What a day to go to the races

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Whether American Pharoah won or lost, last Saturday’s Belmont Stakes was going to be one to remember.

My plan was to watch with Joe Clancy. We watched the horses in the paddock, got a kick out of the fans who booed when the field only took a half turn before going to the racetrack and fought our way through the crowd and up to the owners’ and trainers’ box area with a few minutes to post.

Safely upstairs with even some time to bet – I passed, although I did buy a few souvenir tickets for a friend in New Orleans who asked earlier in the day for some – I deferred to nature and hit the bathroom instead of the pari-mutuel line. Chances were pretty good it was going to be a while before I’d be able to again. Alright T.M.I.

When I went back to the spot where Joe and I watched most of the undercard stakes he was nowhere to be found.

I spotted his son Jack making his way through the crowd, but as the field was approaching the starting gate there was no way I could give up my spot with a clear view of the starting gate, most of the track and the finish line from behind the back row of boxes.

Minutes were turning into seconds, the crowd was buzzing and history – again, win or lose – was about to be made.

As the first horse approached the gate, a man standing directly next to me said, to no one in particular, “It’s going to happen, I’m so glad I’m here.”

After not getting any response, from the man next to him or from me, he turned and asked, “Do you think he’ll win?”

I shrugged, said I thought he could, but had to admit, “I’ve been here before and it won’t surprise me if he doesn’t.”

“This is the first horse race I’ve ever been to and I think he’s going to win.”

“Wow, really, your first race?”

“Yes, I’m a reporter and my friend is covering the race, too. When I saw the other races on TV and reading about his chances, I knew I had to be here to see it.”

I saw media credentials, just like the one around my neck, inside their sport coats. They each had cameras, too.

Before I got the chance to ask either men their names, find out where they’re from, get some more background, you know, maybe for a story, the Belmont field was sent on its way. As fast as American Pharoah took the lead my new friend was clapping his hands and cheering. Loudly.

Maybe because I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years and because I’ve been to the Belmont the last nine times the Triple Crown was in the balance, but all I could do was shake my head and think to myself, “it’s a long race” at the sight of cheering that’s usually reserved for the stretch run.

As the field turned for home and it was clear American Pharoah was in fact going to win – seriously though, did he ever not look like a winner? – I sensed the space to my immediate left was empty. I glanced quickly, noticed it was in fact empty, and saw its former occupant bolting down the steps for a closer look at history.

His arms still in the air, still cheering and absolutely caught up in the moment like everyone else. It was certainly something to see.

It’s difficult to even estimate the number of races I’ve seen live – certainly not as many as some of my colleagues – but I’d guess it’s in the tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands? Surely it can’t be that many. Maybe it is, if I count all the ones I saw before I was a Turf writer, too.

Anyway, imagine this guy, one of the first few races he’s seen with his own eyes is the first American Triple Crown winner in 37 years and only the 12th in history.

He sure picked a perfect day to go to the races.