Maybe it was his name: Real Quiet. Maybe he wasn’t regal enough or expensive enough. Maybe it was those early losses.
It’s sadly appropriate that Real Quiet died all alone in a paddock accident on the day Rachel Alexandra was being retired and the week the film “Secretariat” was released, so the horse racing community’s attention turned to its stars.
No one wanted him at first. Bob Baffert convinced Mike Pegram to plunk down all of $17,000 for the colt at the 1996 Keeneland September yearling sale because of his classic conformation profile. Baffert famously joked the horse was as slender as a fish from the front. “The Fish”—the name engraved on his halter.
A cheap, skinny horse with questionable bloodlines, a crooked leg from surgery as a yearling, and a joke for a nickname seemed unlikely to follow in the hoof prints of Baffert’s $7 million dollar earner Silver Charm, denied the Triple Crown in 1997, let alone join the ranks of horses like undefeated Seattle Slew, gutty Affirmed and, of course, the incomparable “Big Red” duo of Secretariat and Man o’ War.
Sure enough, Real Quiet’s early performance was underwhelming; he did not break his maiden until his seventh race as a 2-year-old. Real Quiet finally hit the big time with a win over Artax in the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I), scoring the highest Beyer Speed Figure of any 2-year-old going on to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
That wasn’t enough. The Fish was thought to be swimming in the too-deep waters of a well-regarded 1998 crop. The Derby field included Cape Town, who beat Real Quiet in the Brown & Williamson Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill. There was undefeated stablemate Indian Charlie, whose four wins included the 1998 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) a month earlier over Real Quiet. Favored Favorite Trick already owned nine wins and over $1.3 million. And, of course, Victory Gallop.
In a pairing that now seems fittingly star-crossed, Baffert put a revitalized Kent Desormeaux in the irons for the Triple Crown chase.
Real Quiet ran in the middle of the pack through most of the Derby, but surged to the lead on the final turn. Victory Gallop was last until the stretch when he blurred past the pack on the outside and very nearly caught a tiring, but victorious Real Quiet.
Gary Stevens, ironically Baffert’s rider on Silver Charm the previous year, was replacement jockey on Victory Gallop for the Preakness (gr. I). Running four-wide, The Fish again gave his now-patented burst to the lead at the final turn, this time sustaining his move and pulling away from Victory Gallop at the finish.
We all know what happened in the 1998 Belmont (gr. I), arguably the most heart-breaking race in Triple Crown history. The Fish got caught at the line.
Twelve years and several missed Triple Crown runs later, it’s clear Real Quiet had real talent. He was named champion 3-year-old male despite the painful Belmont defeat. He used quick bursts of speed to put away opponents in the Derby and more convincingly in the Preakness. Often regarded as better at the classic distances, his Fappiano-line pedigree suggests Real Quiet eventually could have made great noise siring sprinters. His best-known offspring is consecutive two-time Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) champion Midnight Lute. He sired 14 other stakes winners including multiple grade one distaffer Pussycat Doll.
Real Quiet won grade I races at ages 2, 3, and 4, something done in the last decade only by Lemon Drop Kid among colts. He amassed $3,271,802 and missed another $5 million plus and the Triple Crown by a mere nostril.
Real Quiet won the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) over Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) runner-up Budroyale and gamely beat Free House in the Pimlico Special (gr. I) at age 4 before retiring to stud following an injury. He was the first horse in 50 years to win both the Preakness and the Special, and is one of only five to accomplish the feat, the other four all Triple Crown winners.
Despite all that, it’s the wire photo at Belmont that remained his legacy.
Mike Jester said he created Penn Ridge Farm near Harrisburg, Pa., to reward the champion with space to wander and provide a foundation for his stud business. Real Quiet finally had a home and the respect that seemed to elude him all his life. Of course it was short-lived.
“It’s a pretty big blow for us,” said Jester of the Champion’s death.
A big blow for racing too. There is hope every year for a Big Horse to end the Triple Crown drought and replenish the nation’s trickling interest in Thoroughbred racing.
A Big Horse...like The Fish.
Richard R. Gross reports and writes from the Middle East and Asia for United Press International/UPI.com and covers racing from Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.