Chasing the Triple Crown

Chugging up on the outside, Birdstone collared a weary Smarty just yards from the wire, and drew off to win by a length. The din collapsed into an eerie silence. I turned to look at the crowd. There was Murray, standing as still as statuary, staring across the racetrack toward the finish line, his jaw slack and his mouth open in shock. Nothing at all was lost in that translation.

At once, from his box seat, came ambivalent Nick, the sorriest looking Belmont winner I had ever seen. He rushed past the newly unveiled statue of Murray, looking quite grave, almost ashen, as he hurried along the aisle. He might have been a pickpocket who had just lifted Bill's or Rudy's wallet and was trying to disappear in the crowd. With Birdstone paying $72 to win, Zito had picked most every pocket in the place.

It was the only Triple Crown race I ever saw in which the winning jockey, Edgar Prado, apologized to the losing jockey. "I am so sorry," Prado told Elliott, "but I had to do my job."

It was a shocker. For all I know, Murray might be standing there still.

* * *

I know I was for a long enough time, wondering what was happening here. Smarty's was the sixth defeat in the last eight years by horses who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and were racing for the sweep at Belmont Park. The three Triple Crowns of the '70s had sated the hunger for them well into the 1980s. Indeed, no one missed crowning the 12th when Pleasant Colony, going for the Triple in '81, came up empty to finish third to the winner, Summing, whose owner, Charlie Wilson, ended up walking in a daze around the winner's circle, muttering in the muggy heat, "I'm just a country boy. I don't deserve this."

Nor were any eyebrows raised in '87 when Bet Twice won the Belmont Stakes by 14 hysterical lengths, crushing Triple Crown contender Alysheba on the way. Nor did California-based Sunday Silence, another Triple Crown contender, have any answer for Easy Goer at Belmont Park, his home track, when the Goer flew past him on the turn like a 707 and sailed home, in a laugher, to win by eight.

The hunger truly returned in the '90s, and it was felt most keenly in '97, nearly 20 years since Affirmed had won it last, when Silver Charm came to the Belmont looking ready, if luck rode with him, to eke out a third and decisive triumph at Belmont Park and do the huck-a-buck into that charmed circle. A paternal grandson of the great Buckpasser, he certainly had the pedigree to get the trip. Following his victory in the Preakness Stakes, the Charm's owner, Bob Lewis, invited a bunch of folks to a celebratory dinner at a restaurant near Pimlico. The race had been a dazzler right out of Ben-Hur, a Preakness for the ages, with the Charm winning by the bob of a nose in a three-horse blanket finish that looked too close to call but lifted Lewis to his feet screaming, "We did it! We did it!" Which prompted Bob Baffert, his trainer, to blurt, "We did?"

Yes, they really did. The Charm's gray foil, Free House, was second.

Halfway through dinner, I decided to tell Lewis, Baffert and the others a story about the history of the Triple Crown. It went something like this:

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