A colt called The Fish, and a trainer who once wore a fake pumpkin over his head in the winner's circle will be center stage Saturday at Belmont Park.
A large crowd will be on hand to watch The Fish, better known as Real Quiet, try to become the first Triple Crown winner in two decades. If Real Quiet prevails in the Belmont Stakes, he'll be welcomed in the winner's circle by Bob Baffert, who two years running has put the trophies on his head after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Baffert wore the "pumpkin" when he won a quarter-horse race at Los Alamitos in California in the 1980s.
The trainer, with an ear for a quip and an eye for a horse, said after Real Quiet won the Preakness that if the colt came to New York,"I know he will win the Triple Crown."
On Friday, he said,"Of course, I can talk all I want, but he has to go out there and prove it Saturday."
Baffert predicted a Triple Crown for Silver Charm last year, and the gray colt was the even-money favorite.
"I'm sick," Baffert said after Silver Charm finished second, three-quarters of a length behind Touch Gold.
Real Quiet, nicknamed The Fish because he looks narrow when viewed head-on, was the 6-5 early favorite to beat 12 other 3-year-olds. There was only a seven-horse field last year.
Two challengers will be Victory Gallop, the Arkansas Derby winner who was second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and Classic Cat, winner of the Lexington at Keeneland and third in the Preakness.
Gary Stevens, who rode Silver Charm last year, will try to foil a Triple Crown bid Saturday when he rides Victory Gallop. Kent Desormeaux, who rode Free House to a third place in the 1997 Belmont, will ride Real Quiet, as he has done since the colt broke his maiden last year at Santa Anita.
"He's gotten good at the right time, and we're enjoying the ride," said Mike Pegram, Real Quiet's owner.
It's really been some ride for the bay colt, who had a surgical procedure, involving wire and screws, to straighten his front legs before he was sold for $17,000 as a yearling at the 1996 Keeneland September sale.
"It's no big deal," Baffert said of the surgical procedure. "It's been going on for a long time."
Real Quiet failed to win in his first six starts, all at a mile or less, because Baffert couldn't find any longer races for the maiden. One of those starts was in the seven-furlong Indian Nations Cup at Santa Fe Downs in New Mexico. He finished third.
Pegram said the colt ran at Santa Fe because the race had a $571,000 purse and he hadn't been nominated for the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile over 1 1-16 miles at Hollywood Park. Pegram noted that Real Quiet earned $70,000 as a maiden.
Should Real Quiet win the Belmont, he would earn $600,000 from a $1 million purse and also get a $5 million bonus offered by Visa.
Real Quiet broke his maiden, then finished third, with excuses, in the 1 1-16-mie Kentucky Jockey Club last year at Churchill Downs, and concluded his 2-year-old campaign with a victory in the 1 1-16-mile Grade I Hollywood Futurity on Oct. 14 at Hollywood Park.
Real Quiet opened his 3-year-old campaign by finishing eighth on a sloppy track in the Golden Gate Derby on Jan. 18 at Golden Gate Fields - a race Baffert said he should have skipped.
In his next two starts, he finished second in the San Felipe and in the Santa Anita Derby, won by stablemate Indian Charlie. Then he launched his drive to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978.
Desormeaux said he knew Real Quiet was something special when he won the Hollywood Futurity.
"I asked him to run, and he took off," the jockey recalled. "I asked him to slow down and he did, then I asked him to run again and he won. Only champions have three gears."
Other horses with Triple Crown experience in the Belmont are Hot Wells, fourth in the Preakness; Parade Ground, sixth in the Derby; Hanuman Highway, seventh in the Derby; Chilito, 11th in the Derby, and Basic Trainee, last in the Derby and eighth in the Preakness.
Also entered are Grand Slam, winner of the 1 1-16-mile Peter Pan at Belmont; Yarrow Brae, winner of the 1 1-8-mile Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park; Thomas Jo, winner of the 1 1-16-mile Sir Barton at Pimlico; Limit Out, third in the Withers at Aqueduct for his first loss in five career starts, and Raffie's Majesty, fourth in the Illinois Derby.
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