The horses crossed the finish line in the 1998 Belmont Stakes and like many others that day in the track’s press box, I couldn’t believe we had not witnessed the coronation of the sport’s newest Triple Crown winner.
Others have tried and failed to sweep the series, which has not been accomplished since Affirmed in 1978. I was there to witness most of those attempts.
I thought Real Quiet had the best chance.
When he led by four lengths at the eighth pole, most of those at Belmont Park and watching on televisions across the globe thought the 20-year drought would end.
Instead, Victory Gallop came charging and nipped Real Quiet by a nose.
Of course Real Quiet is not alone; there have been 11 others since Affirmed to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to lose the Belmont (or be scratched from the race).
Just the year after Affirmed came the first to come up short, Spectacular Bid, and the list also includes Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008) and I’ll Have Another (2012).
The first Derby I attended was in 1973, when I was in the infield and caught a glimpse of Secretariat as he went by.
Secretariat won the Derby in record time (his 1:59 2/5 still stands), the Preakness by making a move in the first turn to pass the entire field (the time was later changed and is now a record) and the Belmont with a jaw-dropping, 31-length victory many call the greatest performance ever by a Thoroughbred.
It was 25 years between Triple Crown sweeps by Assault (1948) and Secretariat, and Big Red was then followed by Seattle Slew and Affirmed in 1977 and 1978, respectively.
Here we are 36 years later. Saturday night we will find out if California Chrome will become the 12th Triple Crown winner or the latest to fail in an attempt to join racing’s most elite group.
A youngster of 24 reminded me recently there has not been a Triple Crown winner during his lifetime.
He would like to see one.
I would like for him to see one.
I would like to see another.
It can happen.
But it doesn’t have to.
California Chrome has shown me no reason to believe he can’t win the Belmont. If you question his ability to get one and a half miles, you can question that about every horse that runs in the Belmont.
Fact is we don’t breed horses these days to run that far, nor do we run many races that distance.
I was convinced California Chrome would win the Derby and Preakness but I don’t have the same strong feeling in the Belmont.
I wondered aloud the other day if that was because I didn’t think he could win or because I had stood in that press box and watched the agonizing defeats of Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Big Brown.
Honestly, I’m not sure that it isn’t a bit of both.
There isn’t a great deal of early speed in the 11-horse Belmont field, so jockey Victor Espinoza should be able to have California Chrome in a prime position. He might even find himself on the lead.
I generally don’t like a runner with a come-from-behind style in a race without speed but I’m not sure Wicked Strong has to be as far back as he was in the Derby. He had considerable trouble in the Derby, yet finished fourth, beaten less than six lengths.
Immediately after the Derby, though overjoyed by the results, I recall being impressed by the performance by Samraat, who hung tough on the pace and ended up fifth, on even terms with Wicked Strong.
I will be rooting for a Triple Crown winner. It would be great for the sport, putting it in the mainstream media where it is so often ignored.
But I don’t see it happening.
Make it Wicked Strong, California Chrome and Samraat.