mike . . .' he said, and left it at that. We knew how we felt, and mostly it was gratitude for being in that kind of spot at all.

"A lot of people have been there since I tried it," Pegram said of the Triple Crown experience. "But I'll tell you what, no one enjoyed it more than I did. And a lot of that was because of Bob."

Pegram, who made his fortune in McDonald's franchises in Washington and Arizona, has been a stout advocate of putting as much fun as possible back into the racing game. His recommendation for a good day this Saturday is "going out to Belmont and having a beer," although he will be watching the race at his freshly opened Nevada Bodine's Casino in Carson City, where gambling on horse racing is both allowed and encouraged.

"The racebook should have a good day, so come on down and watch Big Brown at Big Bo's," Pegram plugged. "We'll treat you so many different ways, you're bound to like one of 'em."