In the past 31 years, no one has come closer to winning the Triple Crown than Bob Baffert.
His dream of winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes with Real Quiet in 1998 turned into a nightmare when the cut-rate colt that cost only $17,000 lost the final jewel in the Triple Crown by a desperate nose to Victory Gallop, after holding what looked like an insurmountable lead an eighth of a mile from home.
No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. No horse will ever flirt with destiny more than Real Quiet, whose rider was Kent Desormeaux, the Hall of Fame jockey who won the Belmont aboard 11-1 shot Summer Bird on June 6.
Desormeaux, who was widely criticized after his defeat on Real Quiet ("he moved too soon," etc.), also was universally vilified after easing odds-on favorite Big Brown across the finish line in the 2008 Belmont in pursuit of the elusive Triple Crown. One could assume that Baffert has replayed Real Quiet’s crushing defeat countless times, if not on film, then certainly in his mind. But the 56-year-old trainer, recently elected to racing’s Hall of Fame, long ago absolved Desormeaux for the loss, just as Baffert readily exonerated Mine That Bird’s jockey Calvin Borel for his third-place finish on the 6-5 favorite in this year’s Belmont.
"Everybody’s looking for someone to beat down," said Baffert, who also won the first two legs of the Triple Crown with War Emblem in 2002, and who saddled Pioneerof the Nile to a second-place finish behind victorious Mine That Bird in this year’s Derby. "Mine That Bird made his move in the Belmont; he was right there," Baffert continued. "Dunkirk (who edged Mine That Bird by a neck for second after setting most of the pace in the mile and a half classic), kept going. He did all the running.
"But the Belmont is the race that gets to them. I told (Mine That Bird’s trainer) Chip Woolley the day before the Preakness that it’s the easiest of the three races to win. The Belmont is the toughest. You don’t realize how much the first two races take out of your horse. Then about two weeks later, you see the toll.
"You always think the third one’s going to be the easiest, but it doesn’t work that way, especially when you’ve run two hard races. It’s tough on them, and every horse is different. You don’t know how they’re going to react to it. There were nice horses in the Belmont, and Mine That Bird got beat by a fresh horse (Summer Bird, who rallied for sixth in the Derby at 43-1, did not run in the Preakness)."
In past Triple Crown pursuits, allegations were cast that jockeys on lesser-regarded horses conspired to get the favorite beat, even at the cost of diminishing their chances of victory. That didn’t happen to Mine That Bird, although critics castigated Borel for his early run.
"The other riders didn’t take a shot at him," Baffert said. "He was in a good spot and made his move. If he had won, they’d have said it was good that Borel made the early move and put everybody away. If Real Quiet would have won, they would have said it was a great move by Desormeaux to steal away and win it. Mine That Bird just got tired, and that’s why he lost."
Desormeaux employed the same strategy on Real Quiet in winning the Derby and the Preakness as he did in the Belmont, taking the lead near the three-eighths pole, opening up, and rolling to the wire. Except he didn’t quite last in the Belmont.
"You know what? It just wasn’t meant to be, that’s the way I look at it," Baffert said. "When it’s over, it’s over and I told Chip, ‘You’re going to be emotionally and physically drained, and you’ll be glad it’s over.’ He was having dinner after the Belmont, and I read where halfway through the meal he said, ‘I’ve got to go to bed.’ The adrenalin drains out of your body and you’re done."
Pioneerof the Nile, however, is not done. The Santa Anita Derby winner has the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Oak Tree on Nov. 7 as his long-range goal.
"Pioneer looks fantastic," Baffert said. He’s back in California. He just didn’t run his race in the Preakness (finishing 11th in a field of 13). I was really puzzled, but I think it was a combination of running hard in the Derby and coming back in two weeks. I sort of gave bad instructions, too. I thought he’d be up closer if he (jockey Garrett Gomez) dragged him up there, but when I talked to Garrett after the race, he said, ‘The horse wanted to fall back. I probably should have let him.’
"He would have finished well. It was just one of those things. We’re still learning about the horse. He’s still immature, but right now, he’s healthy and looks really great. I’m looking forward to the Breeders’ Cup."
• Word has it that one possible buyer for bankrupt Santa Anita is the TOC (Thoroughbred Owners of California).
• Trainer Gary Stute is considering the $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 27 or the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth on Aug. 3 for Papa Clem, who ran fourth in the Kentucky Derby.
• When Jimmy Rollins walked in the Phillies’ 8-7 loss to Toronto on June 18, it was his first free pass since May 27, a span of three weeks. The 2007 National League MVP had gone 87 plate appearances without a walk and it was only his 13th of the season. No wonder he’s been in and out of the lead off spot. On a horrendous 1-8 home stand that last ended Sunday, the Phils were in one of their signature free falls. So much for interim closer Ryan Madson, who blew a 5-3 lead in the ninth inning against Baltimore, losing the game, 6-5, on a two-out homer. Bring back Mitch Williams.
• Bethpage Black: Isn’t that a girl I went to high school with?
• I made a losing bet at the track the other day, but got my money back. I went to the clerk and blamed it on Bush.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden