- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin. Charismatic suffered a career-ending injury. Real Quiet lost the photo. Silver Charm was blindsided.

Seven straight Triple Crown wannabes have seen the tiara snatched away in the Belmont Stakes since Affirmed swept the spring classics in 1978. War Emblem will try to join thoroughbred racing's 11 immortals in tomorrow's 134th Belmont Stakes, but "the Test of Champions" is no easy hurdle.

A few simple prerequisites have eliminated 17 pretenders since Cloverbrook won two legs in 1877. No low-level claimers like Charismatic need apply, no bad riders like Spectacular Bid's Ronnie Franklin, no dumb names like Alysheba.

"The Triple Crown is not an award," said War Emblem trainer Bob Baffert. "It is something that has to be earned, and that is why only 11 horses have done it."

Baffert understands the strict guidelines after losing in 1997 and '98 when his Silver Charm and Real Quiet finished second. Baffert gets his record third try in six years with War Emblem, who won the Kentucky Derby by four lengths and the Preakness Stakes by three-quarters of a length.

War Emblem was dominant in both races, yet his 10 Belmont opponents stands one shy of a record for starters opposing a Triple Crown seeker. Secretariat (1973) and Affirmed (1978) faced only four and Citation (1948) seven, but the $1million purse and streak of Triple Crown denials have made trainers more willing to enter.

"You gotta play the game every day to see what happens," two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito said. "Why did Real Quiet look like he was home free? Why did Silver Charm get beat?"

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas enters Proud Citizen after finishing second in the Derby and third in the Preakness. Lukas' Charismatic failed to gain the 1999 Triple Crown after sustaining a broken leg in the stretch. Lukas wears a watch featuring the Triple Crown champions, but he has discovered that becoming timeless can feel eternal.

"It's easy to be optimistic because you beat [them] twice, but there is something about that last bump in the road that's a little harder than the first two races," Lukas said. "You get a new surface, a new configuration of racetrack. There are a lot of things to overcome."

The 1½-mile race is America's longest major stakes and a throwback to 19th-century British racing. It encourages opposing trainers into hoping the Derby-Preakness winner is too tired to prevent a Gotham upset.

"In a 1½-mile race, when you turn for home with a quarter-mile to go, many legs turn to rubber," said Alydar trainer John Veitch, whose colt finished second to Affirmed in all three races.

Following Seattle Slew's death last month, racing lacks a living Triple Crown winner for the first time since Sir Barton became the first in 1919. The 24-year winless streak is also one short of the record before Secretariat's 1973 championship.

The reasons are varied but rarely dull. Some even seem revisionist history. Ultimately, the exclusive fraternity has rarely included an unworthy member.

Spectacular Bid (1979)

Seeking to become the third Triple Crown champion in three years and fourth during the 1970s the "Decade of Champions" the Maryland colt may have been the best ever to miss.

"The only two horses that would have given him a run when he was at his best were Secretariat and Citation," trainer Bud Delp said. "Bid's the fastest horse I've ever seen."

But his greatness seemingly ended 11 hours before the race, when Delp found Spectacular Bid lame in his stall. A safety pin from a leg bandage came undone and protruded a half-inch into the hoof. Delp conceded that the prospect of the Triple Crown caused him to race the colt when he otherwise would have been withdrawn.

Spectacular Bid gave it a spectacular try, surging to a three-length lead at the top of the stretch when Franklin prematurely urged him before fading to third. Franklin was replaced by Bill Shoemaker afterward.

"If Shoemaker had been on him in the Belmont, Spectacular Bid would have won the Triple Crown," Delp said. "I should have scratched him. He never changed leads. He always changed leads like a piston."

Pleasant Colony (1981)

Pleasant Colony liked to "come from the clouds." He rallied from 17th to win the Derby and eighth to take the Preakness.

But Pleasant Colony simply couldn't catch Summing in the Belmont. He moved from 11th to third with a quarter-mile remaining before finishing nearly two lengths behind Summing and Highland Blade. Summing also beat Pleasant Colony the previous year in their only other meeting.

The loss wasn't surprising. Pleasant Colony sweated profusely in the post parade and twice refused to enter the starting gate. Trainer John "Fat Man" Campo had trained him hard, but the colt didn't seem interested for the first mile before suddenly passing five rivals. The wisecracking Campo gained humility in defeat.

"They don't want to beat the horse. They want to beat the 'Fat Man,'" Campo said.

Alysheba (1987)

There are days when jockey Chris McCarron can swallow the bitter regret and admit he blew the Belmont. Just not every day.

Alysheba was a 4-5 favorite after running down Bet Twice in the Derby and Preakness stretches. The longer Belmont seemed perfect for the sudden wonderhorse who was winless as a 3-year-old and had one career victory before the Triple Crown. However, McCarron misjudged the early pace and was parked outside for little room. Bet Twice ran off for a 14-length victory, while Alysheba's fourth was the worst finish among the last seven Triple Crown aspirants.

"The feeling is crushing. I have never been more confident in a race than with Alysheba," McCarron said in 1999. "I thought he was a mortal lock in the Belmont. I haven't gotten over it yet."

Bet Twice later beat Alysheba twice, but Alysheba went on to win seven races in 1988 and Horse of the Year honors.

Sunday Silence (1989)

The mean-tempered colt nearly killed trainer Charlie Whittingham on the eve of the Belmont. Sunday Silence kicked Whittingham during a morning walk leaving a large bandage swathing the "Bald Eagle's" head.

Ultimately, though, it was Sunday Silence who suffered a knockout. Easy Goer avenged a loss by a nose in the Preakness, later called "the Race of the Decade," with a decisive eight-length victory over the 9-10 favorite. The son of Alydar avoided his sire's fate of three runner-up finishes by beating his nemesis, but Sunday Silence later took the Breeders' Cup rematch and Horse of the Year.

Easy Goer was 10-0 at New York tracks. Not even some California flash and his Hall of Fame trainer could beat Easy Goer at home.

Silver Charm (1997)

Silver Charm never saw defeat coming. After fending off Free House in the stretch for an apparent victory, Silver Charm relaxed slightly less than 50 yards from the finish line. The talented colt slacked off whenever leading, and it was his undoing.

Touch Gold would have won the Preakness if he hadn't nearly fallen out of the starting gate. The colt's impressive late run in a 1½-length loss caused nearly one-third of Belmont bettors to back him. Sure enough, McCarron used Free House as a shield so Silver Charm couldn't dig in to stymie Touch Gold's charge for a three-fourths length victory.

"If Silver Charm had been able to see Touch Gold, I think he would have been able to beat him," jockey Gary Stevens said. "I had a lump in my stomach that we were going to win the Triple Crown, but then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a shadow. Silver Charm didn't see [Touch Gold] until 10 jumps from the wire and then it was too late to get a full head of steam. A 1,200-pound horse is like a locomotive. He just can't start and stop it takes four or five strides to get going again. I'm not going to be able to motivate him or whisper in his ear, 'Hey, pal, get going again.'"

Real Quiet (1998)

Nicknamed "the Fish" for his crooked conformation that brought only a $17,000 price at a yearling sale, Real Quiet lost twice in New Mexico even farther from the Belmont in prestige than geography.

The renowned "gods of racing" prevented a phony like Real Quiet from joining the immortals, but it took the only Belmont photo finish among Triple Crown seekers. Victory Gallop avenged Derby and Preakness runner-up finishes with a nose decision.

"I could see the headline 'Fish does it!'" Baffert said. "Photos can be cruel. When something like this happens, there's nothing else you can do but take your butt-kicking and go home. It was there and we had it, but what can you do? You can't rerun the race."

Real Quiet led by four lengths in the stretch before Victory Gallop rallied from 10th. Jockey Kent Desormeaux cocked Real Quiet's head outside so the colt could see his challenger, but it only made Real Quiet bear out and slightly bump while passing Victory Gallop. Stewards later said it would have brought Real Quiet's disqualification if he had won.

"It's not about beating Bob Baffert. It's about trying to win races," said Victory Gallop trainer Elliott Walden. "I don't have any sympathy for him."

Charismatic (1999)

"The Curse of the Nines" claimed Charismatic. Derby-Preakness winners Majestic Prince (1969), Spectacular Bid (1979) and Sunday Silence (1989) also failed to win the Belmont.

The former $60,000 claimer won the Derby at 31-1 and the Preakness at 8-1. However, the Belmont-record 85,818 had seen enough to make Charismatic the 8-5 favorite. Those powerful late moves in the Derby and Preakness seemed tailored to the long Belmont stretch.

Instead, it was a road to retirement. Charismatic suffered two leg fractures while finishing third. Jockey Chris Antley jumped from the slumping colt to halt Charismatic before the injuries became life-threatening.

Antley saved the life of Secretariat's great-grandson with his quick thinking. Sadly, Antley died of a drug overdose 18 months later.

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