…But the story’s finished

California Chrome takes the Preakness

“So who won yesterday?”

“California Chrome took the Preakness – the same horse who won the Derby.”

And Ted gave me a half-smile and an eyebrow-raised look that said so, are we going?  “Well?” he said.

At first, I had no idea what he was talking about.  Then the light dawned; with two of three legs won, Ted was asking if we were going out to see Chrome run the Belmont.

Union Rags wins the Belmont Stakes

 

Truth to tell, my first reaction was to wonder why he would think I might want to do that.  I’d been to the Belmont once already.  I’d immersed myself in its history.  I’d thrilled watching Union Rags come from behind and snatch a wire-to-wire victory from Paynter.  Why would I go again?  The story was finished!

 

But as the idea Ted had planted rolled around in my mind, I realized the full tale hadn’t been told, not yet.  I hadn’t seen a Triple Crown; the dream was unfulfilled.

 

California Chrome

I'll Have AnotherAnd yet, and yet…  I couldn’t envision California Chrome being The One to end the drought between champions; in my mind, that was still I’ll Have Another.  The latter chestnut descendant of Danzig and Mr. Prospector had come from behind in both races, finishing strong with an air of having even more left; I wasn’t impressed with the way the former had won either of the first two races.  There was a question in my mind as to whether or not he could go a mile and a half at racing speed and still have something left for the finish.

So my response to Ted was lukewarm at best.  I dream of seeing a Triple Crown in my lifetime, yes; I only want to make the trip if I genuinely believe the horse in question has a real chance at the coveted title.

This time as I waffled, it was Jerry who made up my mind; he simply assumed we were going, and asked what the plan was.  When I told him why I was hesitating, he said, “Oh, just go.  You know if you don’t, he’ll win for sure and you’ll have missed it.”

So with an uncomfortable feeling of deja-vu, I booked a hotel room (the same place as two years ago), registered for three seats on the Triple Crown bus (boarding at the same place as two years ago), and called sister Rebecca – would she be able to join us?

How many other ghosts of that first trip would there be?

About that same time, I wondered about seats and ticket prices.  We lucked out in 2012; with I’ll Have Another scratched, there were vacant seats everywhere, so we were able to sit down without purchasing more than the generic clubhouse admission; with a Triple Crown contender running, the stands would be fully packed, and we’d be standing for eight to ten hours.

But how many tickets to buy?  Becky wasn’t able to give me a definite answer whether or not she could join us; her husband Dave might be out of town, she said, so she might have to find an overnight sitter and wasn’t sure she could.

Becky, Ted and Jerry in the stands at the 2012 BelmontI checked prices on various websites for the next few days.  I wanted seats close to where we were last time; they would be relatively cheaper, and we’d  had a good view of the track from section A on the upper tier of the third deck in the Clubhouse.  Spendy things, no matter where in the stand we were to be located.  Further down the upper tier would be better, of course… but how many should I get?  Three?  Four?

I looked, and checked, and fretted, and delayed.  Tickets were disappearing.  Belmont itself, naturally, had long since been sold out; enterprising speculators had bought up banks of tickets and were now reselling them – at inflated prices, of course.  So how much should I spend on each ticket?

And when would I start to feel the excitement of the trip, the possibility of witnessing history?

Obsessed with the possibility of repeating history, I began checking the news feeds daily for news of California Chrome, searching for any indication that he would not run.  I read that he had been eased the final part of the distance in the Kentucky Derby, which was why his lead was cut from five lengths to under two; I read that he had a habit of moving around in the starting gate.  That because his mother was stall-bound after his birth (he was a very large foal, and she suffered a tear as Chrome was born) he is very people-focused, and anxious to please.  I wasn’t really worried about the dust-up on the nasal strips, but one facet of his career that concerned me was his apparent tendency to tire quickly, when campaigning as a two year-old.

Man o' War

Man o’ War and jockey Clarence Kummer, courtesy of Wikipedia

It does seem strange that modern horses, with the advantages of an ever-increasing standard of veterinary care, scientifically structured and maintained running surfaces, and a gene pool including so many of the greats of the past, aren’t hardy enough to race the way their ancestors did.  Seabiscuit as a two year-old started thirty-five times in a span of just over forty-two weeks; War Admiral captured his Triple Crown after slicing off a chunk of his own front heel at the start of the Belmont, bleeding through the entire mile and a half.  In his career (from 1959 to 1966), Kelso started sixty-three times, winning 62% of those races; he still holds the World Record for 2 miles on dirt, he became only the third horse in history to capture the handicap horse’s Triple Crown in 1961 – the Metropolitan, Suburban and Brooklyn – and in each of those three races he carried 130 pounds or more.  (Yes, Kelso was a gelding and therefore unable to pass along his greatness, but the lines of his breeding still exist.)  But there has been a singular dearth of champions since Affirmed in 1978, showing not just speed and stamina, but great heart, in his defeats of the equally-talented Alydar.

And yet – there was still the dream.  To see with my own eyes, not through a TV screen, the next horse to accomplish the difficult feat.

I decided to buy four tickets.  I figured if Becky couldn’t come with us, I’d find a home for that fourth.  How hard could it be, to find someone else who also desired to witness living history?

I found tickets – not ideal, but they would do.  I got to wondering if I should reserve a fourth seat on the Triple Crown bus, but always delayed doing so.

Belmont Stakes ticketsTwo weeks to go.  Then a week and a half.  Still I felt no real excitement.  The tickets arrived, as did a new lens for my camera.  Becky said she would not be joining us; I contacted my Facebook friends and family, got in touch with former coworkers, searching for the person the ticket was supposed to go to – without result.  I kept reading the daily news feeds on California Chrome.  On Saturday the 31st of May I realized there was only a week left before the race.  I started making my customary lists; what I needed to pack, what schedule I would need to follow.  I checked routes and maps… printed out our hotel and bus reservations.

And I thought about belief.  Sir Barton was the first Triple Crown champion, back in 1919.  He won the Kentucky Derby on May 10th, the Preakness a mere four days later, (the Withers Stakes ten days after that), and the Belmont on June 7th.  But though it was the first time one horse had won all three races, there was no ‘Triple Crown’ until the phrase was first coined in 1923.  Three horses achieved the feat in the 1930s:  Gallant Fox in 1930; Omaha in 1935; War Admiral in 1937.  Four horses captured the title in the ’40s:  Whirlaway in 1941; Count Fleet in 1943; Assault in 1946; and Citation in 1948. I’m sure back then people were starting to think the Triple Crown was an easy, near-meaningless title.  But in between ’48 and ’73, though fifteen horses captured two of three races (seven of them took both the Derby and the Preakness), none claimed the championship.  Secretariat, of course, ended the first drought between champions, but during that quarter-century people must surely have thought the Triple Crown was somehow cursed, too difficult for one horse to achieve.

Then came Seattle Slew in ’77, and Affirmed in ’78; again, people were beginning to believe that there was nothing to winning a Triple Crown, that we’d have one every year from now on.

And in the last thirty-six years, 20 horses have two of three races on their records – 13 of those, including California Chrome, took the Derby and the Preakness, building hope and excitement.  The first twelve failed to capture the coveted crown.  And Chrome?

Was it awareness of the odds against success that kept me from believing California Chrome could be the 12th Triple Crown winner in history?  Or could the time be right?  Certainly his co-owner was confident.  And certainly the story had all the earmarks of a Disney-type happy ending.  Could fairy tales happen in real life?

Loaded and ready to go!Thursday the 5th came, and I was running from the time my feet hit the ground.  I had to get dress shoes; cold packs for the cooler; snacks for the trip.  I had to check on my garden, place protective measures against the cutworms which had already taken one of my cauliflower plants.  Every time I paused for a moment, I thought of something else I had to remember to bring with us; a pillow, blanket, some kind of cushion for bedding down in Ted’s car…

And if not for the tickets that were already paid for, I probably would have backed out; canceled the reservations at hotel and on the charter bus into Elmont, and just watched the race on TV.

But the trip was a good one; I was finally beginning to believe Chrome could do the near-impossible and becoming excited about seeing him do it.  And on the way, I found a home for the fourth ticket:  Josée Meessen, a dear friend from our sojourn in Canada, whom I hadn’t seen in twenty-six years.  She made swift plans to make the trip from Toronto, join us at the track and spend the day!

The day of the race dawned clear and bright.  We met wonderful, friendly, excited people on the Triple Crown bus, all talking about Chrome’s chances.  Ted, Jerry and I located Josée and entered the Clubhouse.  Josée told us about her trip from Toronto, where she rode with Commanding Curve’s stable owners; they also had a horse in the third race.  Due to a couple of hitches, we got inside the Clubhouse in time to see the horses for the third race parading through the tunnel.  We found our seats, watched the third race, and proceeded to enjoy the day.

Josee, Ted and Jerry in hidingJosée, a regular visitor to Woodbine (a track near Toronto), has far more racing experience than I and has developed an uncanny ability to predict the winners – but only when she isn’t consciously thinking about it!  She had absolute confidence in Chrome, so long as he ‘got his butt in gear,’ and that ‘he’s never been pushed to see what he can do.’  We had fun predicting winners – she, Ted and Jerry made a few bets – watching the races, and exploring the clubhouse and paddock area.  I picked up California Chrome posters, looked for the lady I’d met two years ago who had made the ‘Triple Crown hat,” and felt the excitement build.

When post time approached, the stands became crowded; folks that didn’t have tickets took vacant seats (which they then were evicted from when the ticket holder appeared), lined up on the steps and at the railing shielding people from falls to the deck below.  Security guards tried to usher those people gently away, but most simply wouldn’t go – and you couldn’t really blame them.  A cheering roar rose from the stands when California Chrome appeared, glistening copper topped by shining purple and green silks, and again whenever his image appeared on the life-size monitors in the infield.

Post time from the standsThe starting gate was pulled into place; the horses loaded into the stalls, one by one.  Moving in near-unison, people raised cell phones and tablets, screens glowing as they pointed toward the gate where the horses and their jockeys waited.  Through the crook of a man’s elbow one row below me, I saw a horse’s head bob in the gate – California Chrome, I suspected.  I was breathless; Josée quivered beside me.  My camera had been forbidden me by security – I had no way to capture the exact moment of the break from the gate.

And then they were off!

Chrome was on the rail in second position by the time they passed out section of the stands.  In my mind I was chanting, “Come on baby, you can do this.  Stay loose, stay easy, you can do this.  Don’t move too soon, don’t move too soon.”

Phrases ran through my head – “They can all stay if the pace is slow enough:”  “…he moved too fast, didn’t have anything left for the stretch.”  My gaze shifted, torn between the infield screen and the tiny colorful motes that were the horses in the backstretch.  All around me, people were screaming, cheering – not all for California Chrome.  I heard Ride On Curlin’s name called, as well as Commanding Curve’s and Medal Count’s.  But I couldn’t properly see what was happening.  I just knew California Chrome was tucked into a good position, off the pace but within striking distance; and I hoped he wasn’t boxed in!

The horses entered the final turn; on the indicators on the infield screen, Chrome moved from fifth to fourth place.  I thought ‘Too soon!’  Josée said, “He’s getting ready!”

They rounded the final turn into the homestretch; Josée shouted, ‘There he goes!”

But something was wrong.  Chrome wasn’t mowing down the leaders!  The leaders – and I had no idea who they were, I had only memorized the names and positions of those horses I worried could prevent Chrome from taking the Triple Crown, like Commanding Curve, Ride On Curlin, Wicked Strong.  I lost sight of the horses behind people and a support post, and fixed my eyes to the monitor.  All around, people were screaming encouragements – and I was shouting right along with them.  But Chrome wasn’t moving up.

The horses swept across the finish line, and utter silence descended on the stands.  All around, people stood still, faces blank.  I was convinced the monitor had to be wrong, that it hadn’t accurately represented the finish of the race.  There was no way Chrome could have lost!

Right?

It was destiny!

Wasn’t it?

The announcement was made, “The race is official.”  And still I couldn’t quite comprehend the meaning.  I stared at the board.  11, 8, 1, then 2 and 9 in a dead heat.  As the truth sank in, I said to Josée, “He must have gotten boxed in and couldn’t get loose until too late.”

Wondering what could possibly have happened, but prevented from reading the news feeds until roughly ten o’clock the next morning, when I’d recharged my phone and finished a six-hour driving stint, I found out that California Chrome had gotten stepped on at the gate, getting part of his hoof scraped away.  I couldn’t help but remember War Admiral, and realize that though Chrome is undeniably a good horse, he isn’t the champion we’re all looking for.

It was a good day.  It was an exciting race.  But still the story remains unfinished.  A true champion, like those of the past who can outsprint the sprinters, outstay the stayers, take on all comers in all conditions and still come home victorious, did not emerge this year.  Josée’s response was to comfort me with a, “There’s always next year.”

Yes.  There’s always next year.  And the year after, and the year after that…

For how much longer must we wait?

California Chrome poster

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