I’ve been to a whole bunch of Kentucky Derbys and Breeders’ Cups plus a Super Bowl and a World Series game. They’re all great spectacles but, for me, none of them come close to matching the excitement of the Belmont Stakes—when there is a Triple Crown on the line.
I don’t blame a football fan for preferring a Super Bowl…or a baseball fan the World Series. As someone who likes all those sports and more, however, it’s a Triple Crown-infused Belmont Stakes Day by a Secretariat-like margin.
Here’s why: Have you ever been to a baseball game when a pitcher has a no-hitter going into the late innings? The atmosphere becomes highly charged. People realize—even if the pitcher is throwing for the visiting team—that they might see something special. Something historic. Something that they might remember for their entire lives.
That’s almost exactly the feeling I have at Belmont Park when there is a Triple Crown on the line. Except that the feeling doesn’t begin an hour before the big race. It doesn’t start small and build throughout the day. It hits me right in the face as soon as I enter the grounds. This is why I will show up at this year’s Belmont, like the Triple Crown Belmonts of the past, at 9:00 a.m. or so. A long day? Absolutely. The thing is, there just aren’t many sporting days that give me the feeling that Triple Crown Belmonts do—and feelings like those are ones that, for a variety of reasons, I want to extend, not cut short.
The first Belmont Stakes I attended was in 1982 with my father. Though a Triple Crown wasn’t at stake, the day supplied me with one of the most enduring racing memories I’ll ever have. NYRA set the mood when they played, on a seemingly endless loop throughout the day, full runnings of great Belmont Stakes of the past. I don’t know whether NYRA still does this but, wow, what a marvelous indoctrination into the sport that was for a teenager. Then, at about 5:45 p.m. that afternoon, I suppose a good amount of my future was sealed. That’s when Conquistador Cielo powered past me as I sat in section 3-O. Maybe we fall harder—and more capriciously—for those we meet in our youth, but on that day, Conquistador Cielo looked as singularly powerful as any horse I have ever seen in person. And time has not diminished that feeling.
I didn’t know it then, but Conquistador Cielo’s win kicked off a run of five straight Belmont Stakes victories by Woody Stephens who, even before the streak, may well have been New York’s most beloved trainer. “Wood-y! Wood-y!” came the chants from the grandstand in 1986 as he made his way down in the rain to the winner’s circle to unsaddle Danzig Connection. The chants sounded every bit as heartfelt as those I heard offered for “Reg-gie” nine years earlier and “Ed-die” (Giacomin) before that.
The year Woody’s streak finally ended, 1987, was my first attending a Belmont with racing’s highest achievement hanging in the balance for Alysheba. I recall leaving with three thoughts: 1) This Lasix stuff might be really important to some horses. 2) Horses really do expose the limits of humans. Not even Woody could get Gone West to go a mile and a half. And 3) If there’s ever another Belmont with a Triple Crown at stake, I want to be there for it.
For the most part I was, though I did miss one such Belmont, in 1997. By now I was married with a family, and a friend’s son’s birthday party proved an obstacle too messy to overcome. Despite my wanting to see a Triple Crown winner after what was then a 19-year drought, I rooted like hell against Silver Charm that day. And even though I didn’t wind up missing a Triple Crown, I confess that I still secretly harbor an immature, stupid disappointment over having missed that renewal.
I was back in the stands for Real Quiet’s attempt in 1998. The stretch run was among the most memorable I’ve ever experienced. Equally memorable was how many of us seated in the third-floor grandstand (always my favorite spot at Belmont) sprinted back to the mutual windows to catch a glimpse of the slow-motion stretch replay while the results of the photo were still being determined. (TVs were not all that plentiful in those pre-simulcasting days. And large-screen infield monitors, at that point, were still largely a glint in Daktronics’ eye.)
A year later, an unlikely twist in my professional life meant that I was no longer in the magazine business and was, instead, now working in the racing industry for the NTRA. It wound up being a good move—in part because it only furthered the relationship the Belmont Stakes and I had nurtured during the previous 17 years.
Going from Section 3-O to a more direct involvement in the sport didn’t make me like racing or the Belmont Stakes more. I had pretty much already maxed out on those two scales. My sense of excitement—and ultimate disappointment during the years from 1999 to 2014—was accentuated, however, by the fact that I now knew, and in some cases liked, some of those striving for the Crown. Chris Antley, Jack Knowlton and John Servis and his family were among the most memorable of those.
When American Pharoah finally won the Triple Crown, I was there, of course, but I was in a far less forward-facing position than in my earlier public relations days, and I had no connection whatsoever to the horse or the Zayats or anyone. Despite that, or maybe because of that, I cried when he won. I didn’t have to maintain any sense of professionalism, and it felt as though a journey, originally embarked upon with my father and later joined by my wife, had finally reached its ultimate destination.
Except that now I know, three years later with another Triple Crown on the line, that the journey never ended. It continues—because time has passed, life has changed and I want that feeling back. Not the feeling of seeing another Triple Crown winner, but of walking into Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes Day with that feeling of wonderment—about what was, what is, and what still might be.