Triple Crown misses since 1978 are Big Brown’s lessons in history
Since Affirmed last won racing’s Holy Grail, the Triple Crown, there have been 29 years of great horses and fascinating personalities training them.
There has also been one poster boy for near misses, Bob Baffert.
By the time Big Brown is loaded into the gate at Belmont Park this afternoon, all 11 of the Triple Crowns will have been celebrated in the media buildup. So will all the Triple Stumbles since 1978.
A head-bob here, a muddy track there, a couple of brain-locked jockeys. It’s all part of the lore. There was even the safety pin discovered stuck in the hoof of Spectacular Bid the morning of his third-place finish in 1979.
Horses on the edge of immortality finished out of the money (Alysheba in 1987, War Emblem in 2002). Another got caught not looking when a foe made a last-second run at the finish line (Touch Gold beating Silver Charm in 1997). Two were done in by the same jockey (Edgar Prado on Sarava beating War Emblem in 2002 and Prado beating Smarty Jones on Birdstone in 2004).
One horse, Charismatic in 1999, broke his leg just before the Belmont wire and still finished third, prompting Elizabeth Mitchell’s book “Three Strides Before the Wire,” a romantic tale of a claiming horse winning the first two legs and coming so tantalizingly close in the third.
But the storytelling of these last 30 years of frenzy and frustration can have no other leading figure than Baffert, the white-haired trainer who arrived in Southern California in the early 1990s from the quarter-horse circuit and quickly became a national force in thoroughbreds.
Baffert is the leading victim of close-call-itis. Since Affirmed held off Alydar in their legendary stretch duel, 10 others have come to the Belmont with a chance to complete the sweep. Three of them have been trained by Baffert -- Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in ’98 and War Emblem in ’02.
“I’ve come to grips with a lot of this. I’m learning to deal with it,” says Baffert, probably lying.
This is how it has gone since ’78:
1979: Spectacular Bid, trained by Grover (Buddy) Delp
The pace was sizzling, 23.2 seconds at a quarter mile, 47.3 at a half. Spectacular Bid’s jockey, Ronnie Franklin, perhaps too young and inexperienced for this historic moment, chased the lead rather than staying patient. Eventually, a horse named Coastal, whose owner had to pay a last-minute supplemental fee of $20,000 just to get him in the race, ran down Spectacular Bid and left him in third place, instead of a Triple Crown.
Delp’s anger over Franklin’s ride seemed to compete for attention with his story about the safety pin. Spectacular Bid never appeared to limp, but later was said to have acquired an infection in his hoof.
1981: Pleasant Colony, trained by Johnny Campo
Campo, a classic New York character, was so certain of his horse’s Triple Crown that he referred to some in the field as “bums.” One of them, Summing, was positioned nicely on the rail as they headed for home and Pleasant Colony simply couldn’t run him down, ending up a tiring third.
Campo’s race-training business quieted after that, but he didn’t. The man who told a TV audience after the Kentucky Derby, “My horse won because I’m a good horse trainer, and don’t you forget it,” was also the man who inspired actor and horse owner Jack Klugman to say, “Johnny Campo was by Damon Runyon out of a Don Rickles mare.”
1987: Alysheba, trained by Jack Van Berg
Nobody was more stunned by Alysheba’s fourth-place finish, behind winner Bet Twice, than Van Berg, who said his jockey, Chris McCarron, made a mistake by not getting his horse to the front.
“I’ll never believe anything else,” Van Berg says. “Alysheba was the best. He should have been a Triple Crown winner. I thought he’d be in first every step of the way. He could gallop faster than most of those horses could run.”
1989: Sunday Silence, trained by Charlie Whittingham
Le Voyageur, a French horse shipped in late to the U.S., was the unknown factor going into the race and a huge factor once it started. He turned the first half mile in 47 seconds, three seconds faster than Affirmed and Alydar.
Sunday Silence went after him at the head of the stretch followed by Easy Goer, which made like one of those NASCAR cars on a draft pass, sling-shotting into first.
Later, the ever-classy Whittingham was gracious, making no excuses for the loser.
1997: Silver Charm, trained by Baffert
Owner Bob Lewis of Newport Beach had chartered a jet for 150 of his closest friends. The media was discovering Baffert and loving him. Silver Charm turned for home, seemed in charge, and Belmont Park rocked in anticipation. Then McCarron finished one of the best rides of his career, taking Touch Gold to the far outside, out of sight of hard-to-pass Silver Charm.
“Gary [Stevens] knew that Free House and Touch Gold were the horses to beat,” Baffert says. “He saw Touch Gold drop back and thought he was done, so he focused on Free House.”
1998: Real Quiet, trained by Baffert
This was the closest call of all the triple tries since Affirmed, so close that Baffert and owner Mike Pegram still watch film of the race and think they are going to win. There was much discussion, as there often is in races like this -- Real Quiet lost by an inch or two to Victory Gallop -- that the jockey moved too soon.
Real Quiet’s jockey was Kent Desormeaux, who will get another Triple Crown shot today aboard Big Brown.
“How can you get mad at a guy,” Baffert says, “who gave you such a great ride in the Kentucky Derby.”
1999: Charismatic, trained by D. Wayne
The affable Lewis was back for his second shot in three years as an owner, this time with a horse that would have been claimed had not prospective buyers liked Lewis so much they didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Somehow, Lukas got Charismatic into the Derby, won at 30-1 odds, then won the Preakness at 8-1.
In the Belmont, jockey Chris Antley succumbed to a lack of patience and chased Baffert’s speedball filly, Silverbulletday. The half mile was a torrid 46 seconds and change, and Lukas was furious.
Charismatic, struggling gamely, took a misstep and broke a front leg three strides before the wire. While Lemon Drop Kid turned for the winner’s circle, Antley jumped from Charismatic and cradled the horse’s injured leg until medical help arrived.
2002: War Emblem, trained by Baffert
It was less than a year since the Sept. 11 attacks, and the Kentucky Derby victory by a horse owned by a Saudi prince named Ahmed bin Salman was not the most popular. Legendary Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, at the Derby to watch with his grandson, was enraged enough that he cranked out several columns about the injustice of it all. War Emblem got through the Preakness, but Baffert was prepared for the worst in the Belmont.
“He weighed under a thousand pounds,” Baffert says, “and he just didn’t have the constitution for three tough races in five weeks.” War Emblem finished eighth.
2003: Funny Cide, trained by Barclay Tagg
Owned by a group of former high school classmates, the gelding became a national feel-good story.
The night before and the day of the Belmont it rained. Empire Maker, second in the Kentucky Derby, won. Funny Cide was third, leaving Tagg unhappy with the fates.
“Would I have done anything differently?” he says. “Sure, I would have made sure there wasn’t a downpour for 24 hours. Empire Maker loved the mud; Funny Cide hated it.”
2004: Smarty Jones, trained by John Servis
Like most of those trying for the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones looked like the real deal. But Birdstone got an excellent ride from Prado and left Smarty Jones in second place. “I was very confident going in,” Servis says. “I wouldn’t have done one thing differently.”
Birdstone had been eighth in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, and went off at odds of 36-1 in the Belmont.
Baffert was asked which of his three Belmont near-misses was the most painful.
“None of those,” he says. “It was Point Given.”
In 2001, Point Given lost one of the fastest Kentucky Derbys ever, to Monarchos, then won the last two legs of the Triple Crown.
“That day at the Derby, the track was ridiculous,” Baffert says. “I had a horse on the undercard, running the second race of her life, and she broke a 30-year-old record at 6 1/2 furlongs.
“The place was all souped up for speed that year. Monarchos was a good horse, but he was no Point Given.”
Baffert says of Big Brown: “Closest I’ve seen to Point Given.”
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.