About 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 Desormeaux.
"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 Crown."
Indeed, in the 1�-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� 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� 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� 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.