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BELMONT STAKES 3:10 p.m., Saturday, Channel 4

Close Encounters

Winning two out of three isn't bad, unless the loss comes in the Belmont


He will have no fear of bad news.

His heart is trusting in the Lord.

--In English and Spanish,

on a bulletin board

at trainer Elliott Walden's

barn at Churchill Downs


LOUISVILLE, Ky.--In 1998, Elliott Walden, born-again Christian and trainer of Victory Gallop, was the bad news for Real Quiet in the Belmont Stakes.

Second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Victory Gallop trailed by 7 1/2 lengths early before catching Real Quiet at the wire before 80,162 at Belmont Park. Shattered was another last-race bid for the Triple Crown, and lost was a $5-million bonus for Real Quiet's owner, Mike Pegram.

In the late 1990s, there was an epidemic of horses winning the Derby and the Preakness, the opening legs of the Triple Crown, and then failing to punch home the ultimate victory in the Belmont. The names of the near-misses and the horses who foiled them are inseparable: Silver Charm and Touch Gold in 1997; Real Quiet and Victory Gallop in '98; and Charismatic and Lemon Drop Kid in '99.

Eleven horses have swept the series but 15 have won the first two jewels and lost in the Belmont and, worse for racing, three of those 15 missed at a time when the sport thirsts for a megastar. The last Triple Crown champion was Affirmed, in 1978, and with the death of Seattle Slew last month, there isn't even a Triple Crown titlist living, for the first time since Sir Barton first swept the races in 1919.

All of this history is again required reading, now that War Emblem, racing's flavor of the month for May, can become the 12th Triple Crown champion Saturday with a victory in the Belmont. The speedy, ill-tempered colt is trained by Bob Baffert, who is as much a part of the Triple Crown as roses at the Kentucky Derby, faux black-eyed susans at the Preakness and white carnations at the Belmont. Baffert has won eight Triple Crown races since 1997, but he was on the bitter receiving end when Touch Gold and Victory Gallop engineered their upsets.

"I might not have won those Belmonts," Baffert said Tuesday at Churchill Downs, where War Emblem had been training after the Preakness, "but you can't say that my horses didn't show up for those races.

"A lot of great horses before mine have gotten this far and not won the Belmont. Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, horses like that. You take a look at the 11 horses that have done it, and you see 11 real tough son of a guns."

Two of the last three Triple Crown near-misses--Silver Charm and Charismatic--were owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, the most polite couple in Newport Beach. The Lewises had been in racing for six years when they paid $85,000 for Silver Charm, at the urging of Baffert. They later spent $200,000, also a modest price, to acquire Charismatic, who was trained by Wayne Lukas. Bob Lewis took the role of the perfect host to a new level when he chartered jetliners to ferry 100 or so of his best friends from coast to coast for the 1997 and 1999 Belmonts.

The Lewises eventually did win a Belmont, with a horse they had given little chance, when Commendable pulled off an 18-1 upset in 2000. Alas, Commendable had been a bust in the Derby and had not run in the Preakness.

The Lewises didn't have a Triple Crown horse this year, but they attended the Derby and will be part of what might be a record crowd Saturday in New York.

"Will we be rooting for War Emblem?" Bob Lewis said during a recent interview at his trophy-filled home. "Darn right."

He has won six Triple Crown races--two Derbies, three Preaknesses and one Belmont--and on the trip home from Kentucky after this year's Derby he uncrumpled a list of 38 2-year-olds that he and his wife own. The Lewis futures are not in soybeans, they're in horses. They got big-time Triple Crown fever long ago and, with the money that two beer distributorships have brought, are not likely to seek a cure.

A Very Good Year

Silver Charm was only one of a rock-solid crop of 3-year-olds in 1997. The cream was concentrated in California, where Free House and Silver Charm began butting heads early in the year, and where the late-developing Touch Gold was also based. Joining the mix later would be Captain Bodgit, a hard-knocking, Maryland-based colt who won the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial.

Free House had beaten Silver Charm twice in three races at Santa Anita, including a narrow victory by a head in the Santa Anita Derby, before the road show began. At the Derby, Silver Charm, favored Captain Bodgit and Free House ran 1-2-3, Silver Charm winning by a head. Beverly Lewis was so taken by the victory that she grew weak-kneed in the winner's circle.

Two weeks later, at Pimlico, Touch Gold joined the Triple Crown wars. He had won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland two weeks before the Derby but owner Frank Stronach, agreeing with his trainer, David Hofmans, had skipped the Derby.

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