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Updated on 09/16/2011 8:30AM
Seven who failed the final test
First, he has to win in his initial attempt at 1 1/4 miles, in front of the largest crowd he will ever see. Then he has to come back on two weeks' rest, perhaps the only time he will have as few as 14 days between starts. And then he has to run 1 1/2 miles, likely the only time he will have to race that far. Three races, at three distances, at three racetracks, in three states, in five weeks: the Triple Crown is not just a series of races, it's an endurance test that only 11 horses have successfully completed.
"Ask any trainer who has won the first two races, and they'll tell you, those were 11 tough sons of a gun," said trainer Bob Baffert. "There are a lot of great horses who didn't do it."
On Saturday, Baffert will send out War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes in quest of becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner. No one has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. War Emblem is the eighth horse since then to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. He will be trying to complete a sweep that eluded Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic.
Each of those seven was capable of the sweep. Spectacular Bid and Alysheba went on to have brilliant 4-year-old seasons in which they were crowned Horse of the Year. Pleasant Colony and, especially, Sunday Silence became popular stallions. Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic all led the Belmont with a quarter-mile remaining. But none could put their names alongside Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.
As plentiful as the number of recent Triple Crown bids, there have been almost as many reasons for losing them.
"It takes a special horse to make all three dances. It takes a real special one to win all three," said D. Wayne Lukas, who trained Charismatic. "It takes a toll."
Charismatic suffered a career-ending injury in the 1999 Belmont, in which he finished third. Lukas said he believes Charismatic lost the Triple Crown and was injured because jockey Chris Antley had him too close to the pace.
"It was totally a product of the trip, including the breakdown," Lukas said from Churchill Downs, where he is preparing Proud Citizen for the Belmont. "That wasn't the kind of race he ran to win the first two."
Spectacular Bid, besides being too close to the pace in his Belmont, stepped on a safety pin the morning of the race. Pleasant Colony, a confirmed stretch runner, was done in by a soft early pace that kept the front-runners fresh. Alysheba, Sunday Silence, and Real Quiet lost to their arch-rivals, who avenged losses from the Derby and Preakness. And Silver Charm had an apparent victory wrested from him by Touch Gold, a rival Silver Charm had seemingly put away a quarter-mile earlier.
"I know what it feels like to win the Triple Crown, because with a sixteenth of a mile to go, I thought I had the race won," Gary Stevens, who rode Silver Charm in 1997, said from Hollywood Park. "I went from feeling as high as you could possibly feel to as low as you could possibly feel. It still hurts. It still stings.
"He got beat by a relatively fresh horse. The Triple Crown takes a toll, takes a toll on all of them. Anybody who says it doesn't is lying. That's why it's so tough to win."
A year after losing on Silver Charm, Stevens played the role of spoiler, in the most dramatic Triple Crown finish since Affirmed outdueled Alydar. Real Quiet opened a daylight lead with a furlong remaining in the 1998 Belmont, but Stevens and Victory Gallop ran him down in the very last jump.
"That's the most perfect race I ever rode," Stevens said. "Everything went right. I was able to split horses two different times. I could ride that race 200 times, and only once would I not [mess] it up."
Kent Desormeaux, who rode Real Quiet, said he remembers "every single stride."
"It was a devastating loss," Desormeaux said at Hollywood Park. "I wish he'd have beat me by five, not the width of a fingernail."
Real Quiet cruised up to the leaders on the final turn under his own power. Desormeaux decided to make a dash for it a quarter-mile out. Real Quiet led by four lengths with a furlong remaining, a margin that seemingly would have discouraged every rival. If Real Quiet had held on, Desormeaux would have been lauded for a brilliant ride. Instead, he lost, and the second-guessers are still second-guessing him.
"I sleep well at night," Desormeaux said. "If I had one chance to do it, I'd do it exactly the same. That said, knowing what I know now, I might do some things differently. I kept him in a deep pull at the half-mile pole, when he probably could have been way in front. I asked him to explode at the quarter pole. I should have drawn his run out gradually in a race of that length. Maybe it's something that will help me in the future.
"I was laughing at the quarter pole. I thought it was going to be the easiest race I'd ever won, and it was for the Triple Crown. A hundred yards later, he went sideways. He just went to gawking, and he pulled himself up. He was lost on the lead. The only time Victory Gallop was in front of him was at the wire. Three jumps later, Real Quiet was back in front."
The narrow defeats suffered by Silver Charm (three-quarters of a length) and Real Quiet (a nose) are in contrast to the humbling Belmont losses of Sunday Silence and Alysheba, both of whom lost to horses they had defeated in both the Derby and Preakness.
Sunday Silence, in 1989, was a distant second, beaten eight lengths by Easy Goer, who thrived at Belmont Park. Patrick Valenzuela, who rode Sunday Silence, recalled that it rained in the days before the race. "We thought it would be a sloppy track," Valenzuela said from Hollywood Park. "Sunday Silence loved the slop. We thought he'd win.
"I wouldn't have done anything differently. It was Easy Goer's favorite track. He ran a great race on the day. Sunday Silence didn't run a bad race. He just got beat."
Alysheba, who encountered traffic on the final turn, finished fourth, 14 1/4 lengths behind the winner, Bet Twice, in 1987.
"At the time I didn't think he was going to be compromised by the hard races, but in hindsight, I think he was less than his best on the day," Chris McCarron, who rode Alysheba, said from his home in Arcadia, Calif. "Bet Twice didn't improve 14 lengths because of the mile and a half. Bet Twice ran the best race of his life. Alysheba didn't run his best, nor did I ride the best race of my life. But it wasn't a 14-length bad ride.
"It takes a special horse," McCarron said. "It takes a hardy type of horse who can bounce back and take the tough training."
Even a hardy horse needs luck. Pleasant Colony had none in the 1981 Belmont, in which he finished third to Summing.
"I thought he was a cinch," Jorge Velasquez, who rode Pleasant Colony, said from his home in Florida. "I thought he'd win for fun. A mile and a half was his game."
After the first six furlongs were run in 1:14.20, Velasquez knew he was in trouble. "They slowed down the pace so much, it was ridiculous," Velasquez said. "George Martens did a great job with Summing. I couldn't close on him. My horse was a plodder. He needed a fast pace so he could come running, like in the Derby and Preakness."
No Triple Crown loss seems as cruel in hindsight as the one by Spectacular Bid, who was one of the great racehorses of the 20th century. He was a champion at 2, 3, and 4. His odds (30 cents on the dollar) are the shortest price on any Belmont runner since Secretariat, a testament to his powerful victories in the 1979 Derby and Preakness. On the morning of the Belmont, his trainer recalled, he discovered the horse had stepped on a safety pin.
"It was a shock to see it embedded a half-inch into the laminae of his foot," Buddy Delp, who trained Spectacular Bid, said from Maryland. "I took the pin out, and this dark-colored liquid came out. When he put the foot down, he was sound. Around 3 or 4 o'clock that afternoon, I took him out and jogged him. The foot was cold, so I thought, 'I'm gonna run.'"
Delp apprised only the colt's owner, Harry Meyerhoff, and jockey, Ronnie Franklin, of the development. "I thought he could get by," Delp said.
Spectacular Bid chased the 85-1 shot Gallant Best for the first half-mile, had the lead entering the stretch, but faded to finish third behind the victorious Coastal, while racing in the middle of the track.
"Ronnie rode a terrible race, going after that longshot," Delp said. "It cost him the Triple Crown."
Delp said nothing immediately after the race regarding the safety pin. "I didn't want to make excuses," he said.
When the story got out days later, there was widespread skepticism as to whether the safety pin story was true.
Eight days after the race, Spectacular Bid was lame. He was examined by two veterinarians, Dr. James Stewart and Dr. Alex Harthill. They cut away at the laminae until they found a black spot on the sole of the foot.
"You have to drill down until you get the pus pocket, or you'll have an infected foot," Delp said. "When they hit it, it was like water shooting out of a fountain, but it was black, thick pus."
Delp said Spectacular Bid, while in his stall, liked to pick at the safety pins that held his bandages. To keep Spectacular Bid from getting at the pins, groom Herman Hall would sprinkle paprika on the bandages.
"But he forgot to put the red pepper on the night before the Belmont," Delp said. "If he had, I'd have been the last Triple Crown winner."
- additional reporting by Steve Andersen
Who was the best of these seven to fail the final test in the Belmont Stakes?