I'm still not entirely sure why they were chanting "U.S.A". Presumably they just needed an outlet to release the 37 years of pent-up jubilation. Maybe it was the $18 dollar Belmont Jewels. Maybe it was the "American" in American Pharoah, the Kentucky bay colt with the faint white star on his forehead, who had just won the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes to become the 12th horse to ever win the Triple Crown.
The moment American Pharoah crossed the finish line will forever be cemented as the defining one of a beautiful New York Saturday afternoon. But it was just a blip on a long day of sun-drenched drinking and gambling.
After the five-length win, American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert told the media that the shepherding of horses from race to race "takes an extraordinary toll" on the animals. I can attest that it's not much better for humans. The herding process took us from the Long Island Railroad through the bus lot, around the security lot, and past a bible-thumper warning all those who enter of God's wrath. He would be the only person I saw who didn't have a horse in this race.
The grand ballroom welcomed us when we finally squeezed through the glass doors to pick up the day's racing form. Ivy on the wall and a fresh coat of paint gave the old building a spit-shine, but failed to hide time's wear. Affirmed's Triple Crown run wasn't the only thing at Belmont harkening back to 1978. The betting counters were clad in an orange, yellow and brown color scheme that was popular in the last great decade of horse racing.
The smell of popcorn and cigar smoke filled the air. In fact, the cigar smoke was the first thing I noticed walking into Belmont Park, where smoking was not only accepted, but cigar stands littered the general admission area where most of the 90,000 in attendance resided. The true spectacle of the day was watching a crowd of this size balance gambling, drinking, eating, and long bathroom lines in each other's company.
Did you know that American Pharoah is technically a ridgling because he has an undescended testicle? I wondered aloud if this was the reason he's so fast—a mixture of agitation and pent-up testosterone. Another bystander asked what horse had just taken a shit. Everyone on the grounds found some reason to walk up to the teller with a few bucks in hand and a string of numbers, no more educated than the next man.
Standing behind a gentleman in a seersucker suit, a woman with the most elegant hat of the day, and a less-than-gentleman wearing a sleeveless Derek Jeter jersey, an immense feeling of pride welled up inside me. "This isn't the Kentucky Derby," I thought, having never been myself. This was better. The Kentucky Derby might have $2000 mint juleps, but this was the the opportunity to witness a Triple crown standing alongside my fellow New Yorkers. Novices like me mingled with men who spend their lives at the track. The scene was a mix of sadness, excitement, debauchery and elation, the perfect metaphor for life.
"Daddy, you see Castellano is riding Madefromlucky?"
"My daughter's the one who really knows what's going on," the man said to us in his very thick Boston accent. "I remember we came down here in '08 for Big Brown." Even the word "brown" extended with the long A of his home vernacular. "We stopped at an Irish baaaah in midtown when we got into town, and when we told them we were from Baahston here for the race the baaahtender gave us a round on the house." This seemed like an unnecessary detail, "but let me finish" he said, maybe realizing he was losing our attention.
"We had box seats like today, and some guy offered us $1000 a piece for the tickets..." After each sentence he seemed to trail off. He wasn't drunk, we surmised he just wanted to speak to an adult. "Some of us wanted to do it, but we came all this way... Of course, then Big Brown pulls up... that was probably the best chance for a Triple Crown until this year."
He would be the only person I spoke to that offered any advice on the big race—and despite his enthusiasm to speak to three strangers, his guess seemed just as good as any. "If anyone is going to beat him, I think it's Mubtaahij." Mubtaahij started the day listed at 10-1.
The smart bet, I was told, was American Pharoah to place, which I did. I put another five on Mubtaahij to win and a $2 box exacta on the three favorites—$22 in total.
The only thing sadder than the ATM line at a casino is the ATM line at the race track, and as the Belmont Stakes approached, the lines grew longer and more desperate. The blank stares on people's faces were a mix of drunken and fiscal fatigue. The excitement of the moment drawing near, bow-ties and summer dresses seemed to lose a little luster in the slowly setting sun. As far as sporting events go this was a long day and we were not immune to its toll. I guess that's why the Goo Goo Dolls were booked to perform a couple songs before the race. The crowd certainly appreciated the entertainment, but no one in attendance paid for a concert. During a lull in their acoustic performance of "Slide" someone screamed "American Pharoah!" and the crowd returned the favor with a roar. The headliner was about to take his place.
"When we put this day together back in February we thought it would be great racing, great hospitality," NYRA president Chris Kay told the throng of reporters after the race, "but we had no idea it would be one of the most fantastic days in racing history."
As the 90,000 people started to push their way towards the track, this sense of history became more apparent. The sluggish enthusiasm of waiting an entire day for the horses to enter the arena became a palpable moment in time. The blare of the horns signaling their entrance gave me goosebumps. This was the Super Bowl or the World Series—if everyone was rooting for the same team. The horses sauntered around the track for one final runway show, but the ticket counters sat barren; whoever was going to wager had already placed their bets.
I can vividly remember the bell, and the pressure on the balls of my feet as I stood on tipped toes trying to see over the crowd. The noise drowned out most of my thoughts, but not quite enough to keep me from being able to hear my friends ask if I could see what was happening.
American Pharoah hit the home stretch, slowly widening his lead. Or so I thought, still unable to see. The noise grew to a thunderous roar. Having no concept of where any of the horses were, I stuck my phone in the air to try and grab a picture. I snapped furiously. The individual screams began to meld into one unified voice. We all started screaming and high-fiving, though still not sure it was over.
"Did he do it?" My friend Thomas asked me.
The roar didn't stop. It only got louder.
"He must have!"
I'm from Buffalo, so the celebration seemed so foreign. The misplaced exuberation of everyone screaming in unison for something seemingly so unimportant to all of our existence, came pouring out of us all in different ways. And when you don't know what to say; when words fail to describe what you're feeling, there was only one logical conclusion to a day that I will remember as one the greatest spectacles in all of sports.