Updated Jun 5, 2012 - 9:41 pm
The Groz Files: Almost a part of horse racing history
This Saturday, more than 100,000 people will cram the old track in Queens to see if we will actually have another Triple Crown winner, the first since 1978.
The Belmont Stakes is the graveyard of champions for good reason. It is the largest track in America -- a full mile and and a half around (Emerald Downs, like most tracks in America, is a mile). It is the third race in five weeks for 3-year-old colts that will never race as far as a mile and a half in their life.
The first Triple Crown winner came in 1919 with Sir Barton and the feat continued fairly regularly, three times in the 30s and four times in the 40s. But after Citation won in 1948 it was 25 years until the legendary Secretariat came along. He was so impressive in the Belmont -- his time and margin of victory have not been approached in 39 years -- that many thought it was a fluke until two other horses won it over the next three years, the last being Affirmed in 1978.
Since then, however, 11 have tried and all have failed. Four finished second.
And the one who came closest? Well, it had a Northwest connection and I was there.
Mike Pegram was the lord of McDonald's in Mount Vernon, Wash. The Indiana native was running his barn out of Santa Anita Park in California but had his McDonald's here, so he was on the local scene occasionally running horses at Emerald Downs. He had hooked up with a young trainer in New Mexico at the quarter horse races and Bob Baffert started his thoroughbred career with Mike.
After a great run with Silverbulletday, a horse that ran in the Breeders' Cup, it was on to Real Quiet. Baffert called him "The Fish" because of his narrow frame and he didn't seem like much until late in his 2-year-old career. He lost five of seven times as a 2-year-old, though, and was not the favorite for The Derby. He was great that day, however, and again two weeks later at the Preakness. And was the favorite at the Belmont to snap the 20-year drought.
How does The Groz fit in?
Well, I got to be friendly with Mike and convinced my radio station to send me to New York for the race. After interviewing Pegram he said to me very casually, "Hey Groz, why don't you watch the race with us in the owner's box tomorrow." I could not believe my ears. After agreeing I realized if the horse won I would go down with everyone to the winner's circle for the photo with a Triple Crown winner.
Well, if you haven't seen the race, here it is -- the most heartbreaking of all the second-place finishes. Gary Stevens and Victory Gallup spoiled the party. I was sure he had it at the top of the stretch.
That was the first year they offered a $5 million bonus for winning the Triple Crown. Was Mike Pegram bitter? To his everlasting credit, no. There was a party in the barn after the race anyway.
Can I'll Have Another do it? I say no way. They just don't train horses for this kind of stress anymore. Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, had nine races as a 2-year-old. Real Quiet had seven races as a 2-year-old. The Belmont Stakes will be the seventh race in the career of I'll Have Another.
I don't know if we will ever see one again. But man, was I lucky to be there in '98 when I almost got in the picture.
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