View from the Seats: Road to the Belmont

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The ticket line at Penn station was overwhelming to say the least. We thought we left ourselves enough time to beat the crowds, but the station was staggered with racing fans ready to watch California Chrome bring it home.

The Triple Crown that is, the continuously elusive jewel of racing that has slipped away out of reach for several horses in the last three decades.

Waiting to board the train to Belmont Park, I noticed the different racing fans coming out for the big day. There were two types of people standing on the platform Saturday. The first were the happy-go-lucky and lighthearted fans looking for a good time and wanting to be part of the action. Then came the more serious types, the ones who eagerly wanted to be part of something, a part of history in the making. Of course I’m with the second group.  

If California Chrome did sweep the Triple Crown, many hoped it would entice the happy-go-lucky to come back for more. Joe Drape of The New York Times made a similar distinction when he wrote “the huge crowd Saturday at Belmont was like the unreliably religious who go to church only on Easter. Perhaps a Triple Crown would convert them into regulars.” 

I haven’t witnessed a Triple Crown unfold, but I am hooked on the idea of it happening and will keep coming back until it does.

Although I’ve been a racing fan for years, last year was my first time at the Belmont Stakes. The crowd and the energy watching Palace Malice romp home over Oxbow and Orb paled in comparison to this year. Of course there was no Triple Crown glory in sight for Palace Malice and the event attracted less fan frenzy and media buzz than California Chrome’s entourage. As amazing as Palace Malice’s win was, it didn’t have the same sense of history. 

Arriving at the track to watch California Chrome was madness.

The lines to get into the track, to get food and to get to grandstand seats were frustrating. Despite the frustration there was a rising sense of anticipation among the fans.

Everywhere I walked I felt people asking the same question over and over again.

“Do you think he is going to win?”

And almost without fail everybody’s reply would be a resounding yes.

That’s how confident people were in this horse, even the ones coming to see him for the first time.

A great horse with a big heart and compelling story was all it took. After his Preakness win, I was giddy with the thought of California Chrome winning the Triple Crown. However, as time grew closer to the Belmont a wave of cautious optimism replaced my overwhelming sense of confidence. 

Racing is not a predictable sport. It has highs and lows. California Chrome was on an unstoppable high. The media frenzy and fans growing by the day made it seem like this horse had no low. Unfortunately, even with experts and stats, this sport doesn’t guarantee how long a horse can bring it home without being caught by the competition.

I let my mind wander from the ominous race for a while thinking about the lighthearted fans easily bantering and scouring the crowd for interesting fashion choices. Despite the heat and missing several races to wait in the women’s washroom line it was still one of the most exciting days of my life.

I have no connection to California Chrome and most of the 100,000 people here don’t either, but we all feel connected to him.

“Triple Chrome” signs littered through the stands. I desperately wanted one, but I have to admit that I was already California Chrome by wearing a t-shirt boasting the big chestnut’s name. 

Standing in one of the many lines, a man stopped to admire it.

The former Marine with a neatly curled moustache tells me he has come all the way from the Napa Valley to see California Chrome. He says he’s come to see him win, of course.

A little later on a lady taps me on the shoulder to ask where I bought my t-shirt. Before I can respond, she also tells me with pride that she lives 40 miles from where California Chrome was bred. These were just a couple of faces of the adoring fans banking on the fact that California Chrome was the one.  

Finally, after being serenaded by rapper L.L. Cool J and Frank Sinatra Jr., the race was here. It’s the shortest two and a half minutes in sports but it honestly felt like the longest two and a half minutes of my life.

Everybody was cheering California Chrome as he was paraded past the stand and made his entrance into the second slot of the gate. There was a growing sense of anxiety mounting in the crowd and I was so nervous I already wanted the race to be over. It felt like minutes ticked by before the gate opened and they began their long trek around Belmont Park.

My eyes were glued to California Chrome’s No. 2 on the board, watching his number waver back to third, then back to fourth, then jumping back to third. The crowd was holding its breath in hopes that he wouldn’t move too early. As the final turn approached it felt like the crowd stopped breathing as they now waited for him to make his move.

By the time the horses made the final turn I had a sinking feeling that California Chrome wasn’t going to outlast his competition. Several horses were closing in. They were charging for home and Triple Crown glory was slipping away with every closing stride.

While Commissioner was looking strong out front, so too were Tonalist and Medal Count. California Chrome wasn’t surging. His stride looked laborious. He definitely wasn’t on a high. In the last few yards, I felt a surge of nervous energy roar forth from the crowd and onto the track.

The desperate cries and the frantic shaking of Triple Chrome banners wasn’t enough.

Tonalist, Commissioner and Medal Count brought it home before California Chrome could.

Instantly the crowd deflated. The “Triple Chrome” banners dropped to the floor and people collapsed into their seats in somber silence. This is where you could separate the true racing fans from the others. The lighthearted fans collected themselves pretty quickly and eased back into conversations about their bets for the next race. With no Triple Crown winner in the circle, it became just another day at the races.

On the flip side, serious racing fans were mourning a fallen hero who hadn’t fulfilled their Triple crown fantasy. Their dreams had been dashed and now their Belmont tickets and racing programs didn’t hold the same sentimental value.

Horse racing is such a precarious thing. 

The moment California Chrome lost the crown, the carnations and the crowd, the low set in.

I didn’t want to admit it but I was disappointed and somewhat disheartened. I knew he’d ran a tough race against a pretty good field of fresh horses, but I thought he could really do it. My cautious optimism had gotten me nowhere. To make matters worse I felt that the crowd had disowned him once he finished the race. He was just another horse who couldn’t get the job done.

The train ride back to Penn Station felt long and arduous. The event was still on my mind later that evening when I learned that California Chrome had sustained a minor injury during the race. My first thought was that I couldn’t believe he finished fourth despite a small chink in his armor. Triple Crown winner or not he’d run a solid race, grabbing a quarter and all.

Even though California Chrome fell short of that glory, I’m already planning next year’s trip to the Belmont. I’m in it for the long run and betting on the fact there will be a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime.

Hayley Morrison, introduced to racing during her childhood in Barbados at Garrison Savannah racecourse, is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism from Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.