Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 8, 2014

Tough Trips To, And Around, The Big Sandy

Saturday has long since given way to Sunday by the time the Cessna 172 floats down the glide path toward runway 35 at Concord Municipal Airport. I am in the back of the four-seater, behind two friends who are also skilled pilots. We are dropping through the final few hundred feet of our return from Republic Airport on Long Island. Many hours earlier we departed from this same runway, filled with hope that in the course of a day at Belmont Park we would be witnesses to racing history.

The day is perfect for flying. Taking off to the north under a cloudless blue sky in the morning, one friend banks the plane in a lazy u-turn even as we begin our climb to 6,500 feet and a path to the southwest. In the right front seat my other friend handles communications. In steady sequence we are handed off from one air traffic controller to another.

From Boston Center to Boston Approach the signals come in even as I look down upon the woods of southwestern New Hampshire giving way to the towns of central Massachusetts. The asphalt ribbon of the Mass Pike is visible as we are passed along to those handling the skies north of Hartford. On the horizon Long Island Sound comes into view, and soon we are in the hands of New York Approach, who at last yields to a woman controller handling tower duties at the general aviation facility in Farmingdale. Many hours later we will reverse our course, and but for the obvious difference between night and day the two flights are mirror images of smooth flying.

What we cannot know is that the most technologically complex portion of our journey will prove to be the easiest. In planning the trip to see the final jewel of the Triple Crown we weighed different possibilities for ground transportation. Through emails, text messages, and even one instance of that most archaic of communication methods, a live telephone call, we have collectively decided on the train. It will take us west to the LIRR’s hub in Jamaica, Queens, from which special cars are making frequent runs down the short spur to Belmont Park.

A taxi from the airport deposits us on the westbound side of the Farmingdale station with a couple of minutes to spare, or so it seems. But the only ticket machine is on the eastbound side, and by the time we walk through a pedestrian tunnel under the tracks and punch in the information to get the tickets we need, the train we hoped to catch has come and gone. After a thirty minute wait the next one arrives, and our trip begins anew. At Jamaica we transfer to a “Belmont Special” that rolls in from Penn Station jammed to overflowing. Somehow we squeeze into the forward car, and a few minutes later arrive at the track.

All the train’s passengers converge on just two staircases leading up to the overhead walkway to the track’s grandstand entrance. Lost in the crush of racing fans we make our slow way up the stairs and along the crowded ramp. But after waiting our turn and finally arriving at the entrance, we are directed to a different gate because we are carrying folding chairs. Another walk and a longer wait ensue, until finally we gain admission to the sprawling area behind the Belmont grandstand. There amongst untold thousands of other like-minded fans we find a shady place to sit with a good view of the many television monitors displaying race odds, and, when the time comes, the races themselves.

Many hours later, after the 146th Belmont Stakes has been run, we return to our chairs and contemplate the rest of our journey. The Belmont was the 11th race on a 13 race card, and our plan had been to enjoy the final two races, thinking that most fans would depart immediately after the main event. But with a massive crowd of more than 100,000 in attendance, it quickly becomes apparent that many are of like mind. Even if half the attendees are headed for the exits, that still leaves 50,000 or more. It will be many hours before this crowd thins out.

First we head back to the train, and the end of an impossibly long line at ground level that inches its way toward a set of steps up to the overhead walkway. At one point New York police direct us to the foot of those steps. But minutes later those same police decide to close the stairway, directing everyone outside back into the grandstand in order to reach the walkway level. Back inside after the resulting tumult, the stairways to the second level are packed, and no one is moving.

With direction from another policeman we head out to the main gate in hopes of finding a taxi. There we find traffic at a standstill and hundreds of other race goers also hoping to hail a cab, though none are in sight. We march for many blocks away from the track, but the view remains unchanging. Finally a city bus comes along, its final destination the Jamaica bus terminal. Reasoning that if we can get that far we can probably find a cab to the train station, we board.

The bus’s route is back in the direction from which we came, toward the track and the traffic jam. It’s a good hour before we work our way through the crush and on into Queens. At the terminal we learn that a different bus will take us to the train station, and so another wait begins. At last the Q6 arrives, and we are underway once more. Not wanting to miss our stop, I ask an iPhone app to direct us to the train station. But the app fails us in our moment of need, zeroing in on the main Jamaica subway center. As a result we leave the bus too soon, and are left with a five block walk to catch our train. Naturally the result is that we walk into the station even as the 10:35 to Farmingdale departs. The next train is at 11:40.

It’s well past the witching hour before that train pulls into the little village in Nassau County. With a further wait for a taxi and the necessary preflight checks, the clock reads just after 1:00 a.m. when the Cessna rolls onto the runway for takeoff. Contending with a slight headwind, the journey home is slower than the trip down. It will be two hours before we are floating down that glide path.

In between a trip with a bump or two and a return that became the stuff of a bad comedy, there was a full day of exciting racing.  Enough that I would certainly do it again, though with a better plan for ground transport.  From our chairs in the Backyard, a spot along the rail on the track’s apron, or standing room in the grandstand, we watch a card that features nine graded stakes races, including six Grade Ones. Perhaps an auger of what is to come, it is not a good day for favorites. Finally in the 9th race Palace Malice ends that trend. The winner of last year’s Belmont is undefeated as a 4-year old, and he charges down the stretch to win the Metropolitan Handicap, maintaining that streak.

But while Palace Malice may well be the best horse in the country, he is not the thoroughbred we have come to see. At last the moment is at hand. Signs reading “Triple Chrome” are everywhere, and when Frank Sinatra Jr. begins a rendition of “New York, New York” the assembled throng comes to its feet with a mighty shout. The roar redoubles when California Chrome steps onto the track with Victor Espinoza aboard. The noise somehow transcends itself as the field moves into the starting gate.  After 36 years, is the wait finally over?

After we refuel the plane I still have an hour’s drive back to Portsmouth. On the exit ramp from I-95, I can see that the eastern sky has turned pink, presaging the early rise of a summer sun. When I return to my bed it will be but an hour short of 24 since I climbed out of it to begin my journey with friends. In the end we have seen not the history we desired, but a more familiar kind.

For the ninth straight year the Belmont was won by a fresh horse that skipped the Preakness. California Chrome was never quite out of the race, but never really in it. As high as 2nd, as low as 5th, he ran as well as he could. As the field came down the stretch the noise was deafening, but the shouts had taken on a plaintive tone. When the horses came by my position inside the eighth pole, it was clear that once again there would be no Triple Crown. In the end he was two lengths short and tiring, caught at the wire by Wicked Strong in a dead heat for 4th place.

After the race, while my friends and I were contemplating which of several mistakes we would make in an attempt to get back to Farmingdale, California Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn gave an ill-tempered interview to NBC in which he called allowing Triple Crown entrants to skip the Preakness cheating. For that he has been excoriated, as the high and mighty of a declining sport feast on the carcass of an interloper. But while his timing may have been bad, Coburn’s point is legitimate, proven by nine straight Belmont’s. Coburn isn’t the first to suggest a “run all or run none” requirement. The two horses in the Belmont other than Chrome who ran the gauntlet finished up the track, 7th and 11th.  As an alternative, the owner of winner Tonalist has renewed the call for lengthening the time between the three great races.

The reality is that given current training methods and the increasingly delicate nature of the breed, asking thoroughbreds to climb the Triple Crown mountain in five weeks time, against opponents who have not had to do so, is too much. Until either entry rules or the schedule changes, there will be no Triple Crown. Every spring the races will be held, and we will hear about the lengthening wait for a champion. Every so often a horse will win the first two, and capture the hearts of fans. But horse racing and its steadily declining base will be chasing not a dream, but a chimera. The difference of course, is that dreams sometimes come true.

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