Thursday, June 6, 2013

Getting Nosed Out of a Triple Crown

In the 35 years since Affirmed became the most recent winner of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, a dozen horses have won the first two jewels but, for one reason or another, each came up short in the third jewel, the Belmont.

That is, if they competed in the Belmont at all.

But only one — Real Quiet — lost the Belmont by a nose — literally. The winner was Canadian–born Victory Gallop, the second–place finisher in the first two races.

It happened 15 years ago today.

The 1998 Triple Crown duel between Victory Gallop and Real Quiet will almost certainly be the inspiration for a dramatic book or documentary someday. It does not yet occupy that spot in popular memory that the Affirmed–Alydar battle of 1978 does — but I am confident that it will. All it needs is the right person to tell the story.

It practically tells itself.

In the Kentucky Derby in early May, Real Quiet held off hard–charging Victory Gallop to win the first jewel. Two weeks later, Real Quiet again defeated Victory Gallop, this time by about two lengths, in the Preakness Stakes.

But, in the much longer Belmont Stakes in early June, the finish was reversed. Victory Gallop won a thrilling race over Real Quiet, and the Triple Crown drought went on.

It has to be one of the most thrilling upsets I have witnessed in my life.

And it was a reminder that they don't call the Belmont Stakes "the test of champions" for nothing. At 1½ miles, it is the longest race that any horse will ever run and calls for endurance whereas the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness are shorter and emphasize speed.

Few horses possess both stamina and speed, which is why horses that win the first two Triple Crown races — as Real Quiet did in 1998 — frequently stumble in the third.

And yet, Real Quiet almost pulled off horse racing's hat trick. He had a clear lead as the horses made the final turn and ran for the finish line, but Victory Gallop lived up to his name and was even with Real Quiet when they crossed it.

It reminds me of the pitch of a cigarette commercial when I was a child. The ad was about how most extra–long cigarettes were 100 millimeters, but this particular cigarette was 101 millimeters — so consumers got a little more for their money. The jingle said this cigarette was "a silly millimeter longer."

A furlong isn't nearly as short as a millimeter (in truth, it is an eighth of a mile), but it's the basic measurement in horse racing so we'll have to use that for our example. If the race had been a furlong shorter, Real Quiet would have won the Triple Crown with ease. If it had been a furlong longer, Victory Gallop would have been the clear winner. No photo would have been necessary in either case.

But the order of finish of the actual distance was too close for the naked eye, and thus the fabled photo finish was required. And the photo revealed that the winner was Victory Gallop — by a nose.

Even though Real Quiet didn't win the Belmont, I think he demonstrated that he did possess that rare equine combination of speed and stamina. But so did Victory Gallop.

However, it might not have been quite so cut and dried for Real Quiet if he had been the winner of the race.

The New York Times reported that, if Real Quiet had prevailed, he might have been disqualified "because he brushed Victory Gallop twice in the homestretch."

Personally, I'm not so sure about that one. I have watched recordings of that race many times, and I have never seen Real Quiet brush Victory Gallop. But it's hard to tell. If I could see a recording from the front, where it could be determined if there was space between the horses, my determination might be different. But I don't know if such a recording exists — or existed at the time.

Tom Keyser of the Baltimore Sun called Real Quiet's loss "crushing" — which, although often overused, is sometimes the only word that is truly descriptive, and this was one of those times.

When I was a child, I heard the phrase photo finish many times, but it was always in a hypothetical sense. I never actually saw one — until 15 years ago today, when it was made real for me with nothing less than a Triple Crown riding on the outcome.

No comments: