06/07/2014 6:10PM

Triple Crown destiny again denied

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On June 10, 1978, Affirmed thrust his head past the wire an instant ahead of Alydar in the Belmont Stakes, and in so doing became the 11th winner of America’s Triple Crown. Back then, it did not seem like such a difficult thing to do. Secretariat had dazzled when he’d turned the trick in 1973, and Seattle Slew had powered his way to a similar feat only the year before Affirmed. But ever since, it’s been the fruitless labor of Sisyphus – triumphant journeys to the twin mountaintops of the Derby and Preakness … only to watch victory slip elusively away in the last quarter-mile of Belmont’s heartbreaking homestretch.

When California Chrome lost the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, he joined a group of 12 others who have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown but failed in the last demanding leg since Affirmed in 1978. The 36-year Triple Crown drought is the longest in history. There was a 25-year gap between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat.

Here is what happened to the 12 who preceded California Chrome on their respective dates with destiny, in which each tried – and ultimately failed – to scale the heights and join the pantheon of Triple Crown heroes.

Spectacular Bid - 1979
At 3-10, Hawksworth Farm’s Spectacular Bid looked like one for the ages on Belmont Day 1979. But he harbored a painful secret that few knew: That morning the gray had stepped on an errant safety pin in his stall, jamming it an inch up into the soft portion of his hoof. Then, under an aggressive, ill-judged ride by young Ron Franklin, Spectacular Bid took off too soon after blazing pacesetter Gallant Best, only to be run down late by Coastal, a newcomer to the Triple Crown trail. Spectacular Bid returned to scattered boos on that hot, hazy afternoon, and a chastened Buddy Delp would later admit he had hurt the great colt by running him that afternoon.

Pleasant Colony - 1981
Brash, hyper-confident trainer Johnny Campo predicted all week a Triple Crown sweep for Buckland Farm’s Pleasant Colony, but his words fell flat. After spooking at the gate and delaying the start, the lop-eared 4-5 favorite broke tardily from his outside post and trailed early in the 11-horse field. When he finally did move, it wasn’t nearly enough and he eventually crossed the line third, 1 3/4 lengths behind victorious 7-1 Summing and 13-1 runner-up Highland Blade. Following his colt’s disappointing effort, Campo waxed philosophical: “You can’t be sorry – that’s the name of the game. You can’t win ’em all.”

Alysheba - 1987
Several factors may have been at play in Alysheba’s failure to don the crown. Trainer Jack Van Berg attributed his Belmont loss to a rare lapse in judgment on the part of Chris McCarron, who rated the colt through much of the race rather than gunning for an early lead as the trainer had requested. Others questioned whether medication was an issue; Lasix was banned in New York, and Alysheba was running without the anti-bleeding drug for the first time since spring. Whatever the reason, he finished fourth as Bet Twice scored a breathtaking, 14-length, $18 upset and stole away the $1-million Triple Crown bonus from Dorothy and Pamela Scharbauer’s dual classic winner.

Sunday Silence - 1989
The 1989 Belmont Stakes showcased a marquee rivalry, between a colt nobody had wanted and one born with the proverbial silver spoon. The former, Sunday Silence, had captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness over the latter, Easy Goer, and for the Belmont was sent off a 9-10 favorite by the track’s largest crowd in a decade. After closely stalking the pace for a mile, the Charlie Whittingham trainee put his black head in front on the final turn – but only for an instant. At that point, Easy Goer slipped into gear and motored on by like a runaway freight to win by eight lengths. The rivalry continued through autumn, with Sunday Silence winning three of four matches on the year, culminated with a triumph in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Silver Charm - 1997
The steel gray from out of the West appeared all heart and courage as he dueled longtime nemesis Free House around the final turn of the 1997 Belmont. Into the stretch, Silver Charm put that one away and forged boldly to the front, looking every inch a Triple Crown winner in the making as 70,682 fans roared him home. But the would-be superstar failed to notice a brown shadow moving up fast on the outside – though jockey Gary Stevens did … too late. With 100 yards to go, Touch Gold blew past Bob and Beverly Lewis’s color bearer to win by three-quarters of a length and to deny American racing, yet again, a Triple Crown sweep.

Real Quiet - 1998
Trainer Bob Baffert must have thought the racing gods were against him when in 1998, for the second straight season, he lost the Triple Crown by a narrow margin. Heartbreak came that year with Mike Pegram’s crooked-legged Real Quiet, nicknamed “The Fish,” who had trounced Victory Gallop in the first two jewels of the crown. In the Belmont, the Quiet American colt had a four-length lead just a furlong from home when Victory Gallop made his move, turning the final strides into a head-bobbing battle – one that Baffert’s by-now-tired colt would lose by the slimmest of noses. “He flattened out at the end,” the trainer later acknowledged. “The fish floundered.”

Charismatic - 1999
Bob and Beverly Lewis missed the Triple sweep with Silver Charm in 1997 and two years later found themselves repeating history with a former claimer named Charismatic. The chestnut beauty by Summer Squall, favored by a then-record Belmont Day crowd of 85,818, stalked the pace set by champion filly Silverbulletday before assuming command in the stretch. In the final yards Charismatic slowed abruptly to finish third behind 29-1 Lemon Drop Kid and 54-1 Vision and Verse. The reason became clear when just past the wire jockey Chris Antley quickly pulled up, dismounted, and cradled the colt’s left fore in his arms until help arrived. The colt survived multiple fractures but never raced again.

War Emblem - 2002
It was a disaster for Prince Ahmed bin Salman’s black colt. When the gates flew open, instead of launching off like an equine rocket, War Emblem hit the dirt, knees and nose first. “It was lost at the start,” trainer Bob Baffert would say. “If I was on a walkie-talkie, I would have told Victor [Espinoza] to pull him up.” But he wasn’t and he didn’t. The favorite instead gathered himself and eventually fought bravely for the lead before a record crowd of 103,222, running hard until he simply could go no farther. Exhausted, War Emblem faded to eighth in the stretch, beaten 19 1/2 lengths by Sarava – who at 70-1 became the longest shot winner in race history.

Funny Cide - 2003
He was the “People’s Horse,” an inexpensive gelding who had transcended his station in life to win two of America’s biggest races, and now he stood on the precipice of immortality. But like so many others, Funny Cide failed. Why? It could have been the too-fast workout on Tuesday prior … or the slippery, sloppy, bowl-of-soup track on Belmont Day … or the unaccustomed jet-to-the-lead style deployed in the race itself. Or, perhaps he simply encountered a better horse at the top of his game when, with a half-mile to go, Empire Maker challenged him, then ran on by. Funny Cide gave it his all to finish third that day, beaten five lengths.

Smarty Jones - 2004
The 2004 Belmont Stakes was “Smarty’s Party,” his race to lose, and Smarty Jones managed to do just that. The blue-collar Pennsylvania-bred had captured the imagination of an America still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars, and going into the Belmont, he had yet to taste defeat in eight previous starts. Roy and Pat Chapman’s brilliant colt appeared unable to relax both before and during the running, fighting for an early lead with no breather at any point. He was rubber-legging the final desperate furlong when overtaken by Birdstone and outfinished by a length. It was the last career start for the champion, who retired two months later due to chronic bone bruising.

Big Brown - 2008
Like Smarty Jones, Big Brown was unbeaten going into the Belmont. And just as Johnny Campo had with Pleasant Colony 27 years earlier, trainer Rick Dutrow spent the weeks leading up to the race proclaiming his colt’s Triple Crown sweep a “foregone conclusion.” It wasn’t. On a freakishly hot 96-degree afternoon, a somewhat rank 1-4 Big Brown fought Kent Desormeaux early, held tight off the pace set by 38-to-1 shot and eventual winner Da’ Tara, then hit an invisible wall with three furlongs to go. Eased at the head of the stretch, he was officially listed as having failed to finish. It was discovered afterward that his right hind shoe had come loose during the race.

I’ll Have Another - 2012
I’ll Have Another romped unbeaten through four starts at three, including a 15-1 shocker in the Kentucky Derby and a game neck Preakness victory. He would have been odds-on for the Belmont … but it was not to be. The day before the final jewel in America’s Triple Crown, the chestnut colt’s retirement was unexpectedly announced in a backstretch press conference, with owner Paul Reddam kicking it off with the words: “I’m afraid history’s going to have to wait for another day.” Trainer Doug O’Neill cited the beginnings of tendinitis in his left fore as the cause, though a more serious tendon tear was later revealed as the reason for his early exit from racing’s wars.