Racing: America awaits Real Quiet champion

Greg Wood on muted acclaim for the horse attempting the US Triple Crown
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The Independent Online
THE thousands of racegoers who will converge on Epsom in 48 hours' time will doubtless assume that the best three-year-old on the planet will also be taking the air on the Surrey Downs. In fact, though, the popular wisdom may be a long way out - 3,500 miles to be precise, which is the distance to Belmont Park in New York, where on Saturday night, Real Quiet could become only the 12th horse in American racing history to win the Triple Crown.

This news may come as a surprise not just to British punters, but also to a few in the States. American racing has struggled to compete with sports like basketball and baseball in recent years, and unlike the last three Triple Crown winners, Affirmed (1978), Seattle Slew (1977) and Secretariat (1973), the emergence of Real Quiet has not gripped the public imagination. Worse, there are those who claim that Real Quiet won a poor Kentucky Derby and an even weaker Preakness Stakes. They point out that it took him seven races to lose his maiden status, and that he won just two of his first dozen starts. In attempting to join the greats of the American tracks, the critics say, he is "messing with history".

This is of little concern, though, to either Bob Baffert, the colt's trainer, or Mike Pegram, the exceptionally fortunate owner who managed to buy Real Quiet for just $17,000 (pounds 10,600). The bargain price may have had something to do with Real Quiet's legs, which were so crooked that they required corrective surgery simply to allow him to race. These days, they are as robust as Pegram's credit rating. Success in the 130th Belmont would not only take Real Quiet's earning past $2m (pounds 1.25m), but also earn a $5m (pounds 3.1m) bonus for completing the Triple Crown.

Baffert at least can be in no doubt about the pressure which the possibility brings to bear. Twelve months ago, he arrived at Belmont with Silver Charm, but he failed by just three-quarters of a length to beat Touch Gold and become the 12th Triple Crown winner. Instead, he became the 13th horse to fail the final test.

Baffert says he has more confidence in Real Quiet than he did in Silver Charm, and it may be that the weather holds more worries than his rivals on Saturday, many of whom have already been well beaten in one or both of the first two legs. Real Quiet ran poorly at Golden Gate Fields in January when the track had been reduced to slop by El Nino's storms, but his form ever since has been impossible to fault.

"It took Real Quiet a long time to learn about the starting gate," Baffert says. "He was just a big, awkward colt. The races were too short for him last year and after the wire he would catch them all. All the riders came back and said he needs more distance. As soon as I put the blinkers on him in the fall and ran him long, he was a different colt."

One horse who could cause problems is the D Wayne Lukas-trained Grand Slam, who has never been beaten at Belmont. Lukas, though, takes an approach which will be familiar to followers of Aidan O'Brien, and has yet to decide whether the colt will even line up for the race.

For Baffert, who is allergic to straw, the only certainty is that he will be in tears this weekend, since he will accompany Real Quiet in person on his flight to New York (Silver Charm last year was the only horse to receive the same honour). The pundits, though, believe that Real Quiet is still maturing and could improve again, just as he did between the Kentucky Derby, in which he beat Victory Gallop by half a length, and the Preakness, when he beat the same horse by two and a quarter.

If so, immortality beckons.