A witness to history – almost

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This was going to be a better story a day after the Belmont Stakes, a day after California Chrome made history, a day after the 102,000 people cheered until they couldn’t any longer, a day after the Triple Crown ghosts finally went quietly into the night.

But oh well.

Standing in the line from the Long Island Rail Road platform to the Belmont Park grandstand, I nodded to a few people, said hello to a few more and listened when one spoke.

He made small talk, asked why I was wearing a coat and tie, said hello to my sons, asked Nolan about his bowtie, told a joke (Why did the boy take a ladder to class? Because it was the first day of high school.), talked about the great day of racing ahead. Then he reached into his bag.

“You should see this,” he said. “If you are not impressed by this, then you are not impressed by anything.”

In his hand was a Ziploc bag and in that bag was an official program from June 10, 1978 at Belmont Park. Paper-clipped to the page opposite the eighth race was a two-tone blue mutuel ticket – $2 to win on Number 3. The 4×9 pocket program, the ticket and everything about them were in mint condition, as new as the day they were printed.

The eighth race, of course, was the Belmont Stakes. Purse $150,000 added, 1 1/2 miles. NO SHOW BETTING ON THIS RACE the notice read at the top. From the rail (with morning line), the field included Darby Creek Road (6-1), Alydar (even money), Affirmed (4-5), Judge Advocate (20-1) and Noon Time Spender (20-1).

Bob Mindel was there. And at the 2014 Belmont to see California Chrome.

When he showed us the program and betting ticket, time stopped. The hair on my arm stood up, the back of my neck tingled. I was 13 when Affirmed beat Alydar by a head in that 1 1/2-mile classic, arguably the best race (for sheer competition and historic value) of my lifetime. I was 13 when it happened – the same as Nolan – and at a birthday party if I recall correctly. I was also rooting for Alydar, probably for the underdog factor and because the Triple Crown was a relatively common thing then.

Little did I know.

It’s been 36 years since Affirmed-Alydar. Affirmed broke first, Alydar right with him. Judge Advocate hounded the leader briefly into the first turn but after a slow first quarter-mile, Alydar went after the leader on the outside. They were heads apart after a half-mile and stayed that way for the next mile, 10 lengths or more ahead of the others. Watching it today, I love Steve Cauthen’s long hold on Affirmed. The Derby and Preakness winner never wavered, never weakened, never did anything but try to keep his head in front. With blinkers off, Alydar eyeballed his nemesis throughout and still couldn’t beat him. He and Jorge Velasquez got in front, maybe, if you squint, in the stretch but Affirmed fought back. He won by a head, becoming the 11th – and last? – Triple Crown winner in history.

Mindel saw it, adding a Triple Crown to his list of major sporting moments attended. Back then, a friend said they should go, so they went. And they saw history. Somehow, Mindel makes a hobby out of witnessing great moments in sport.

He saw Reggie Jackson hit three home runs against the Dodgers at Yankee Stadium in the 1977 World Series. Mindel went to several Muhammad Ali fights and was in the stands when Roberto Duran beat Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 (the fight before “No mas”). Super Bowls, Grand Slam tennis matches, major golf tournaments, Mindel has seen them. He makes it a point to have photos taken, often with the sports stars he goes to see. The scrapbook – with Duran, Jackson, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and even Clint Eastwood and various political leaders – has been a hit for decades.

“When kids would come over to see my son, they would ask to see the book,” said Mindel, whose business card advertises the Swing Vision Paddle, a golf training device.

The 2014 Belmont didn’t make it on to Mindel’s agenda until late. California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby May 3, then won the Preakness two weeks later. Not really a racing fan, Mindel realized the achievement but was content to stay home in Montreal. At first.

Since Affirmed, the Triple Crown has been there for the taking by Belmont starters Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008).

They all failed, though Mindel missed them all.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Mindel.jpg“I have no real reason to be here this time either, but I have not been back since that day with Affirmed and Alydar,” he said. “I read about this horse, heard about this horse and I made a last-minute decision last night. I had to be here.”

The chills returned when he said that, and I listened to Mindel explain his journey.

He booked a ticket on a bus that left his hometown of Montreal at 11 the night before and arrived in New York City at 6:30 Saturday morning. He said he slept. Mindel caught the train for Belmont like the rest of us. We lost him when the line broke up and moved through the doors, then bumped into him in the clubhouse midway through the day. He talked about seeing history again, about a potentially magical day, about great horses, about the value of being there.

I hope he comes back next year.