Real Quiet brings down `House'

Wins Special by neck

game runner-up hurt

May 09, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

One was a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, the other a gritty survivor of the Triple Crown wars. And when they squared off yesterday at the head of Pimlico's stretch, it was magic.

Real Quiet and Free House. Free House and Real Quiet. They battled side-by-side from the final turn to the wire in the prestigious Pimlico Special until, finally, in the last strides, Real Quiet pulled ahead for a game and thrilling victory by a neck.

But the fight, demanding to the end, claimed a victim. After producing a urine specimen for routine drug testing, Free House couldn't walk back to his barn. He had to be transported in a horse ambulance.

John Toffan, one of his owners, said Free House, standing in his stall munching hay, could not put weight on his left hind leg. A veterinarian X-rayed the ankle and found no break, Toffan said.

"So maybe it's a deep muscle pull," Toffan said. "It takes time, but they come back from those."

He said Free House would be evaluated overnight and again this morning. Composed but concerned, he said: "It's too soon to have this happen."

Five years old, the light gray Free House is perhaps the most beloved horse in training. He is ranked No. 1 among North American race horses, but is admired especially for trying so hard with flare.

His eyes dart constantly, peering at cameras, airplanes, horses. He seems playfully intrigued with the world around him. But when a horse looms alongside during a race, he fights like a grizzly.

By the time his injury was discovered, his jockey Chris McCarron had left the track. But Toffan reported that McCarron had found it strange that Free House, early in the race, did not zip past Fred Bear Claw, who led for three-quarters of a mile. Perhaps, Toffan theorized, Free House strained himself at the break.

If so, his surrender at the end of the grueling 1 3/16-mile race was understandable. But he gave Real Quiet all he could handle.

"I was hoping to put away Free House when I came up next to him," said Gary Stevens, Real Quiet's jockey. "But Free House is tough. I've been in battles with him before."

Stevens rides Silver Charm, Free House's nemesis from the 1997 Triple Crown series. But in 1998 and early this year, Free House developed into perhaps the top older horse in the country -- despite never having won outside his native California.

Free House was the 3-5 favorite in the Pimlico Special, a Grade I race worth $500,000. Real Quiet was 9-5. Although Real Quiet won last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he had lost both races this year after a nine-month layoff.

In this field of five, those two were the stars.

Free House tracked the pace-setter Fred Bear Claw into the far turn, and Real Quiet tracked them both, just a couple of lengths back. Around the turn, Free House and Real Quiet accelerated. They hooked up at the head of the stretch.

"From the eighth pole to just inside the last 50 yards," Stevens said, "we were swapping the lead back and forth."

Said McCarron: "I never had a lack of confidence that the other horse was going to outfinish us until, say, 50 yards from the wire. Then I hit Free House four or five more times, hoping he had a little more energy left. But I don't think he did.

"It was good horse race. I hope it was exciting for everybody."

Concluded Bob Baffert, Real Quiet's trainer: "That stretch duel, what a horse race. That was a classic."

Baffert credited Stevens with a "brilliant ride" of patience and timing. Stevens said he moved on Real Quiet too early in his last race, the Texas Mile at Lone Star Park. That was the first time Stevens had ridden him.

"From watching all his past races and riding him last time," Stevens said, "I felt that when he makes the lead he thinks his job's over with. He doesn't try anymore. So I didn't want to move him until the eighth pole. I wanted him to have a target.

The strategy worked. And Real Quiet won for the first time since devouring his opposition a year ago in the Preakness.

His time of 1 minute 54 1/5 seconds was two-fifths of a second faster than his Preakness clocking. Real Quiet paid $5.80 to win, and the exacta with Free House returned $10.20.

Baffert was happy -- and relieved -- to have Real Quiet back in the winner's circle.

"It sort of brings back the memories of last year, winning the Derby and the Preakness," he said. "You see him back in top form. You hate to see your Derby horse get beat a couple of times. He just needed those races.

"Real Quiet, he's back."

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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