Denying Triple Crown history leaves jockeys with bittersweet memories
JUN 02, 2014 9:00a ET
For weeks now, horse racing fans have dreamed of what it would be like to see California Chrome win the Belmont Stakes and secure the sport’s 12th Triple Crown and first in 36 years. The stark reality Chrome and trainer Art Sherman face as they make their final preparations for Saturday’s race is that history says it probably won’t happen.
Thoroughbred racing lore is dotted with many instances of rotten luck, as more horses and riders have had their hopes for a Triple Crown derailed at Belmont than not. Since 1944, 19 winners of both the Derby and Preakness have started the menacing mile and a half oval only to come up short in one of the sport’s toughest tests — with some coming much closer than others to actually claiming racing’s ultimate prize.
If you think it’s tough having the lasting reverie of a place among horse racing legends evaporate before your eyes in a cloud of Belmont sand, try being the rider who denies a horse a place among the sport’s haut monde.
One might think there would be a certain thrill for an opposing jockey in becoming a blockade to history, much like the San Antonio Spurs would savor the opportunity to prevent a third straight Miami Heat championship in the ongoing NBA playoffs.
“... to hear riders describe it, the incalculable joy that comes with winning the Belmont often wears off quickly when a Triple Crown bid is thwarted in the process.”
The thoroughbred community is a different world, though, and to hear riders describe it, the incalculable joy that comes with winning the Belmont often wears off quickly when a Triple Crown bid is thwarted in the process.
“It is bittersweet,” said retired jockey Chris McCarron, who rode Touch Gold to victory in the 1997 Belmont, ending Silver Charm’s quest for a Triple Crown. “In the moment, I was thrilled to win my second Belmont, but in the aftermath, it was sort of — I was feeling melancholy. I was feeling like the racing game really could have used another Triple Crown winner to get all that great exposure.”
The conundrum for jockeys lies in the balance between wanting to witness history and see what’s best for a struggling sport while also trying to ride their best race and earn themselves the heftiest possible paycheck.
“Unfortunately, jockeys get paid for winning the race,” said Edgar Prado, who partnered with Sarava to end Victor Espinoza and War Emblem’s run in 2002, then rode Birdstone past Triple Crown hopeful Smarty Jones in 2004. “We don’t have a salary, so we have to go out there and do our job, and our job is to win. As much as we like to root for a Triple Crown because our industry needs it, we have to do our job.
“Everybody wants to see a champion in our sport. It’s been so long, and most of the jockeys, we ride and we love horses, and we’re definitely rooting for a horse to become an idol. But at the same time, we have to win for the people who give us a horse to ride.”
Arguably the most memorable Triple Crown spoiler of all time was Victory Gallop, a closer who made a late charge during the final 1/16th in 1998 to beat 4-5 betting favorite Real Quiet by inches. A memorable photo finish lives on to show how close the horses were as they came down to the wire. For Victory Gallop’s rider, Gary Stevens, there was far less delight than you’d expect in the come-from-behind win — especially considering what might have happened next had his horse not won based on the photo.
“I thought I had (won), but I wasn’t sure — it was that close that I couldn’t be certain,” Stevens said. “There had been contact made between the two of us just a couple strides before the finish, though, and when I pulled up, I went to one of the outriders that had a walkie-talkie up to the stewards, and I told him that if I didn’t win the photo, then I wanted to claim foul against Real Quiet.
“I was praying that I beat him fair and square and I wasn’t going to win it through the stewards’ box because I really think they probably would have disqualified Real Quiet that day, and those New Yorkers might have burned down Belmont Park.”
Once the result was revealed, Stevens said he felt particularly empathetic toward Real Quiet’s rider, Kent Desormeaux, because it was Stevens who was aboard Silver Charm the year before in that Belmont loss to Touch Gold.
“I knew what it was like to have a feeling like you were going to make history,” Stevens said. “It’s just a big blow and you always go back and think what you could have done different, and you beat yourself up and take blame for it, and I knew Kent didn’t feel any different than I did (when I lost the Belmont).”
In ‘97, Stevens and Silver Charm had passed Touch Gold along the backstretch and engaged with Free House, who had beaten Silver Charm in the Santa Anita Derby and gone head-to-head with him in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But around the 1/8th pole, Free House started to fade, leaving Silver Charm in what Stevens called “no-man’s land.”
“I was positive we were going to win, and the feeling was unbelievable, and all of a sudden I saw this shadow out in the middle of the race track,” Stevens said. “At Belmont, at that time of the day, the sun is going down behind you, and the horses’ shadows actually pass you before the horse does.”
That umbra was coming from Touch Gold, and his positioning, toward the center of the track rather than right alongside Silver Charm, was by design.
“Silver Charm was a very dogged fighter; if you looked him in the eye, he was really difficult to get by,” McCarron said. “So I had it in my head before the race that if that opportunity presented itself, I was going to try to get out way away from him so it would minimize the chance that he would be able to look my horse in the eye and fight him off. And fortunately for me, it worked out that way.”
Added Stevens: “My horse was kind of loafing on the lead, and he went by us a couple strides from the wire and beat us by about a half a length. I went from having the best feeling in the world for about eight seconds to feeling like the world had caved in on top of us. It was a horrible feeling, and I went into a pretty good depression for quite a while afterward.”
“I went from having the best feeling in the world for about eight seconds to feeling like the world had caved in on top of us.”
Like Stevens, Jose Santos also knows both the emotional trauma of losing a Triple Crown on the third leg and the wistful feeling that comes with stymieing someone else’s run toward glory at Belmont.
In 1999, Santos guided Lemon Drop Kid to victory over Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic, who injured his leg late in the race, and in 2003, Santos was aboard Funny Cide when he finished third behind Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted on a sloppy Belmont track after leading the race with less than a half-mile to go.
“I’ve been on both sides of the coin, and believe me, I felt really, really bad when I beat Charismatic with Lemon Drop Kid because it had been so long without a Triple Crown and I spoiled one,” Santos said. “... And (in 2003) I was right there and I was thinking about (Charismatic jockey) Chris (Antley), because right then, I knew what he was feeling — the pain he was feeling. I mean, it’s a dream for a jockey or a trainer just to win the Kentucky Derby, nevermind a Triple Crown.”
Adding to the pressure, also, are the fans in attendance at Belmont — perhaps the only people more eager than the jockeys to see a Triple Crown won in person. Stevens said he was pelted with boos after beating Real Quiet, and Prado said he could sense how crushed the crowd was the second he took the lead in 2004.
“There were 120,000 people there that day, and I bet 119,000 of them were rooting for Smarty Jones,” Prado said. “It was very loud, a lot of noise going down the stretch. I could hear everything, people screaming, but as I got closer and closer, and then when I went by Smarty Jones, it was totally silent. It was this strange feeling, this weird feeling, and I could tell the difference that one horse was making in people’s lives.”
The heartbreak is all part of the allure of the Triple Crown, however, and without it, the joy of winning one wouldn’t be so sweet. And though every rider in Saturday’s Belmont would be happy to see California Chrome join the ranks of the legends — and break the 36-year curse — there’s not a single one of them looking to just let him do it.
“We’re almost like gunfighters back in the Wild West,” Stevens said. “I was sitting with Mike Smith in the locker room here at Santa Anita when California Chrome was running in the Preakness, and with him being a local horse and Victor being a home-team jock, this whole locker room was rooting for California Chrome. But as soon as they crossed the finish line, Mike stood up and smiled at me and said, ‘Now we’ve got to go try to be the spoilers.’ ”
Smith will be aboard Matuszak in Saturday’s race, and though Stevens isn’t currently scheduled to take part in the big one — Candy Boy’s owners decided to save him for the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Derby on July 5, and Intense Holiday was injured during training — he says he’ll have no problem trying to wreak havoc on another Triple Crown bid if he gets the chance.
“I’ve got four other mounts on the day, and if I don’t ride the Belmont, I’ll be just fine with it; I’ll be sitting in the locker room rooting for him, and I hope he pulls it off,” Stevens said. “But if I do pick something up last-moment, then I’ve got to go out and try to beat him because that’s what I get paid to do. It’s kind of a crazy world.”