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Shouts to Murmurs

When it was all over, rider Kent Desormeaux said he felt sick to his stomach. Then proved it. He had asked his mount for winning speed too soon, he said gloomily, then let the horse's attention wander with a furlong to go. Down in the jockeys' room, Chris McCarron draped a consoling arm around his friend and competitor and told him, "There will be another time." Out in the sun-splashed winner's circle, dirt-caked Gary Stevens all but apologized for winning the 130th Belmont Stakes by a nostril. Stevens, after all, has recently been on the other end of things: It was he who rode last year's candidate for Triple Crown glory, Silver Charm, to a second-place finish in the Belmont for trainer Bob Baffert. This time he beat Baffert, Desormeaux and the blue-collar horse they call "The Fish" with the late-surging Victory Gallop, who made up four lengths in the deep stretch. Beat them by what the New York tabloids called "a dirty nose."

Suddenly, the troubled realm of thoroughbred racing has fallen Real Quiet once more.

How big a deal is this? How big a deal that the fourteenth racehorse in history to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness only to lose the Belmont Stakes did it last Saturday afternoon in front of 80,162 fans in New York and a national television audience of, well--who knows?--thousands?

For Desormeaux, Baffert, and Real Quiet's owner, Mike Pegram, it was huge. Instead of taking home the $5 million Triple Crown bonus offered by VISA and $600,000 of the Belmont's million-dollar purse, they had to settle for the place money and the footnote they'll get in racing history--alongside Silver Charm and Alysheba and Northern Dancer and the other horses that couldn't win the Belmont and sweep the Crown.

"I'm getting closer," the ever-witty Baffert said bravely. "Last year, three-fourths of a length. This year, a nose. Next time, maybe we'll win it by daylight."

A dirty nose. For what was once called the Sport of Kings, that may have been the margin between recapturing the hearts of racing fans, selling the sport to a new generation, and continuing to plod along in the back of the field of professional sports attractions. Numbers don't lie. In a recent survey, less than 3 percent of Americans ranked horse racing among their favorite sports, ranking it in the basement with boxing and soccer and, presumably, just ahead of curling and luge. TV viewership for this year's Derby dropped off 16 percent from 1997; the Preakness was down 23 percent. And now that Real Quiet has been beaten by two inches in a mile-and-a-half race, jockey Desormeaux and trainer Baffert won't be getting any more calls from David Letterman and Jay Leno. The VISA people get to keep their five mil. The newly formed National Thoroughbred Racing Association will have to take a new tack with what's left of its $20 million advertising budget.

The untimely oddity in all of this is the obvious joy some racing folk will take from Real Quiet's loss.

Little matter that twenty million fewer Americans went to the races in 1995 than went in 1991. Little matter that glamorous Arlington Park in suburban Chicago and not-so-glamorous Aksarben Race Track in Omaha have closed their doors. Little matter that Real Quiet failed by a nose to become racing's twelfth Triple Crown winner in a hundred years.

He wasn't worthy of the honor, the naysayers insist.
In the clubby, nostalgia-tinted, snob-infested world of racing--a world that's dying--Real Quiet didn't wear the right clothes or display correct manners. To wit: He had the gall to be a skinny-chested, knock-kneed yearling who was purchased for $17,000 and didn't win a race until his seventh start. He had the nerve last August to run third--not once, but twice--in races at lowly Santa Fe Downs in New Mexico, another racetrack that has since fallen by the wayside. The horses that beat him--Grady, General Gem (twice) and Thatsaknife, are the kind of horses you can find running at Arapahoe Park on a Friday.

Real Quiet also made the mistake of proving himself a survivor in a year when a dozen better-thought-of colts in the three-year-old ranks fell prey to sickness, fatigue and injury--among them Lil's Lad, Event of the Year, Comic Strip, 1997 two-year-old champion Favorite Trick, Artax, Halory Hunter and Real Quiet's own, more famous stablemate, Indian Charlie.

"If you beat the pugs," trainer John Veitch said of Real Quiet, "all you are is the champion pug." Ill-chosen words, perhaps, from the man who finished a resounding second the last time a horse won the Triple Crown, in 1978. Affirmed beat Veitch's Alydar in each of the three races.

Last Saturday, only five of the Daily Racing Form's twelve ace handicappers picked Real Quiet to win the Belmont (none of them chose winner Victory Gallop), and renowned racing writer Andy Beyer deemed him unworthy to join the likes of Sir Barton and Gallant Fox and Citation and, most of all, Secretariat, in the Triple Crown pantheon.

"If a horse of this ability sweeps the Triple Crown," Beyer sniffed, "then the Triple Crown is diminished." Really? Would it have been more diminished than the sport itself?

"Uneasy Lies the Crown," punned a New York Times headline. The story went on to chronicle the disrespect and disregard Baffert and Peagram's peasant-turned-champion had earned by winning the first two legs of the campaign.

The disdain got down to street level, too. Last Friday night, beneath the old black-and-white racing photos in Gallagher's Steak House in Manhattan, even some bent-nosed old railbirds who have known for years that perfection is the child of time were dissing The Fish (so named for his slightness of build).

"He's cheap and he's slow," one carped. "Gimme Grand Slam." As it happened, Grand Slam ran seventh in the Belmont. "Phony favorite," another student of the breed observed of Real Quiet. "I wouldn't play him with your money. I'll take Raffie's Majesty." As it happened, Raffie's Majesty ran fifth in the Belmont.

Truth be told, Bob Baffert himself is not the most popular man in racing--at least not among the flinty Kentucky hardboots or the silk-suited turf-clubbers who've kept the game in the Dark Ages. They may be fiddling while Churchill Downs burns--and bids to install slot machines up in the clubhouse--but they don't like the silver-haired Baffert because he's telegenic and has a sense of humor. Before the 1997 Derby, he greeted reporters at Silver Charm's stall with his horse's tail turned toward the camera. "That's what I hope the rest of them see Saturday," he quipped.

Baffert's the guy who put the Preakness trophy on his head like a hat, who traded jokes with Letterman, who punched the air like a boxer en route to the ring as he led Real Quiet to the paddock Saturday. Like Real Quiet, Baffert's an outsider, a former quarter-horse trainer who's taken the delusional, tradition-bound thoroughbred types by storm in the past three years, replacing haughty D. Wayne Lukas as the dominant stakes-level trainer. So he's not quite "our crowd, darling."

The great mystery is the blindness of the old-line racing hands. Don't they understand that Baffert's the most appealing homo sapiens to enliven the sport since eighteen-year-old Stevie Cauthen--The Kid--won the Crown atop Affirmed? Don't they know that he's the kind of funny, irreverent guy who might lure Generation Xers to the track and TV dollars into the game? Don't they understand that rags-to-riches stories like Real Quiet's are the stuff of legend? At the Preakness, this brave, skinny colt ran through 92-degree heat, made a breathtaking move on the turn and pulled away from the field with all the majesty of, well, Secretariat.

Alas, on Saturday afternoon, Desormeaux miscalculated. Real Quiet tired, bumped the eventual winner in the stretch and got beat by a dirty nose--the closest margin by which any Derby and Preakness winner has lost the grueling Belmont. In 1958, for instance, Tim Tam ran six lengths behind Cavan. In 1969, Majestic Prince was five and a half in back of Arts and Letters. In 1989, Sunday Silence trailed Easy Goer by eight. Still, Baffert steadfastly refused to criticize his jockey for the judgment of his Belmont ride.

As small recompense, two other Pegram-owned, Baffert-trained horses won stakes races Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles. And on Sunday, Desormeaux was aboard winner Fiji in the $211,000 Gamely Breeders' Stakes at Hollywood. Despite that win, the rider admitted, he was still feeling queasy. And in the wake of the latest blow to its popularity, thoroughbred racing remained real quiet.


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