I watched the Jockey Club Gold Cup from the winner’s circle at Belmont Park on Saturday. It’s an ideal spot for about five seconds, the last five seconds of the race. The race started on the clubhouse turn, so most of us had to rely on the infield screen to see what was happening.
I watched as Haynesfield went to the lead and loped along; the people standing near me and I watched as he led around the turn. We looked at the screen; we looked at the fractions. We looked at the screen, we looked at the fractions. And as the field headed up the backstretch, it started: “Is he going to steal this?”
The horses headed into the far turn, and the chatter, unlike the pace, picked up. “I can’t believe he’s getting away with this!” “Are they really going to let him take this?”
A curious suspense, born of what wasn’t happening, took hold as the field rounded the turn. I was reminded, if I could be so irreverent, a little of Da’ Tara. A longshot (though not quite as long as Da’ Tara) was loose on the lead on Belmont’s huge turn, and the prohibitive favorite appeared helpless in the face of a lack of a pace.
They came into the stretch and Haynesfield indeed gave every indication of stealing the race, with Blame mounting not much of a challenge behind him. What we were watching didn’t make sense, the comments continued, and no one could really believe, despite what we were clearly seeing, that Haynesfield was going to get away with this. We were watching a race unfold not as we envisioned it, and the cognitive dissonance took more than a mile to be resolved…if indeed the finish line resolved it.
A few hours later, I watched the Lady’s Secret Zenyatta Lady’s Secret. I’m always nervous before Zenyatta races – there seems to be so much at stake, and I get sort of like my mother did when our horses raced when I was a kid: sometimes, I have to turn away and just listen because it’s all too much for me.
The Belmont press box was still pretty full, and everyone stopped working (deadlines be damned!) to watch. Unlike the Jockey Club Gold Cup, this race ran pretty much to form – or did it? Wasn’t Zenyatta closer than usual? Wasn’t she moving earlier than usual? That’s bad, right? Why is she going now?
As she always does, Zenyatta went way wide around the turn. As she always does, she looked at the backs of the horses in front of her, and she took dead aim.
And as has often seemed the case recently, she seemed to have an awful lot of ground to make up, and not enough time. As it had several hours before, the commentator buzz began. “She’s not going to get there.” “Ooh, maybe not this time.” “Yeah, she’s fine, she’s fine…”
I found myself leaning, leaning waaay to the side and the back, trying to pull her with cross-continental gravity closer to the finish line. The chatter continued, murmuring, unintelligible, until…breath exhaled, shoulders relaxed…“She got there!”
I teach Psycho every year in my film class, and we talk about the nature of suspense: how it’s created, how it’s resolved, how we react to it. Who feels the greater stress, those of us who know what’s coming, and when, or those who only nervously suspect? Does knowledge or the unknown bring great unease?
The result of a horse race is always unknown, but the way it’s run isn’t, despite the best of our prognostications. Haynesfield and Zenyatta ran two entirely different races…eliciting uncertainty, delight, awe, respect in their own ways. Our racing blood pressure was raised equally by a horse who led every step of the way, and one who wasn’t in front until steps before the wire.
With Haynesfield, it was, “Can he stay there?” With Zenyatta, “Can she get there?”
We asked those questions, internally and out loud, on Saturday afternoon. And to the great good fortune of those of us watching, on a terrific day of coast to coast racing, the answer to both was, to borrow from Marv Albert, “Yesssssssss!”