Considering the possibilities, the experience was OK. We didn’t get caught up in a riot. We didn’t lose all of our money. The bridge to the train platform did not fall on us. We got home, eventually. And we’ve got a great story.
But what a trip.
Four Clancys left Fair Hill, Md. bound for the Belmont Stakes and a chance to see history Saturday. The players? Joe Sr. (79); Joe Jr. (49); Jack (18 and a high-school graduate as of the night before); and Nolan (13). We met Ryan (21) at Penn Station in Manhattan, with Molly Urell-Poe (20?) tagging along for her first real racetrack experience. The train from Wilmington, Del. was smooth, great. I slept. Jack messed with his new laptop. Nolan Kindled. Papa Joe (that’s what the kids call him) read the Form.
We exited Amtrak’s Northeast Regional – after sitting one row behind Cot Campbell’s daughter and Palace Malice fan Cary Umhau – at 9:42, went up one broken escalator to the Long Island Rail Road level, met Ryan and Molly by the violin player (amazing) and stood in a short line to buy tickets. By 10:15 we were on our second train of the day, headed to Belmont. Everybody had a seat. Two guys from New Jersey joined us and the conversation centered on California Chrome. Could he do it? Would we get to see history?
The consensus was a tepid yes. Tepid. The fans were behind him. The handicappers were too, but had questions.
The LIRR car filled up considerably at its one stop, Jamaica, but we were comfortable, clean, cool and optimistic. At Belmont Park, we spilled out into sunshine and a line. Not a terrible line, but a line. You expect lines at something like this. The crowd covered all bases – kind of like our group – with grandparents, kids, young adults, turf writers, a guy from Montreal carrying a Belmont Stakes program from 1978 (more on him later), pretty much anyone heading up the steps and across the long concrete bridge to Belmont Park’s grandstand.
We were shepherded, herded, wanded. Our bags were searched. People were happy, the security personnel efficient and friendly. A couple of guys with Coors Light cans got told they couldn’t bring them in so they downed them instead; I cringed inside when Ryan took one, but he is 21.
Then we had a day at the races.
There was space to walk, food, souvenir stands, glorious weather. Wabbajack won the first for Ninety North Racing Stable. Cool horse. Nice people. We missed the second, while getting Papa Joe to his table and the rest of us settled into various parts of the place. Ryan and Molly ventured off to see the sights and meet people. Jack collected a group and did the same. Nolan and I wandered, watched some races, cheered home Norumbega (best bet of the day) in the Brooklyn. We ate a high-priced, but good, crabcake sandwich and then a similarly high-priced mozzarella sandwich.
The racing was tremendous. Somehow we stood right next to Leah Gyarmati’s crew for the Acorn, and cheered/danced/swooned right along with them as Sweet Reason won. Close Hatches and Princess Of Sylmar slugged it out in the Ogden Phipps. Bayern was amazing, firing back with a huge race after flopping in the Preakness.
The Just A Game was Just A Thriller as horse after horse looked like a winner. Somali Lemonade dug in late, fighting off challenges like a cornered mongoose. Discreet Marq rallied. Then Coffee Clique put her head in front. From the clouds charged Strathnaver and Mike Smith, emerging in the last two strides as the PHOTO sign went up. Canadian-based Coffee Clique got it, but not my much, and we felt exhausted. The Met Mile went to Palace Malice, best horse in training right now. He’s a Grade 1 winner at 1 mile and 1 1/2 miles. Crazy good. We had a leisurely conversation with trainer Joe Parker – whose Jamaican accent ought to be in commercials – on a bench on the apron. We got to see Ben’s Cat, though we’ve seen him a bunch, take on some tough turf sprinters. He was good, represented Maryland well, but not quite as good as he is at home or going a half-furlong shorter. He’s also 8 years old remember. New York fans kept telling us how amazed they were at his record of 26 wins in 40 starts. He’s less than $15,000 from a $2 million in lifetime earnings.
Earlier in the day, Ken Ramsey told us to join the win picture if one of his horses won. We were too far away to get there when Real Solution mowed them down in the Manhattan. Jack had beat us to it anyway, getting in a photo with second father Dan Pride.
In no apparent order, we also witnessed LL Cool J, Frank Sinatra Jr., two guys trying to win a million dollars with a horseshoe toss (one got really close), a pseudo celebrity in a gown and a New York Post poster or something, the view from Jason Blewitt’s office upstairs on the roof (find a reason to visit) and saw all kinds of old friends from Saratoga. We met Steve Coburn, pre-rant, and he was gracious, humble, friendly, nervous.
We watched the Belmont from the boxes – with Anita, Graham and Chappy Motion, Jack Sisterton, Tracy Attfield and two men with ties to NBC (who were supposed to be there). The NBC guys asked great questions such as, “If they ran this race 100 times, how many times would California Chrome win?” I hesitated. Nolan blurted 65. The follow-up was, “Is this one of the 65 or one of the 35?” As it turned out, it was one of the 35, but oh well. They also asked about the water truck (driven by a guy honking the horn), the starting gate, the patrol judges crossing the track after the harrows went by, the assistant starter standing in front of each horse as it loaded and any other thing you could think of.
When the horses entered the track, Belmont Park grew quiet. There was no in-house post parade announcement, only 11 horses and lead ponies walking out of the tunnel, turning right and then left to walk along in front of the packed house. An outrider galloped off at top speed to break up the pause, then the horses followed.
The race ended with a fizzle, California Chrome coming up short in his – racing’s – quest for a Triple Crown. Not that he ran poorly or the others disappointed. Tonalist beat Commissioner a head in a finish worthy of the classic’s 146th running. It’s just difficult to watch history get unmade, though in an example of how old my sons are getting nobody cried the way they did when Smarty Jones lost.
Then the fun began
We didn’t hurry, but we efficiently mustered everyone together (save Ryan and Molly) and headed toward the trains. Along with everybody else. We stood in a massive group nearly the width of the grandstand. Peaceful, but confused, everyone just waited, and barely moved. We were 40 yards from the door to get outside. Minutes ticked. With an 11:05 train to catch at Penn Station, we were baffled but reasonably confident. I now see that the photo I posted on Twitter was taken at 8:50, and I should have been worried about making that train.
A police officer dispersed much of the crowd behind us, telling them to move downstairs, which seemed odd given that there was talk from officers and spectators of the bridge to the trains being at risk of a collapse. None of it felt right, even if the people were pretty orderly. Jack asked a police officer what we should do. He suggested getting a taxi or some other vehicle to the LIRR’s Bellerose station a few miles away. That sounded great, only we had no idea where that was or how to get a taxi. A call to a taxi company directed us to the Mobil station across the street, so off we marched. The Mobil station looked a bit like Beirut. People were generally cheerful, but forlorn and scattered all about the place. An ice-cream truck did a booming business. Traffic was at a standstill, and the taxis were infrequent and claimed.
Back to Belmont we marched, through the thoroughly trashed picnic area. Jack found an unopened 2-liter bottle of iced tea (like gold) and we drank heartily. Jack also stopped to talk to Leroy the security guard who suggested we head toward the bus stop halfway between us and the trains. Leroy said the bus would take us to Jamaica, where we could get a train to Manhattan or “Man-HA-tone” as he says it. Off we went again. To our right, a crowd watched the Rangers-Kings game on the paddock big screen. I thought about joining them.
Way in the distance, people appeared to be moving on the train bridge so we headed back inside the grandstand and upstairs to the now basically empty second floor. That was encouraging. If there was no one in the grandstand, they had to be getting on the trains so we went outside toward the bridge where police officers directed us back downstairs and to a parking lot overflowing with tired, hungry, cross people. They were in lines that snaked every which way and eventually went up steps to the concrete bridge, across the bridge and down steps to the trains. Cautious estimate, we were an hour from getting on a train.
Again, everyone was relatively peaceful, friendly even. There was a feeling of community, like we were all in this mess together.
God bless the guy who explained things and God bless our timing to walk up there when he started explaining. The trains were running, slowly. We were in the parking lot to get us off the bridge and out of the building. Buses were coming, one line headed to Jamaica where we could get on the subway to Manhattan. Calmly, he said “We’re just trying to get everyone home.”
We got on a bus to Jamaica, Queens (not the country) at 10:15, with a hundred of our newest friends. Some were drunk, some were tired, most were hungry, many were laugh out loud funny.
“Subway? There’s a Subway. Do you know how good a footlong turkey would taste right now? Oh man. Do you think the driver would stop?”
“Where are we going? Jamaica? Oh boy, stick together people. Remember that movie where the one wildebeest that strays from the herd gets eaten? Do not be that wildebeest.”
“Look at Little Caesar up there, he’s mocking us.”
“I have pretzels. Anybody want pretzels?”
“It’s a good thing I won boatloads of money because this would be awful if I lost it all betting on California Chrome or something.”
“Where is California Chrome anyway? This is all his fault.”
The Clancys sat in seats, across from a guy in an American Quarter Horse Association hat and shirt (I bet he was impressed) and pondered our fate. There was no way we were making the train now, but what else were we going to do?
After passing any number of fast-food chains, cosmetic stores, a produce stand, some baseball fields, we got to Jamaica and piled out with the rest of the inmates. We crossed a street, recklessly, and headed for the subway station. I’ve never been on a subway (does the DC Metro count?), but we followed some people down the steps, bought tickets at the machine (there really ought to be a way to buy several at once) and jumped on the E Train. On the way I answered a question from someone who seemed worse off than we were. “Are you going back to the city?” Sort of, I replied. I had no idea until a guy on the subway told us that yes the E Train was headed to the city and, if we stayed on long enough, Penn Station. We plunked down again. My phone battery was at 19-percent. Jack’s was at 2. Nolan and Papa Joe have flip phones.
My phone time-stamped an “On subway” text at 11:20, but that seems late. It probably didn’t send for a while because service was spotty. No matter what, we were going to need to spend the night. One expert suggested just riding the subway until morning. It can be done, he said. A woman wearing black athletic socks and carrying her heels said we should spend the night in Penn Station. The boys were all for it, as long as we got to eat. I hesitated. My dad looked tired. Nolan looked even more tired, though he bantered with fellow passengers about tying that bowtie himself. It had been on for 17 hours and looked as neat as it did early that morning.
“This is the city that never sleeps, but I didn’t think they meant us,” somebody said. Down the car, another passenger kept asking how many more stops to Penn Station. I remember looking at the screen and saying 21. Twenty-one? Oh boy. The couple across from us got off somewhere along the line, wished us luck, so did the guy eating green licorice candy. He was the car’s expert, but assured us we’d make it.
And we did. Thirty-fourth Street, up the steps, around the block, across the street, across another street, down the escalator under Madison Square Garden (still difficult to comprehend the feats of engineering to make that happen).
Between the subway station and the train station, we’d passed a hotel. “We’re staying there,” I said to myself. Then we passed a 24-hour restaurant. “And we’re eating there.” Somewhere we could hear, but not see, Doc Emrick’s play-by-play of the hockey game. My only thought was, “Man that’s a long game.” Double overtime will do that to you.
Penn Station at midnight is a very quiet place. Nobody works the Amtrak counters. Nobody answers the Amtrak phone, especially when you’re on 10-percent and dropping battery. I told myself I was buying one of those portable mini phone chargers as soon as I got home.
New Jersey Transit was running. Somewhere I’m sure there was a bus option. We probably could have called Enterprise. But we were out of options, out of time, out of energy for much more. After thinking we could just sleep in the lobby, we checked into the New Yorker Hotel. I’m sure there were cheaper options, but it really didn’t matter.
We ate at the Tick Tock Diner – Caesar salad for Papa Joe, whose collarbone (broken many times falling from horses, had popped out again), omelet for me, burger for Jack, chicken sandwich of some kind for Nolan. The highlight was a tray of pickles and cole slaw to start. We talked Nolan out of the peanut butter and chocolate milkshake. I talked myself out of a beer. Rangers fans filed in, depressed after a tough loss. The waitress was friendly and caring. The food was perfect. The booth was an oasis after hiking through a desert.
Papa Joe and I got beds. Nolan slept on the floor between the two – curled in blankets, pillows, salmon pants and striped button-down shirt. He did remove his shoes and bowtie, and was asleep before hitting the floor. Jack shoved himself into a corner. I took a shower and crashed.
I didn’t hear a sound until 7 in the morning. We were on another Amtrak train by 8 and rode home in peace, though Nolan could have done without the extra large strawberry Coolata. After handing it over, he slept – like a sloth that had run a marathon. Jack fiddled with his laptop some more. Dad read the program and talked about what might have been. I watched them, and wondered about doing it all over again.
Some photos from the day
Four dudes at the track. Nolan and the Secretariat statue.
Our view of the Belmont start.
The trains are out there somewhere.
Tired boy headed home in the clothes he wore for 29 hours.