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Stevens recalls Triple Crown near-misses - NBC Sports

Stevens recalls Triple Crown near-misses
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May 25, 2014, 2:45 am

It's coming up on 36 years since racing's last Triple Crown winner, and Gary Stevens knows why the drought has taken on Dust Bowl proportions.

"A three-week turnaround and fresh horses," the Hall of Fame jockey said with nary a breath of hesitation in explaining why no horse since Affirmed in 1978 has won the Belmont Stakes after capturing the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

"The distances go from a mile and quarter to a mile and three-sixteenths to a mile and a half. It's the most difficult feat in all of sports. I've been through it, and it's not easy.

"California Chrome is probably going to have a full gate (in the Belmont) trying to beat him. I think we're all rooting for a Triple Crown winner, but Mike (Smith) said it best the other day. I was sitting here (in the jockeys' room) and we were all rooting for him (in the Preakness), but as soon as the race was over, he said, 'Now we've got to try and play the spoilers.'"

Perhaps there was no greater spoiler than Stevens himself, who was aboard Victory Gallop when he hung an excruciating nose defeat on Real Quiet in the 1998 Belmont, preventing the Bob Baffert trainee from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner since the inception of the series in 1919, when Sir Barton captured the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont.

"Real Quiet had a habit of pulling up when he made the lead easy like he did," Stevens recalled. "He was just playing around, and although Kent (Desormeaux) was doing everything possible to keep him running, he actually drifted out.

"Kent tried to get his horse to re-engage and we bumped and I wasn't sure who had won the race. It was bittersweet. It's tough to explain when you're competing against a horse going for the Triple Crown. As a fan of the sport, as I am, you're rooting for him, but I get paid to go out and do what I do."

The shoe was on the other foot for Stevens in 1997 when his mount, Silver Charm, was overtaken on the outside in deep stretch by Touch Gold and Chris McCarron in the Belmont, denying Stevens the Triple Crown.

"McCarron rode a smart race," Stevens said. "I passed him down the backside and he didn't look like he was traveling with any authority, so he was one of my least worries. But about the sixteenth-pole, I saw a shadow coming, because at that time of day in New York, the sun's going down, so a shadow is cast.

"A horse can be four lengths behind you but you can see his shadow before you see the horse. I saw a shadow out away from me, but McCarron knew Silver Charm, because he had been riding him, and he knew if he came up next to me, he wasn't going to get past me.

"I saw Touch Gold, but my horse didn't."