Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
On this Preakness eve, fans of New York racing are among those who anticipate most eagerly the outcome of Saturday’s race at Pimlico. "Will he or won’t he?" we ask ourselves every year. "Will we get to see a Triple Crown this year?"
Excluding the 11 Triple Crown winners, 21 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby & Preakness; 19 of them have gone on to run in the Belmont. Eight of those 19 have, heartbreakingly, finished second; of those eight, four have agonizingly lost by a length or less.
Is it worse to be the Triple Crown favorite and be soundly beaten, like Big Brown in 2008 or Sunday Silence in 1989? Or is the devastation more profound when the margin of victory is a nose, like Real Quiet in 1998, or just a part of a length, like Silver Charm the year before?
Losers of horse races are generally not given to histrionics; perhaps they like to keep their game face on, or perhaps they are simply too used to the vagaries of the game to let their feelings show. They know that success is as ephemeral as the mist hovering over the track in the morning, and their approach is philosophical—genuine or feigned.
Pensive came to the 1944 Belmont as the favorite but was beaten half a length by 17-1 longshot Bounding Home; in an era in which quotations of connections were far sparser in the media than they are now, trainer Ben Jones is quoted in the New York Times as saying simply that the horse had no excuse.
Poor Pensive lost out on not only Triple Crown honors; despite winning the first two legs, at the end of the year he went home empty-handed, while his filly stablemate, Twilight Tear, won three-year-old filly, handicap care, and Horse Of The Year titles.
The next four Triple Crown runners-up—Tim Tam, Forward Pass, Majestic Prince, and Sunday Silence—all finished well back of the winner. Then came 1997. And 1998. The stuff of which, if you’re Bob Baffert, nightmares are made.
In 1997, Baffert came to the Belmont hoping to win the Triple Crown with Silver Charm. He left the runner-up, beaten less than a length by Touch Gold. Silver Charm’s owner, Bob Lewis, was rocking the philosophical after the race, as quoted by Joseph Durso in the New York Times: "’How can you feel downhearted when you win the Derby and the Preakness and finish second in the Belmont?’''
The next year Baffert was back, this time without Bob Lewis, this time with Real Quiet. The horse had beaten Victory Gallop in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and for the second year in a row, the trainer came to beautiful Belmont Park with Triple Crown dreams dancing in his head.
And for the second year in a row, he watched as the Belmont trophy was handed to another trainer--this time to the trainer of Victory Gallop, who turned the Triple Crown tables on Real Quiet at Big Sandy. The Times characterized Baffert's reaction as "sad stoicism," and afterwards, Baffert tried to be optimistic: "I'm getting closer. Silver Charm lost by three-quarters of a length, Real Quiet by a nose."
Baffert got his next Triple Crown shot in 2002 with War Emblem…but he finished eighth.
When Birdstone beat Smarty Jones by a length in the 2004 Belmont, denying yet another Triple Crown attempt, apparently no one was more desolate than Michael Lynch, the VISA vice president who oversaw the $5 million Triple Crown bonus that the credit card company offered: "’We're heartbroken,’ Mr. Lynch said. ‘We're one step shy of completing the success story. That's what we're all trying to accomplish.’"
Perhaps trying not to think about that bonus, trainer John Servis offered a mix of gloom and acceptance regarding fan favorite Smarty’s loss:
"When Servis was asked how disappointing this defeat was, on a scale of 1 to 10, he was quick to answer, 'Five hundred sixty-four.' But [he]…was also quick to show that beyond superb horsemanship, he possessed a deep appreciation of how maddening and wonderful the pursuit of a Triple Crown is.
'''What you saw is what makes this game so great,' he said with a rueful smile and not a hint of regret for giving it a try."
Of course, you have to give it a try: 19 of 21 horses who have had the chance have given it a shot. But the Belmont Stakes isn’t called the Test of the Champion for nothing: young three-year-old Triple Crown hopefuls come to the race after a rigorous winter and spring, and having, in most cases, run two tough races in five weeks, more than they’ve ever been asked to do before. They come to Belmont, and they need the stamina to get a mile and a half; the patience of a jockey who doesn’t get overwhelmed by the Belmont oval; and, as always, a little racing luck.
One imagines that Todd Pletcher would like nothing more than to win the Preakness this weekend and a chance to bring his Super Saver to Belmont for an attempt at the Triple Crown; at the same time, he could be forgiven for feeling a little intimidated by the prospect. As Bob Baffert put it after Real Quiet’s loss, "’I hate to lose, but this race is so hard to win.’"