All the failed Triple Crown contenders have excuses, of course -- from jockeys moving too soon to horses failing to see a looming foe to those who simply got beat by a better horse that day -- but what happened in the end, at the final call, is they all got tired and failed to cover the ground as fast as the winners. The Belmont is a quarter-mile farther than the Kentucky Derby, and those last two furlongs have proved, time and again, to be the killers that spare no one but the strongest and most gifted. No one saw this more vividly than jockey Gary Stevens in '98, the year he rode Victory Gallop and chased the Baffert-trained Real Quiet through those last 440 yards.
Real Quiet was going to win the Triple Crown. He turned for home in front by a half and opened his lead to four lengths with 220 yards to go. Victory Gallop was nearly eight behind him on the bend and Stevens did not think he had a chance. "I thought he had an insurmountable lead," Stevens said. And then, as they flashed past that eighth pole, Stevens saw Real Quiet start to melt along the wick of that long homestretch.
"All of a sudden, he looked like a drunk person up in front of me trying to stagger home after last call," Stevens said. "I said to myself, 'I got him!'"
Victory Gallop sliced the lead to three lengths ... then two ... then one. Now he was a neck away, a head ... finally, in the last jump, he pushed his chocolate nose across the wire to win it by the sweat beads on his nostril.
It was the damnedest, hairiest finish I'd ever witnessed in the Belmont, certainly the wildest with that Crown on the line, and I sensed then that Real Quiet might be the last, best hope to win the Crown and keep that streak of living winners alive. And so it came to be. Except for Smarty's fateful swoon, nothing that followed even came close to Real Quiet's desperate lunge for the wire.
Affirmed died on Jan. 12, 2001; Seattle Slew on May 7, 2002, three days after War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby.
In a way, as poignant as it was for me, the breaking of that string of living Triple Crown winners emerged as a telling symbol of the way the thoroughbred horse -- and racing itself -- has changed in the decades since I came to the game in 1955. It became a symbol pointing to the way horses once were -- a sturdier and sounder animal, born with both speed and endurance -- and how they and the game had changed in the intervening years.
That Golden Age of the '70s is no more. The American Thoroughbred, once the apotheosis of the whole breed, has been weakened and compromised by the use of a raft of medications, particularly the dehydrating diuretic Lasix; by a new generation of fearful, vain, timid horse trainers who are afraid to run their 2-year-olds -- precisely the age when they must exercise and run, with their bones modeling and needing to grow strong and dense -- in fact, afraid to run anything for fear of losing and diminishing that all-important selling point, their "winning percentage"; and by commercial breeders who pile speed on speed in pedigrees, soundness be damned, knowing full well that speed sells over and above all other qualities -- over stamina, over soundness, over conformation, uber alles. And fast horses, pounding the ground harder, are more susceptible to injury than free-floating distance horses, a fact that has led to more breakdowns here than ever.