NEW YORK -- As soon as Real Quiet stepped off the van yesterday at Belmont Park, the questions raged anew:
Whom has he beat?
Why is he not generating the excitement you'd think a potential Triple Crown winner would?
His foes number more than the 10 or 11 horses poised to challenge.
Many believe that Real Quiet would tarnish the Triple Crown if he dared enter its exclusive club. They say his record, conformation and humble beginnings should exclude him from a membership role that includes Secretariat and Citation.
And should he win Saturday, they say, he would do it by default, because the best 3-year-olds missed the races with injuries.
"There have been at least three horses out of this crop that showed more brilliance than this horse," said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, the syndicate that campaigned Captain Bodgit in last year's classics and owns part of Belmont entrant Thomas Jo. "They've fallen by the wayside, and he's picking up the pieces. That's why no one is taking him seriously."
The three horses Irwin ranks higher than Real Quiet are Lil's Lad, Coronado's Quest and Event of the Year -- all sidelined by injury and, in the case of Coronado's Quest, behavior problems.
What's more, Real Quiet is the horse with the front feet turned out whom the wily trainer Bob Baffert plucked out of a 1996 yearling sale for a paltry $17,000.
Six months before the sale, a veterinarian inserted screws and wire into Real Quiet's front knees to try to straighten out his feet. Later removed, the screws and wire helped a little. Still, when Baffert bought the colt, he looked so thin from the front, like a tropical fish, that the trainer nicknamed him "The Fish."
Could a fish ever be considered a great racehorse, even if it wins the Triple Crown?
"I don't think people are going to say he is, because when you talk about Triple Crown horses, you're talking about the Seattle Slews, the Citations, the Affirmeds and the Secretariats," said David Cross, who trained 1983 Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo and will saddle Classic Cat in this year's Belmont.
"Those were great horses. I think Real Quiet, even if he wins the Triple Crown, will still have something to prove."
What isn't clear.
"Maybe if he wins the Dubai World Cup next winter they'll say he's a great horse after all," said Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, smiling slightly.
"I don't know why people say those things," he said, referring to the Real Quiet bashers. "They seem to say it every year about the current 3-year-old crop: 'It's a weak group.' Then they find out when the horses are 4 that it wasn't so bad after all."
Real Quiet wouldn't be the first Triple Crown winner regarded as an unworthy guest at the banquet.
Sir Barton (1919) entered the Kentucky Derby 0-for-6. Gallant Fox (1930) won two of seven races as a 2-year-old. Omaha (1935) was 2-for-11 entering the Derby. And Assault (1946) won the Derby off a 4-for-12 mark.
Real Quiet is 4-for-14 -- after losing his first six races.
That pales against the accomplishments of the last four Triple Crown winners. Entering the Kentucky Derby, Citation (1948) was 14-for-16, Secretariat (1973) 9-for-12, Seattle Slew (1977) 6-for-6, and Affirmed (1978) 11-for-13.
Still, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who rides Victory Gallop, Real Quiet's chief competitor in the Belmont, dismisses all criticism of the potential Triple Crown winner.
"I would give those naysayers no credence whatsoever, because to me they don't know anything about the sport," said Stevens, who rode Silver Charm to victories last year in the Derby and Preakness only to lose in the Belmont. "I know how tough it is. If Real Quiet goes on and wins the Triple Crown, he deserves to be called a great horse -- if he never ever wins another race."
Curiously, Real Quiet bears some resemblance to Seattle Slew, the only Triple Crown winner to emerge from the series unbeaten.
Seattle Slew's right leg was slightly turned out. He was purchased as a yearling for $17,500. And he was nicknamed "Baby Huey" -- after the clumsy cartoon character.
The big difference, however, is that Seattle Slew was 3-for-3 as a 2-year-old and won his two starts at 3 leading to the Kentucky Derby.
Mickey Taylor, an owner of Seattle Slew, said of Real Quiet's image problem: "A lot of it comes back to the fact that he's a bargain-basement colt bought for $17,000 and owned by a guy [Mike Pegram] who wears Wrangler jeans and drinks Budweiser."
But in the end, Real Quiet's legacy will come down to his performance. And there, according to the Ragozin and Thoro-Graph handicapping sheets. Real Quiet takes a back seat to few.
The sheets assign a number to each horse's race, taking into account such things as weight, trouble and track condition -- but not hyperbole. And the numbers say that Real Quiet's Kentucky Derby and Preakness were better than Seattle Slew's, and his Preakness was better than Affirmed's.
"How good is Real Quiet?" said Jerry Brown, head of Thoro-Graph. "This spring, he has been an absolutely top horse. He's basically on the same level as anyone since 1982 [when Thoro-Graph started].
"He is certainly a better 3-year-old than Seattle Slew and on about the same level as Affirmed."
What: 130th Belmont Stakes, third leg of horse racing's Triple Crown
When: Saturday, 5: 30 p.m.
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
Distance: 1 1/2 miles
TV: Chs. 2, 7
Probable field. 11e
Pub Date: 6/04/98