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ELMONT, NEW YORK—In the minutes before the Belmont Park starting gates clamored open Saturday, thousands of general admission ticket-holders craned their necks away from the track toward the stately grandstands. There, in an eloquent gray sport coat and powder blue tie, was former president Bill Clinton, waving and grinning ear-to-ear like Teddy Roosevelt on the back of a train car. The air at Belmont surged with electricity Saturday. All day and all week, we kept hearing that it could be a historic day, though we had also become so accustomed to saying “Maybe next year.” Like in 2014, when Belmont’s mile-and-a-half loop got the best of California Chrome. But something about Saturday afternoon felt different.
Even the traditionally drunk and rowdy crowd of 20-somethings that parachuted in for day drinking seemed more tranquil than in years past. Sure, you had to navigate your way through the usual sea of boat shoes and pastel pants; cocky bow ties and floppy sun hats; imitation seer sucker and wedge heels; cocktail dresses and croakies; but there were more smiles than clenched fists. It was cheerful at Belmont, even back by the lines for the port-a-johns and foot pump sinks of non-potable water; even at the generator-humming “food truck village” or by the gazebo where an anonymous band ran through classic rock covers. People were in a good mood. Nobody wanted to jinx it.
Out back, behind the grandstands, the early June sun beat down on the paddock. Cheap cigar smoke swirled with the aroma of burnt burgers and steam from hot dog carts shilling rubbery Sabretts for six bucks a pop. Coors Light tallboys bobbed in icy tubs. Selfies were snapped. Recent high school grads circled in large packs, mostly boys, most in ill-fitting khakis likely snatched from older brothers’ closets. At Penn Station earlier Saturday morning, one such pack of young racegoers struggled to work the Long Island Rail Road ticket machine as they slurped from 32-ounce fast food cups. Still, race day is a rite of passage, and sometimes you’re lucky enough to be there when the real moments happen.
Shortly after the penultimate race leading up to the main event at 6:50, the Goo Goo Dolls appeared on the small stage in front of the grandstands to play all of two songs (the first was a mystery, the second was their ’90s earworm “Slide”). The event’s official tickets even read “THE BELMONT STAKES FEAT. GOO GOO DOLLS,” as if to imply that the 147-year-old horse race, itself, wasn’t enough of a draw (the band played after, too). As the horses trickled in toward the starting gate, the pomp horns of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared over the loudspeakers. Everybody did their best to belt the lyrics, or some version of them, anyway. And then, just like that, it was tiptoes on peanut shells for 2:26, watching American Pharoah do something only 11 other horses have ever done.
I drove to the Kentucky Derby last year on a whim. I smoked a fat cigar and stumbled through the infield, looking for a first-hand glimpse of the decadent and depraved scene that every wannabe writer has read and dreamed about covering. I sang “My Old Kentucky Home” with the tens of thousands at Churchill Downs. After the race, my best friend and I ended up at a barbecue at a VFW hall with a small clump of cash in our pockets thanks to California Chrome. We bought dollar beers from locals hawking them on front lawns outside of their shotgun houses. We collapsed on motel beds with greasy Domino’s pizzas. When it comes to horse races, I assumed nothing would ever top that day.
But on Saturday evening, as Pharoah rounded the final turn and the collective cheering cascaded into a deafening bellow, then grew louder, then louder, well … it’s one of those things you can’t really describe. The first Triple Crown since 1978. History before your eyes.