Mike Pegram could I hardly fathom what he was seeing. It was 20 minutes to post time for the Preakness Stakes, and Pegram, owner of the Kentucky Derby winner, Real Quiet, was standing about 10 feet from where the colt was walking in circles in the saddling area on the Pimlico turf course, his bright bay coat gleaming in the late-afternoon light. Pegram glanced at the tote board on the infield behind him and saw the odds flashing. They showed Victory Gallop as the 9-5 favorite and Cape Town as the second choice, at 5-2.
"I can't believe my horse is the third choice, at 3-1!" Pegram said. "And that's after I emptied my pockets [betting] on him. I bet so much that I probably dropped his odds at least a point. I love it."
In the end no one loved last Saturday's Preakness more than this husky good old boy from Indiana who made millions in the fast-food business in Washington State. At 5:31 p.m., as Real Quiet charged to a stunning 2�-length victory, Pegram found himself in possession not just of a fistful of winning tickets but also of a colt so dominant at Pimlico, so much the best of any 3-year-old in the land, that he instantly became the favorite to win the June 6 Belmont Stakes and become the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history and the first in 20 years, after Affirmed in 1978.
By the time the gates popped open, the public had made Real Quiet the second choice, at 5-2, but he ran like a horse who was 2-5. The colt turned in a magnificent performance, overcoming a seemingly disastrous trip in which he lost at least five lengths racing wide around both turns but still had enough left to kick into another gear for the final rush to the wire.
For Bob Baffert, it was d�j� vu all over again as he became the first trainer to win the Derby and the Preakness in consecutive years. He won them last year with Silver Charm, only to finish second in the Belmont. But it was Real Quiet who had the horsemen reaching for superlatives. "Awesome," said Patrick Byrne, trainer of fifth-place finisher Black Cash. "Better than his Derby victory." At the stakes barn, near a fence on which the names of all Triple Crown winners are painted on strips of wood, Tom Amoss, the conditioner of fourth-place finisher Hot Wells, said of Real Quiet, "They'll soon be painting his name here on a Triple Crown plaque."
Nothing would have seemed more improbable nine months ago. After Baffert purchased Real Quiet at a yearling sale in September 1996, he told his old friend Pegram that he had just bought him a nice colt at a fire-sale price: $17,000. "What's he got, cancer?" Pegram asked. No, but he did have a mild case of the slows. Last August, after the colt was beaten in his first three starts, at Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park, Baffert banished him briefly to a now-defunct little gulag in New Mexico called The Downs at Santa Fe—and he couldn't even win there. Twice he finished third. "In New Mexico today," Baffert said after the Preakness, "there are a lot of trainers saying, 'Bring him here; we'll kick your ass!' "
The colt did not get his first victory until his seventh start, last Oct. 18 at Santa Anita, where he won a maiden race by three. Suddenly he had found his racing shoes. He joined Baffert's first string of 2-year-olds when he won the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 14. "He just got better and better all winter," Baffert said. When Real Quiet finished a fast-closing second to his more highly regarded stablemate, Indian Charlie, in the April 4 Santa Anita Derby—on a track over which no other horse closed ground—he earned his way to Churchill Downs and, ultimately, a place in racing lore when he held off Victory Gallop's late charge to win the roses.
America had a genuine blue-collar horse: a cool, unflappable dude with a long, rhythmic stride, a stirring gust of speed and an appetite for work and racing that suggested a throwback to the days when thoroughbreds were a hearty breed that flourished under pressure. Before the Derby, two major contenders—Event of the Year and Lil's Lad—were lost to injuries, and on the way to Pimlico three more went out: Halory Hunter (fourth in the Derby), Indian Charlie and Coronado's Quest. But Real Quiet blossomed after his Derby score and worked like the wind off Chesapeake Bay. "It's amazing, but this horse is just peaking right now," Baffert said four days before the Preakness. "He's doing better than he was before the Derby. But he's got to get the trip and he's got to get lucky."
He got neither. Real Quiet drew the difficult outside post, number 11, and what Baffert feared most was that he would be parked too wide on the first turn. Sure enough, Real Quiet was four wide as the horses charged into the first bend, in eighth place, nearly six lengths behind the leader. "I was dumbfounded," says jockey Kent Desormeaux, "in awe that the horses were so far in front of me."
Victory Gallop, with Gary Stevens on him, was inside Real Quiet and keeping him out as they swept into the backstretch. Desormeaux felt his horse begin to reach out, picking up speed and moving past Stevens. "I yanked the bit back in his mouth," Desormeaux said later, "and told him, 'No, buddy! Not yet.' " They were five wide going down the backside, nine lengths off the lead, when Desormeaux saw Victory Gallop pass him on the left: "I said, "There's the horse to beat, Real Quiet, and it's time to go.' "