It feels both fitting and exhausting that the school year comes to an end just as the Triple Crown does. I’m sitting today in my last full day of end-of-year meetings; yesterday, I published my final post at BelmontStakes.com; early Sunday afternoon, I filed my last Triple Crown race story for Thoroughbred Times.
Since late April, both NYRA and Thoroughbred Times offered me multiple opportunities to write about this year’s Triple Crown races, for which I am grateful, and I thank them for that chance. Thanks particularly to Thoroughbred Times for making it possible for me to attend my first Kentucky Derby.
I thought about the Derby on Saturday, as I stood, often shivering, mostly damp, at Belmont. The magazine had asked me to write a series of “First Derby” stories, including relating my own experience of being at the Run for the Roses for the first time.
Anyone who reads here regularly knows I’m a Derby skeptic who thinks that the race gets way more hype than it deserves from a strictly racing standpoint. So maybe it was that, or maybe it was a little streak of contrarianism, but I didn’t, as I’d been told I would, get chills during the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home,” nor did I feel awed as I watched the horses run down the stretch, from the break and then again at the finish.
Which is not to say that it wasn’t cool…it was, especially that first run. As I watched the horses run towards me, I had that weird sense of witnessing in person something that I’d seen on television so many times…it felt so familiar, yet very, very different.
I thought about the Derby on Saturday because I tried to spend as much time as I could, freezing though it was, in the seats with my brother and friends, watching the races from the grandstand. And I loved when, at the beginning of every race, even the ones that began way back on the other side of the massive track, so far away, the crowd, undeterred by rain and chill, roared its approval as the horses broke from the gate, and again when they turned for home.
I don’t have much of an opinion on the Belmont song, so I had no sentimental attachment to the return of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” But trying frantically to finish a race recap before the Belmont, I felt the floor begin to vibrate when the 55,000+ who had come out despite the terrible weather, despite there being no Triple Crown, added their voices to Sinatra’s.
And yeah, I got chills.
And that was the impetus for me to finish that story, to get it filed, and to watch the race where I’ve watched it for the last seven years: in the grandstand, with family and friends, listening, through the course of the race, to the commentary of those around us; hearing, mostly clearly, Tom Durkin’s call.
Belmont will never be Churchill Downs; the Belmont Stakes will never be the Kentucky Derby. Here, we’re pretty psyched that nearly 56,000 people turned up, a crowd that is paltry by any Churchill measure.
But – and I know I keep repeating this, but really, the misery of the weather can’t be overestimated – all of those people came out, some dressed for the weather, others for a spring party, determined to have a good time, and a good time they had. They were spirited (often in more ways than one) and enthusiastic and engaged, and if we were all a little bewildered by the winner…well, that’s racing.
At yesterday’s Race Day Medication Summit (about which more will follow tomorrow), Bill Nader, the former NYRA CEO who’s now the executive director of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, called Belmont “historically the most important stage in American racing.” While others might disagree with that assessment, it’s a big part of why I love Belmont and the Belmont Stakes.
I grew up in New York, and its traditions and history means a lot to me; learning about the racing history in this state over the last four years has been one of the most enriching, fascinating, satisfying endeavors I’ve undertaken, and on our big racing days, all of that history and tradition comes together. The Belmont might be something of an anachronism these days, and some years (though not this one), it can feel like something of an afterthought in the Triple Crown series.
But it’s been run since 1867, at this track since 1905, and its very name is redolent of the roots of racing here. And I love that it is sui generis in American racing: a mile and a half race on the only mile and a half track in this country.
It’s farther. It’s tougher. It’s supposed to be, and it’s the big city’s race. And for this year, it’s over. On to Saratoga…