By Tom Durkin


Some 80,162 roaring partisans, then the second-largest crowd to ever attend a Belmont Stakes, were there to witness that frenzied finish. It was not …. real quiet.

No horse had been crowned with racing’s highest honor since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, a 20-year interregnum that left frustrated racing fans thirsting for a coronation.  And on this cool and sunny afternoon, two decades of anticipation would be telescoped into the microscopic width of the photo finish camera’s aperture at the end of the mile and one-half of the 130th Belmont Stakes.

From the perspective of Real Quiet’s connections, it was probably the worst “bad beat” in racing history. A bob of a head. The time it takes to blink an eye. One centimeter. The difference between being a loser and having a pedestal erected in the pantheon of racing and, oh yes – a $5 million bonus offered by Visa to any horse who could sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Bad beat?

You bet.

From the announcer’s booth atop the grandstand, on busy days, you experience an almost palpable wall of sound emanating from the crowd when horses arrive at the top of the stretch. When the horses turn for home with a Triple Crown on the line, that wall becomes an avalanche of noise. It was there for Secretariat, and Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Silver Charm, Charismatic, Smarty Jones, and when Kent Desormeaux turned for home with Real Quiet four lengths in front, the sound was earsplitting.

Cleaving through that noise, just 220 yards from the wire, Real Quiet is in front and on the cusp of racing history, in front and just 12 seconds away from ending a 20-year drought and the crowd is on its feet hollering and screaming and whooping … and here comes Victory Gallop.

And 80,162 know it’s going to be close and their voices, as one, rise to an even greater crescendo as Desormeaux and Gary Stevens implore their mounts, trying to coax every final ounce of energy and courage, and they lunge at the line, necks straining, hoping to get the bob at that at that precise instant the photo finish camera snaps at the wire.

In the grandstand, all a racing fan can do is scream and from above, I say, “Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallop? A picture is worth a thousand words … this photo is worth $5 million!”

The photo sign goes up.

The wall of sound is now but an echo, replaced by the sussurus of murmuring drifting upwards. “Did he get there?” “Was it the eight?” “Was it the eleven?”  “I think Stevens got him.”

Then, on the infield board and monitors throughout the track, comes the replay of the stretch run, and there is the sound of silence that only 80,162 can make. Here comes the wire … the crowd howls … and you can’t tell. Another replay. The photo sign is still up. And yet another replay, this time in agonizingly slow motion from the eighth pole, Real Quiet in front, Victory Gallop charging hard, inexorably, and in a surreal tempo, in oh-so-slow motion … and it’s still too close to call.

The crowd erupts again as they hit the finish. The photo sign is still up. It’s been almost two minutes now. What if it’s a dead heat? In an instant, the photo sign vanishes. Victory Gallop has denied Real Quiet the crown and after a collective exhale, there are moans and cheers, disappointment for many but a thrill for all -- but where’s the official sign?

Inquiry.

And immediately, the stillness is rent as the anticipation of ending that 20-year hiatus is back in full cry. Now the replays start anew. First, the “pan” shot. Now the “head on” which reveals solid contact between Victory Gallop and Real Quiet, gasps and screams, but who hit whom? You can’t tell for sure. They show it once more, again in excruciatingly slow tempo.

Minutes pass, each feeling as if they are years long, the humming from the crowd a steady drone as all ponder the possibility of a Triple Crown via a disqualification.

The inquiry sign comes down.

Silence.

The official sign goes up.

It is not … Real Quiet.