ELMONT, N.Y. -- In one of the most crushing defeats in Triple Crown history, Real Quiet lost his bid for immortality yesterday in an excruciating photo finish in the 130th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
Victory Gallop, flying down the stretch before a delirious crowd of 80,162 -- the second-largest at Belmont Park -- nipped Real Quiet by the narrowest of margins after a rough and dramatic stretch duel. The nose defeat derailed Real Quiet's quest to become the Triple Crown's 12th winner.
None of the 13 previous winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness who contested the Belmont lost the coveted crown by so little.
"I sort of had that feeling for a little bit," said Bob Baffert, Real Quiet's trainer, of winning a Triple Crown. "Everyone around me said, 'You got the money!' But I didn't swallow it. I wasn't sure."
Baffert understood the agony of defeat on the verge of such great triumph. Last year, his Silver Charm nearly won the Triple Crown, losing the Belmont by less than a length.
Yesterday, Real Quiet, the 4-5 favorite, looked like a certain winner with a mere eighth-mile left of the 1 1/2 -mile race. He led Victory Gallop, the 9-2 challenger, by four lengths.
Although Victory Gallop, runner-up to Real Quiet in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, gained with every stride, it appeared that Real Quiet, tiring with every stride, would persevere.
But with a sixteenth-mile to go, Real Quiet's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, peeked under his right arm.
"That's when I thought I might be in trouble," Desormeaux said. "I wanted to see if anybody was coming because my momentum was changing. He was starting to slow down, and I was afraid if there was someone aiming at a target and trying to catch it, they just might do it."
Victory Gallop was coming, and his jockey, Gary Stevens -- who lost last year aboard Silver Charm -- was aiming for Real Quiet.
So Desormeaux, sensing that Real Quiet was lackadaisical on the lead, pulled his right rein so that Real Quiet, on the rail, would look to his right and see Victory Gallop on the outside.
"But I pulled his head out a little too hard," Desormeaux said, "and he moved out a path or two."
Real Quiet crossed in front of Victory Gallop, and then, as they neared the wire, bumped him once, and then again. Both horses surged ahead, straining every muscle and calling on reserves of grit. They passed under the wire a blur, side-by-side, inches apart, seemingly inseparable.
But the photo finish separated them -- by Victory Gallop's nose.
"I wasn't sure if we'd gotten up or not," Stevens said. "But in the closing strides Real Quiet shifted out pretty drastically and made some serious contact with us. It more or less stopped my colt."
Stevens said he would have filed an objection. But the stewards beat him to it. Their inquiry sign flashed upon the toteboard.
They concluded that Victory Gallop did nothing wrong. He remained the winner. But later, in a written statement, they said they probably would have disqualified Real Quiet if he had won.
"I'm glad he got beat then," Baffert said when hearing that. "That would have been worse. I'd be throwing chairs."
For Elliott Walden, the trainer of Victory Gallop, the victory validated his theory that his colt was best in the Derby -- losing because of a wide trip -- before losing fair and square in the Preakness. In his mind, the Belmont would break this perceived one-one split.
But post-Preakness fatigue and a skin rash hindered Victory Gallop, and then Walden broke his ankle playing basketball. He hobbled around on crutches yesterday, smiling like Michael Jordan.
"It's a great feeling," Walden said of his biggest victory. "This is what we get up for every day.
"After the Derby we thought the race we'd have the best chance in was the Belmont. This horse is suited to the mile and a half. He's very tenacious. He finds room, which the good horses do. He's a fighter."
Walden took over training the colt last fall when Art, J. R. and Jack Preston -- they own Prestonwood Farm in Texas -- bought him privately. The Pimlico-based Mary Eppler developed Victory Gallop as a 2-year-old.
The plan for the Belmont, Walden and Stevens said, was to let Real Quiet unleash his torrid run, which he did around the far turn, and then run him down in the stretch.
"It was very, very difficult to hit the three-eighths pole and see Real Quiet opening up on me and not move, not hit the button," Stevens said, "Real Quiet was winning the race with authority coming into the eighth pole.
"That's when we started to get wound up. We split horses and saw daylight, and my colt just threw me back in the saddle."
That's when Baffert's heart began to sink.
"It's another letdown," the white-haired trainer said. "But we got to cheer all the way to the wire. Last year I knew we were beat 50 yards out."