“I didn’t want you to hear this from anyone else, but your horse won’t be running.”
It’s Friday, June the eighth, 2012, and my husband Jerry and I are two hours from the Pennsylvania border on our way to Allentown. Tomorrow, we will board a charter bus to historic Belmont Race Track, there to witness history in the form of a possible Triple Crown winner, the first in thirty-four years.
Oh, I could pretend that I was concentrating hard enough on driving (unfamiliar vehicle – Jerry just got the truck a couple of months ago – on an unfamiliar road) that I didn’t quite hear what my brother Ted had said over the phone, but the truth is I just couldn’t comprehend it. Once I did, my protest was as heartfelt as it was annoyingly Hollywood. “No!”
“They scratched him?” I asked next. “Why?”
“I don’t know the details,” he said. “There’s going to be a press conference later. I just wanted to let you know, since that’s the reason you’re going.”
My clandestine love affair with the Triple Crown began when I read “Man O’ War” by Walter Farley, “King of the Wind” by Marguerite Henry, and “Another Man O’ War” by C.W. Anderson. I thrilled reading the newspaper in 1987, when Alysheba and Bet Twice duked it out at the races, just as Alysheba’s sire Alydar had with Affirmed back in 1978, and I thought what a shame it was that the “wrong” horse won the third leg of the crown. And I started to think, wouldn’t it be cool to be there to see it?
But Belmont Park was in faraway New York, full of dangerous streets and aggressive drivers… and despite his stories about Alydar and Affirmed, the uniqueness of Seattle Slew’s name (even if it was misspelled), and the so-easy way Secretariat captured the coveted crown in 1973, my dad considered horse racing uninteresting. There was no way I was ever going to get to the Belmont, not even in a special year where there was a real chance to end the drought between Triple Crown champions.
And so the dream was buried. Even after I grew to be an adult, with all attendant freedoms, there were still bills and work and other activities that took precedence. I noted only peripherally through the years when horses captured two of three legs, a part of me always secretly hoping, always thinking, “If it happens, at least I’ll see it on TV.” The ritzy atmosphere of the Belmont Stakes was not for the blue-collar likes of me.
Then, in April of 2011, my husband suffered an aortic dissection.
It’s strange, it’s clichéd, but it’s true; perspective changes after a brush with mortality. So when I’ll Have Another came from behind to get his nose in front of Bodemeister in the Preakness, my buried dream started nudging at the forefront of my mind. Oh, I came up with all the usual reasons for flattening my own spirits: I couldn’t afford the time off work, we couldn’t afford the cost of the trip, the horse probably wouldn’t have a chance of going a mile and a half because after all there are no champions these days…
I researched the trip anyway, and found that it would actually be affordable. And I did have two days’ worth of vacation time available…
Suddenly, “it’ll never happen,” changed to “it could work,” and I started thinking, why not?
My coworker Jon was the one who finally made up my mind. “If you don’t go,” he said one night as I was telling him about the question I was wrestling with, “and he wins, you’ll kick yourself forever for not being there. If you go, and he doesn’t win, you’ll always have the memory of being there to watch him run. Life is about making memories.” I turned in my vacation request that night, and once home from work I arranged for the hotel room and tickets on the Triple Crown Bus.
Dreams are not practical. They do not put money in the bank or pay medical bills. But we die a little inside, every time we deny them. That morning, on the phone with Ted, I considered for a fleeting second the possibility of turning around. If I’ll Have Another wasn’t going to run, there could be no Triple Crown, and therefore what would be the point?
But my heart rebelled at the very notion, and my frugal streak wasn’t far behind. We were over halfway there, a hotel room and the charter bus tickets were already arranged, I was going to the Belmont. There was no excuse and no reason not to.
“Are you still flying out?” I asked my brother. Both he and our sister Rebecca were to meet Jerry and me in Allentown.
“I still can, but… you’re still going?”
“Of course,” I snorted. “It’s the Belmont. Final and truest test of a champion.” I was disappointed, of course. But I was still going, and I was going to have a good time – even if I wasn’t going to see history.
Saturday dawned very, very early – despite how tired I was after traveling close to 1,200 miles in less than twenty-four hours, I’d had trouble getting to sleep. We dressed up in our fancy duds – Rebecca had a new hat bought just for the occasion.
The ride into Elmont (where Belmont Park is) was incredible, and my face was plastered to the bus window when it wasn’t behind the camera. I had no idea New York City was so marshy – though in retrospect it makes sense. I also didn’t realize just how many cemeteries there are in Queens.
I saw the new Trade Towers going up (majestic skeletons, rising high above their immediate surroundings), Macy’s on 34th Street (the site of the miracle of belief in Santa Claus), a street full of yellow cabs (I thought that only happened in movies!) and the HQ building of the U.S. Post Office with the motto cut deep into the stone of the edifice.
And then we arrived at Belmont Park itself. I got a thrill just looking at the building that until now I had seen only in pictures. And to think that Man O’ War, Sir Barton, War Admiral, Secretariat – the greatest of the greats in horse racing – had walked this same ground!
We had a lot of time on our hands before the Belmont – it was the third-to-last race of the day (which I thought was very odd, given the importance of the Belmont Stakes) – so once we bought our tickets for the Clubhouse we started watching the races. Then I found out we could go down to the paddock area!
The horses were magnificent, well-muscled creatures standing tall next to their handlers. I saw the statue of Secretariat, and read the inscription. We met a lady who had made a “Triple Crown Hat” – Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all galloped around the brim, their jockeys clad in the racing silks of their stables. And I took a good, long look at the Clubhouse building and the tunnel through which generations of horses had paraded onto the track to prove their mettle.
Ted, Becky and Jerry experimented a bit with betting; they all won a couple. In between races, I started exploring the Clubhouse itself. I looked at the horseshoe-shaped hedge in the infield that marked Ruffian’s grave. I saw the boards painted bright with the racing colors of each Triple Crown champion. I found a hallway where portraits – and then, later, photographs – of all Belmont Stakes winners were displayed, along with their track stats and winnings. Paintings lined the walls of the second floor where we spent most of our time – “Scenes of Old Belmont,” the key placard called them – and I found an image of Man O’ War, greatest of the greats, the standard by which all horses since have been measured; high-headed, proud, a deep, rich red… and somehow the artist managed to capture a bit of what’s called “the look of eagles” in Big Red’s eyes.
We asked for and received permission to take vacant seats in the grandstand – something that would not have been possible if I’ll Have Another had been running, I’m sure – and we were able to watch a few races sitting down. I’ll have Another was brought into the Winner Circle and ceremoniously unsaddled one final time.
Then came time for our race! I went down to the paddock briefly to see the colts up close. I didn’t spot the future winner among them, but I did see one young fellow dressed up in I’ll Have Another’s racing colors – his mom said he was so terribly disappointed, poor thing.
I scurried back up the stairs amidst thick crowds of people, taking a seat just in time to see the post parade – shining horses about to run the longest race of their young lives. My excitement built as the colts approached the starting gate, one by one. I raised my camera to my eye, focusing carefully, waiting, waiting….
AND THEY WERE OFF!
Paynter, (Bodemeister’s stablemate) took an immediate lead, with Unstoppable U, Optimizer, and My Adonis close behind. All around me, people were cheering on their chosen horse. I was looking for Dullahan, thinking he might be able to shine after finishing third in the Derby. I was certain Paynter would fade before the final turn; a horse just can’t run a mile and a half and still have something left for the homestretch run.
Around the first turn and all through the backstretch Paynter led the field, first opening up his lead and then – unbelievably – answering challenges from both Unstoppaable U in the backstretch and My Adonis in the second turn. As they rounded for home with Paynter still in the lead, 85,000+ people surged to their feet and roared with one voice! I was found myself shouting to Jerry, Ted and Becky, “He’s going to do it! He’s going to lead wire to wire!”
And then on came Union Rags, a steady five or so lengths off the lead until he unleashed that explosive “kick” all the good long-distance runners have at the top of the homestretch, getting his nose in front of Paynter’s just as they crossed the finish line!
It was an exciting race. It was a beautiful day. No, my horse didn’t run. But I went to the Belmont anyway… and I saw history.