ELMONT, N.Y. -- In the end, instead of the anticipated glory, there were only questions.
Did Kent Desormeaux move Real Quiet too soon in the Belmont Stakes yesterday?
If Real Quiet had won, would the stewards have disqualified him for a bumping incident in the stretch?
In the end yesterday at sunny Belmont Park, there was heartbreak instead of history, a devastating tease in the form of the closest near-miss in Triple Crown history.
"We all thought we'd won it," Baffert said.
Twice, in fact, they thought they had won. Real Quiet, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was four lengths in front of )) Victory Gallop with an eighth of a mile left. And then, even after Victory Gallop rallied at the end, Real Quiet appeared to finish a nostril ahead at the finish line.
"Did we get it?" Baffert asked rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas as the stewards studied a photo of the finish.
"You got it," Lukas said.
But he had not. The horses exchanged the lead three times in the last 50 yards -- each time one took a stride, he bobbed his head in front -- and Victory Gallop happened to stride at the right time, at the finish line. He was a nostril ahead, it turned out.
Call it luck, timing, whatever. It denied Real Quiet a place in history as the 12th horse to win a Triple Crown.
"I was tasting [victory] at the quarter-pole when we were out front with no one coming," Desormeaux said. "That's what's so ** tough. We came so far and got so close. Close enough to taste it. And now it's all gone."
Now, instead of all that glory and a $5 million bonus, there are only questions.
Did Desormeaux ask the colt to move too soon? Desormeaux certainly thought so.
"I do think it was a little premature," he said. "I'd like to do it again, I can tell you that."
Baffert, listening, disagreed. "You just got beat," the trainer said.
"Are you saying it's your fault?" a reporter asked Desormeaux.
"Somewhat, yes," the jockey said.
"Not his fault," Baffert said, shaking his head. "The horse just got beat."
Who is right? Well, Desormeaux probably did ask the colt to run too soon, entering the second turn. There was still a half-mile left. Given that even the best horses seldom kick for that long, it wasn't a surprise that Real Quiet ran out of gas at the end.
Elliott Walden, the trainer of Victory Gallop, said he expected Desormeaux to move prematurely, what with all the excitement of the Triple Crown bid.
He asked Gary Stevens, who rode Victory Gallop, to let Real Quiet move ahead entering the stretch and not fire back until the final two furlongs.
The strategy worked perfectly. Victory Gallop was clearly fresher in the final strides.
But can you blame Desormeaux? Not so easily. The fact is he rode the same race that he rode in the Derby and Preakness, sweeping to the lead on the second turn.
Desormeaux "People will say he moved too early," Baffert said, "but he didn't. That's how the horse runs. The Fish [Real Quiet's nickname] just floundered, that's all."
With an eighth of a mile to go, Desormeaux moved Real Quiet off the rail and bumped into the charging Victory Gallop. The jockey said he was only trying to make Real Quiet aware of the late challenge, but the move forced Victory Gallop to step farther outside before continuing.
Stevens asked for a stewards' ruling before the results of the photo finish were known. The ruling was irrelevant after the photo showed Victory Gallop had won, but the stewards said in a statement that they "probably" would have disqualified Real Quiet if it had mattered.
Huh? Take away a Triple Crown via a debatable disqualification? It's doubtful whether these or any stewards have the guts to do that.
It's easy for them to say they would have, but they didn't have to, so they can say whatever they want and no one can prove them wrong.
The only certainty is that a riot would have ensued. Disqualify history? Belmont would have burned. And that's without a power outage.
"That [disqualification] would have been worse [than losing in a photo finish]," Baffert said. "I'd have been throwing chairs. I'm glad we got beat then."
After the results of the photo finish and the steward's ruling were announced, the second-largest crowd in Belmont history fell eerily silent.
More than 80,000 fans had been lured to the track by the possibility of a Triple Crown. They rattled the stands with cheers as Real Quiet came down the stretch alone.
"I had tears in my eyes as he turned for home [well in front]," Baffert said.
The cheers turned to a weird, high-pitched roar as Victory Gallop charged and history turned into heartbreak.
Never before had a horse won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and lost the third by so little.
It was a textbook example of why only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown over all these years. It's a long, hard road, an equine decathlon, a five-week sprint ending with a marathon.
To win, you have to win when you're tired. Not many horses can.
"He came so close," Baffert said. "He ran his heart out. He was tired. He just got beat."
Leaving behind a broad ripple of questions, doubts, second-guesses and anguish.
A legacy of what almost was.
Pub Date: 6/07/98