ELMONT, N.Y. – Shortly after sunrise, fans started arriving at Belmont Park for the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes, hoping to see California Chrome capture the Triple Crown.
The earliest arrivals were greeted in the backstretch parking lots by parking attendants directing them to spots and t-shirt hawkers pushing their wares a $10 a pop. Shuttle buses to the grandstand were filled with horse talk; picks and tips from both the knowledgeable and those who only think they are.
Anticipation hung in the air – the kind of anticipation that is thick at a senior prom, anticipation that “tonight might be the night.” It’s been 36 years since Affirmed captured the Triple Crown here, defeating Alydar by a nose. Twelve times since, a horse has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to fail to complete the Triple Crown at Belmont Park.
A year after Affirmed, Spectacular Bid went off as the 3-10 favorite. But a fast early pace tired Spectacular Bid, and he had nothing left down the stretch, finishing third behind Coastal and Golden Act. The drought had begun.
Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, and I’ll Have Another. The best horses of a lifetime – all of them unable to capture the third jewel.
Smarty Jones lost down the stretch. The racing world’s desire to see a Triple Crown winner was heavy in announcer Tom Durkin’s voice, calling “it’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong away!” But Birdstone surged past Smarty Jones in the final few yards, making history wait yet again.
Just three years ago, I’ll Have Another never made it to the gate. He was scratched the night before due to soreness in his left front leg.
Horse racing is a sport of hope – that a longshot will come in, that a trifecta will hit, that the drama of the homestretch will be ever in a fan’s favor.
On Belmont morning in 1979, with racing at its peak, three Triple Crown winners in the past decade and another surely to come in Spectacular Bid, the dreams of turf fans may have felt so close that they could hardly fail to grasp it.
Perhaps today, California Chrome will run faster than the 10 other horses that will enter Belmont’s starting gate.
If not, the fans will build more hope for next year, that the new crop of three-year olds will be the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, while reliving – or for the younger fans, experiencing – the excitement of a Triple Crown win on grainy old video, which bears us back ceaselessly into the past.