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Real Close Real Quiet (far right) lost his bid for the Triple Crown by a nose to Victory Gallop in the most riveting Belmont Stakes in 20 years

A bout 110 yards from the top of the final straight at Belmont
Park, leading by half a length and thinking that he still had
the chance to pull off one of the wildest upsets in racing
history on his 86-1 shot, Chilito, jockey Robbie Davis glanced
to his right and had to laugh at himself because of what he saw.
There, just outside of him with 550 yards to go in the Belmont
Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Real Quiet, was
moving to the lead with effortless grace under rider Kent

"I was like, Oh, my god! I thought I had a shot until I saw him,
and he was just gallopin'!" Davis said. "He had his ears pricked
straight in the air. Kent just tapped him, and he took off. I
thought, That's the Triple Crown winner!"

Away the two went, Desormeaux and the bay leading by widening
daylight as they rushed through the upper stretch, opening one
length, then two, three, four. Desormeaux sensed that he was
rocking to the ineluctable rhythms of history, home free on the
back of the first Triple Crown winner in 20 years, only the 12th
in the annals of the sport. Up in the clubhouse box seats the
colt's trainer, Bob Baffert, saw the move and sensed the hour of
his greatest triumph in the game. Just a year before, after
winning the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm, Baffert had
watched it all unravel at Belmont Park at the close of a long,
hard-fought stretch duel in which Touch Gold came charging on
the outside to beat his horse by three quarters of a length.
This was going to be different. Real Quiet was far in front and
lengthening his lead. "When he turned for home on the lead, I
wanted to cry," Baffert said.

As they dashed around the turn and through the upper stretch,
jockey Gary Stevens on Victory Gallop, at least 10 lengths
behind, figured that he had no chance. "I thought that Real
Quiet had an insurmountable lead," Stevens says. "I straighted
out in the stretch and thought, There's no way."

In the weeks leading up to the Belmont, handicappers had
searched fervently for the horse who might upset Real Quiet in
his quest to join the most exclusive pantheon of the sport. A
$17,000 yearling with an unfashionable pedigree, a crooked front
end and a narrow frame, Real Quiet offended breeders and
purists, while his uninspired running times and one-run style
offended other guardians of racing greatness. Yet, undeniably,
he had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, showing
durability and toughness under fire. As players looked for a
horse to beat him, the colt with the most solid shot was Victory
Gallop--a smallish bay who had finished second in the Derby and
the Preakness and who had the playful habit, around the barn, of
sticking out his tongue so his accommodating handlers could tug
on it. "Victory Gallop is the horse we have to beat," Baffert
said before the race. "If we can beat him, we'll win the Triple

Indeed, in the 1 1/4-mile Derby on May 2, Victory Gallop nearly
ran his rival down at the wire, falling half a length short
after being shuffled back and traveling wide around two turns.
His trainer, Elliott Walden, left Churchill Downs convinced that
his colt was the better horse that day. "This might be pie in
the sky," Walden said before the Belmont, "but I still think we
should have won the Derby." Two weeks later, in the 1 3/16-mile
Preakness, Real Quiet left his foil reeling at the eighth pole
as he raced off to win it by 2 1/4 lengths. "We didn't have any
excuses," said Walden. "He beat us soundly."

By then, the two colts had become racing's newest rivalry, and
the only question on the eve of the Belmont--at 1 1/2 miles, the
longest and most testing of the Triple Crown races--was how much
they had remaining in their tanks. The Preakness, run in 92
[degree] heat, had left Real Quiet so strung out that he did not
train for seven of the first eight days after the race. Victory
Gallop, just as weary, suffered a skin rash that came and went,
threatening to compromise his chances. Walden himself went on
the shelf less than two weeks after the Preakness: In a pickup
basketball game he broke his right ankle so badly that it
required a metal plate and seven screws to hold the pieces
together and left the trainer on crutches.

The two colts came back just in time, blossoming in their final
week of training in New York. While Walden hedged in talking
about Victory Gallop's Belmont prospects--"I'm a little less
confident this time," he said--his colt had the pedigree of a
12-furlong horse while Baffert's did not. Yet no one appeared
more certain of victory than Baffert. Real Quiet stood to earn a
$5 million bonus if he swept the Triple Crown. "He's ready to do
it," Baffert said. "He's put on probably 40 pounds since the
Preakness. You never know at a mile and a half, but I think
he'll win."

The second largest crowd in Belmont history, 80,162 (the largest
was in 1971, when Canonero II was trying in vain to wrap up a
Triple Crown), gathered cheek-by-jowl in the giant clubhouse and
grandstand last Saturday, and most of them agreed with Baffert,
sending Real Quiet off as the 4-5 favorite and Victory Gallop as
the second choice at 9-2. As the 11 horses swept off that final
bend, with Real Quiet moving on the outside, Davis heard a roar
from the crowd that he had never heard before: "It was like they
lifted you off the ground, it was so loud." It grew louder as
Real Quiet drove through mid-stretch and began to weaken.
Stevens had timed his run perfectly, but as he raced to the
eighth pole, now four lengths behind, he still did not think
Victory Gallop could catch the leader until, suddenly, he said,
"My horse started firing on all cylinders." Then, as Real Quiet
came to the 1/16 pole, 110 yards from the wire, something else
caught Stevens's attention.

"All of a sudden, it looked like a drunk person up in front of
me trying to stagger home after last call," he said. "I said to
myself, I got him!" Stevens began whipping righthanded--once,
twice, three times--and he cut quickly into Real Quiet's lead,
whittling it to less than a length. Tiring badly, Real Quiet
drifted out, in front of Victory Gallop, causing him to hesitate
before he came on again with Stevens still whipping righthanded.
Victory Gallop shaved the lead to half a length and then a neck.
Real Quiet drifted out again and bumped him, but Stevens kept
his mount charging. He was now a head away. The rafters were
rattling as the two colts, nose and nose, heads bobbing, swept
under the wire as one.

The whole place went limp. It was too close to call. The
photo-finish sign lit up, along with the inquiry sign. (Because
of the bumping, there was a possibility that Real Quiet would be
disqualified if the photo proved that he had hit the wire
first.) Trainer D. Wayne Lukas turned to Baffert and said, 'You
got it!'" A few box seats away, trainer Neil Howard shouted in
Walden's ear, "You beat him at the wire!"

Baffert stood frozen. Walden began his slow, awkward limp on
crutches down the aisle, muttering, "I don't know, I don't
know." A crutch slipped, and he nearly tumbled down the
staircase leading to the track before his wife, Rebecca, grabbed
him. As he hobbled toward the track, the order of finish flashed
on the board and a final, groaning roar went up around him. The
crowds had come to witness the triumph of a Triple Crown
champion, but all they saw in the end was a photo showing
Victory Gallop winning by a nose in the last bob of his head. Or
was that his tongue sticking out?

The scene was reminiscent of the aftermath of last year's
Belmont, with one twist. Stevens rode Silver Charm in his failed
attempt to win the Triple Crown for Baffert in '97, and now here
he was riding brilliantly to deny Baffert in his second chance
to win it all. Stevens was the most subdued Belmont winner in
memory. Better than anyone he could understand the pain in
Desormeaux's visage and voice as he tried to explain the loss.
"I saw the look on Kent's face and know the feeling," said
Stevens. "It's heartbreaking."

As heartbreaking as that final bob of the head, in this
otherwise perfectly scripted Triple Crown, was for so many of
the thousands who were watching.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES [Victory Gallop and Real Quiet in race]

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Clear sailing? Desormeaux (8), not Stevens (in green and red), hit the stretch sitting pretty. [Horses and jockeys in Belmont Stakes race]

"When he turned for home on the lead," says Baffert, "I wanted
to cry."