Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 12, 2016

No Triple Crown, But Plenty Of Drama

There may be a less appealing travel portal than New York’s Penn Station; but if such a train, plane or bus terminal exists a visit is surely not on anyone’s bucket list. From the bright lights and soaring towers of 7th Avenue one descends into a low-ceilinged underground warren of concrete hallways populated by fast food outlets and vendors selling cheap souvenirs. But on Saturday morning the colorless grays of Gotham’s travel catacombs are merely a muted backdrop to the vivid sight of pastel sport coats, flowery spring dresses and women’s hats ranging from the glamorous to the absurd. A substantial crowd awaits the boarding announcement for the first Long Island Rail Road train of the day bound for Belmont Park.

The ceiling speakers come to life, and the rush is on for Track 19. The nine car train fills quickly, and right on time the 9:39 begins its dark journey through the tunnels beneath Manhattan and the East River. We emerge into sunlight in a section of Queens given over to industry and age, and pick up speed as we pass by the Tudor-inspired buildings of Forest Hills. The few remaining seats are taken and late comers are left to stand at the single stop in Jamaica, but from there it’s only a short ride until the train creeps around the final sweeping right hand turn to the platforms just outside the massive horse track known as the Big Sandy.

It’s been five weeks since Nyquist held off his challengers to win the Kentucky Derby, and three since Exaggerator took advantage of a blistering early pace to finally beat his rival on the fifth try at the Preakness. Late this afternoon the gate will open for thirteen horses vying to win the Test of the Champion, America’s most famous mile and one half race and third jewel of the Triple Crown.

The 148th running of the Belmont Stakes, a race older than either the Derby or the Preakness, is still hours away. Here in mid-morning fans are just beginning to trickle on to the sprawling 445 acre site. At its center is the massive concrete and brick grandstand and clubhouse, which replaced the original viewing structure in 1968. Built with more than 13,000 tons of structural steel enveloped by 44,000 cubic yards of concrete, the seating areas extend for a quarter-mile next to the dirt track’s seemingly endless front stretch. At a mile and a half, the main Belmont oval is unlike almost any other horse track, most of which are a mile long. Here the dirt track circumscribes a pair of turf layouts, known as the Widener and Inner Ovals. All three will see action today on a 13-race card that boasts ten stakes races, including six Grade I competitions.

The noon hour approaches and the crowd continues to build as the first race, the $150,000 Easy Goer Stakes goes off. Economic Model, the third betting choice, storms down the stretch in front of his fellow 3-year olds to reward his backers. Among other races the afternoon will bring the $1 million Ogden Phipps Stakes for older fillies and mares, and the $1.25 million Metropolitan Mile. Both races are part of the “Win and You’re In” series leading up to this autumn’s Breeders’ Cup championships. A victory in any of the races in this series guarantees a spot in the starting gate for the corresponding Breeders’ Cup race during the two days that will cap horse racing’s season at Santa Anita in early November.

In the Phipps the 4-year old filly Cavorting is dead last as the field enters the far turn. That’s when jockey Florent Geroux swings his mount five wide and Cavorting accelerates, passing horse after horse to pull away to a three length win. Later the Met Mile belongs to Frosted, who chased Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in last year’s Derby and Belmont. Today the heavy betting favorite gallops away from the field, crossing the wire fourteen lengths clear.

As the racing card progresses the clubhouse and grandstand gradually fill. The building can accommodate just over 30,000, and most seats are taken with several hours to go before the main event. A stroll through the general admission area that surrounds the paddock out behind the clubhouse finds the grounds teeming with people who have brought their lawn chairs and picnics for a day if not quite at, at least close to the races.

Attendance at the Belmont Stakes is largely dictated by the results of the first two Triple Crown races. The Kentucky Derby is the most famous race in the land, guaranteeing a massive crowd every year. But for the rare time when accident or illness prevents the Derby winner from running in the Preakness, hopes for a Triple Crown champion are alive and well when attention turns to Baltimore. But by the time the racing world arrives on Long Island those hopes are either riding a wave of anticipation and hype, or have been dashed for another year.

Two years ago California Chrome’s shot at glory brought an unmanageable crowd of well over 100,000 to the Belmont, resulting in utter gridlock after the race. That led the New York Racing Authority to cap attendance at 90,000. The house was full last June, when American Pharoah made his triumphant run into history down the Big Sandy’s home stretch. This season the split decision in Louisville and Baltimore along with the Nyquist’s absence due to illness guarantees today’s crowd will be smaller.

Still one year after American Pharoah ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought horse racing is basking in the glow of his success. Most grandstand seats were sold well in advance, and tens of thousands general admission tickets were also scooped up. The lack of at least a rubber match between the Derby and Preakness winners, plus a weather forecast predicting late day thunderstorms causes some ticket buyers to stay at home. But as the moment approaches more than 60,000 rise to sing along to “New York, New York,” even as dark clouds build nearby.

Minutes later the field of thirteen moves into the starting gate; then to a massive roar from the crowd they spring forth, running for glory over a distance none has ever attempted nor likely ever will again. What unfolds next is racing drama that makes up for the lack of history. The favorite Exaggerator reminds fans of just how stern the Triple Crown test is for modern thoroughbreds. Asked to run for the third time in just five weeks, he is never a factor. Instead it is two horses unraced since the Derby who thrill fans on this Saturday.

Destin, victim of a rough trip at Churchill Downs, gets a clean break from the two hole and sets up right behind the early pace of Gettysburg, a speed horse who leads all the way down the back stretch and into the far turn. That’s where Destin moves from the rail to just outside of the leader and begins his move. As they pass the quarter pole at the top of the stretch Destin claims the lead. Over the next furlong he opens room over the rest, and for a moment it looks like trainer Todd Pletcher will claim his third Belmont. But the Steve Asmussen entrant Creator has also been moving since that moment on the far turn, though starting from much further back. Taken wide by jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., Creator now comes charging down the lane, running four paths wide of the rail. He closes on Destin and the two gray colts run side by side over the final hundred yards. The photo finish shows Creator nipping Destin by a nose, matching the smallest margin of victory at any Belmont Stakes.

The horses are still cooling down when the skies open, sending fans in the open scurrying for whatever cover they can find. Even as the result becomes official the westering sun on the far horizon causes a rainbow to appear, one that appears to end literally in the Belmont Park infield. It is a symbolic reminder of the happy afterglow from American Pharoah that still enriches horse racing one year later. Betting handles are up, crowds for at least the major races remain large, and television audiences have been steady. Of course just like the rainbow near the finish line that will not last. What racing needs most of all is another great champion sooner than four decades from now. As this year’s Triple Crown results remind the sport’s fans, there is no guarantee that will happen.

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