They aren’t the kind of guys who wear black hats, but they did on successive Belmont days in the later 1990s. Spoiling the Triple Crown bids of a couple of colts conditioned by Bob Baffert, trainer David Hofmans sent out Touch Gold to end Silver Charm’s silver run to the Crown in 1997 and Elliott Walden spoiled Real Quiet’s Triple Crown party in the most agonizing of fashions with Victory Gallop the following year at Belmont Park.
Both of them are rooting for I'll Have Another to win the June 9 “Test of the Champion” and become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown…but both of them want him to earn it.
“You don’t give the heavyweight champ the title—you try to beat him,” Hofmans said. “If you give it to him, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Walden agreed: “If I’ll Have Another wins the Triple Crown, he’ll have to earn it with Dullahan and Union Rags staring at him along with Paynter and some others.”
Reddam Racing’s I’ll Have Another, winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I), will be sent out after the Triple Crown June 9 in the $1 million Belmont Stakes (gr. I). The anticipation is building for the 12-furlong race, along with a historic stretch run with a bid on the line, just like it did in 1997 and 1998.
The Southern California-based Hofmans had watched Silver Charm all winter long at Santa Anita Park as he brought Touch Gold along for Stronach Stables and Stonerside Stable.
“I was one of Silver Charm’s biggest fans,” Hofmans said. “I thought he was a really good horse.”
Robert and Beverly Lewis’ Silver Charm won a thrilling Kentucky Derby, topping Captain Bodgit by a head with rival Free House finishing third. A late developing Touch Gold won the Lexington Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland two weeks before the first Saturday in May and skipped the Derby to head for the Preakness.
In the Preakness, Silver Charm edged Free House in a thriller by a head with Captain Bodgit another head back in third. Touch Gold finished a good fourth while coming up the rail considering he stumbled to his knees at the start of the race.
A tender foot was a concern as Touch Gold prepared for the Belmont.
“It was a day-by-day situation with his foot,” Hofmans said. “We had to keep it stabilized enough that we could train on it. Fortunately we were on a racetrack that was pretty kind and deep. Every time we did something we’d have to inspect that foot and keep an eye on it.”
An entry with Wild Rush, Touch Gold was the 5-2 second choice in the Belmont that had just seven starters. Jockey Chris McCarron’s plan was to stalk the dual classic winner and try to go by him late so Silver Charm couldn’t dig back in to challenge him. The plan worked as Touch Gold came with a wide move to win by three-quarters of a length.
“Oh, the crowd didn’t like it all,” Hofmans recalled. “We were booed and jeered and everything else.”
Walden doesn’t recall any booing or jeering the following year after his Victory Gallop caught Mike Peagram’s Real Quiet in the very last excruciating jump of the Belmont.
“Maybe I was in la-la land,” Walden said with a laugh 14 years later. “I don’t remember it being negative. I remember being in the stands when Birdstone beat Smarty Jones (2004) and the booing.”
Walden, now the president of WinStar Farm near Versailles, Ky., trained Victory Gallop for Prestonwood Farm. After winning the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) and Arkansas Derby (gr. I), Victory Gallop was a 14-1 chance in the Kentucky Derby and closed like a rocket to finish second behind Real Quiet by a half length.
Based on his Derby finish and with a new rider in Gary Stevens, Victory Gallop was the 2-1 favorite for the Preakness but came up short by 2 1/4 lengths. He was 9-2 for the Belmont and Real Quiet was 4-5.
“We were in survival mode,” Walden said of the three-week gap from the Preakness to the Belmont. “Victory Gallop was very tired after the Preakness and developed a skin rash. He had to be on antibiotics. It was stress related from the two efforts and the traveling.”
There was a little stress on Walden as well. Playing in a pick-up basketball game at Monmouth College in New Jersey the week before the Belmont, he snapped both his tibia and fibula through the skin. He would hobble around the expansive Belmont Park backstretch on crutches. He focused on his horse.
“It wasn’t until the last week that he really started to bounce back,” Walden said.
He bounced back on the track. Jockey Kent Desormeaux went for the lead with Real Quiet in the Belmont with a little less than a half-mile to go and opened up a four-length lead in the stretch. Stevens and Victory Gallop began cutting into the lead with each stride inside the eighth pole, coming on even terms at the wire.
There was a photo to examine…as well as an inquiry. Pegram didn’t think his colt had won but was congratulated by both Ogden Phipps and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas after the two passed the wire.
“Those two guys know New York a whole lot better than I did because they know how the angles play,” Pegram said. “But I still thought I got beat.”
“I actually thought he’d bumped Real Quiet from the pan shot, from sitting in the stands,” Walden said. “But when you looked at the head-on, Kent Desormeaux actually kind of brought him out to Victory Gallop and kind of bumped him. It would have been a very difficult decision for the stewards had the photo gone the other way because I think they would have had to take Real Quiet down, which would have been more history making.”
What was going through Walden’s mind?
“Man, this horse deserves to win one of these,” he said. “It was a forgone conclusion that Real Quiet was going to win the Triple Crown, but in my mind Victory Gallop deserved to win one.”
As the years stack up, the sting has softened for Pegram.
“You naturally want to be a part of history but it didn’t give me any bad memories because it was such a hoot through the whole Triple Crown run,” Pegram said.
Pegram, Hofmans, and Walden will all be watching and rooting for I’ll Have Another to break through in the Belmont, but want him to be challenged.
“Let’s face it, some of these horses had bad luck in not winning,” Pegram said of the 11 failed bids over the last 33 years. “Silver Charm ran a winning race and got beat. Real Quiet ran a winning race and got beat. It’s time for the luck to go the other way.”
“I just hope he’s not a little tired because those races might have been pretty rough on him,” Hofmans said of I’ll Have Another. “I think he’s a nice horse but I know those guys are going to try to beat him like hell.”
“People have asked if I feel bad Real Quiet didn’t win the Triple Crown,” Walden said. “They way I look at it is if he was supposed to be a Triple Crown winner, he would have been one. He wouldn’t have let someone take it way from him. If I’ll Have Another deserves the Triple Crown, he’ll do it.”