The field waits for the start of the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes. (Photos by Julie June Stewart)
We all carry hopes and dreams. We have learned through the daily bump and grind of life that sometimes dreams need to be tempered and adjusted. And yes, dreams can be crushed. I think that one of the worst conflicts you can experience is when the movie in your mind does not match the reality of your life. This is something a horse racing fan knows only too well.
A Kentucky Derby winner opens the door to an avalanche of dreams. And oh, how sweet those dreams can be. I gathered my dreams and stood on the rail at the Preakness. It’s a funny thing about allowing yourself to dream. I was so certain that California Chrome was “the one” that I basically put my life on hold after the Kentucky Derby. It was as if California Chrome’s win in the Derby set off a clock inside of me that was clicking away toward a single moment in time. One race, one moment in history where time will slow and one collective breath will be drawn by 100,000 people in search of an answer.
Will he do it? Will he be the one? The answer seekers poured into New York from all over the world. The tempo quickened. The massive grandstands and surrounding grounds filled with a sea of green and purple. Real estate was precious, especially along the rail where it was a sea of humanity. I found sanctuary in my seat (gratefully shaded) in the grandstands where the beautiful expansive view of Belmont Park laid in waiting.
AUTHOR WITH CALIFORNIA CHROME FANS
Time marched on. The crowds cheered when a pickup scooted along the rail while men used T-Shirt cannons to shoot shirts into uplifted arms. The staff hustled smartly up and down the stairs to wipe the seats for each arriving patron. The crowds waved and yelled as the water trucks laid on their air horns while they slowly rumbled by on the track. Fans unfolded their signs of support for California Chrome and settled in their seats but not for long. After stashing their bags under their seats, they launched in quest for anything and everything! Food, water, booze, betting, photos, gifts, T-shirts and hats! Time to visit with friends in the paddock area. It was impossible to sit still as everyone had this restless energy – a current running through the crowd.
The cell phone and wireless system crashed repeatedly as it labored under the duress of more than 100,000 people trying to use it. Bets were placed. Calls were made. Pictures were posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You would hear someone say, “You bet I’m here! I wouldn’t miss this for the world!” Facebook was a sea of purple and green photographs and people posted their hats, T-shirts, outfits, jewelry, selfies and even their matching manicures. Purple and green feathers bounced jauntily in the breeze on hats and fascinators. Slowly, the aisles and stairwells filled with people who were struggling to find a view. As the afternoon progressed, if you needed to go anywhere, you couldn’t.
RANDY FROM SASKATCHEWAN CAME PREPARED TO CELEBRATE
And why would you! It was time for the answer that more than 100,000 people were seeking. An answer the world was waiting for. We proudly sang “New York, New York” with Frank Sinatra Jr. We cheered the horses as they entered the paddock. We cheered when they were saddled and when the jockeys were given a leg up. The cheers rose as the horses entered the track from the tunnel. The cheers became roars as each section of the grandstand caught sight of the purple-and-green bedecked horse and jockey known as America’s Horse – California Chrome.
Suddenly, it was silent as the audio system suffered a failure. We waited in silence and the crowd rumbled. The horses and jockeys waited. They walked in circles to the left of the starting gate. The crowd grew restless as the silence continued. Then the sound system was revived and the horses came forward. One by one, each horse was cheered as they loaded into the starting gate. But who were we kidding? We were here for the Triple Crown. We were here to witness history.
CALIFORNIA CHROME WAITS IN THE STARTING GATE
The horses loaded swiftly and the crowd held its breath until Tom Durkin said “And they’re off!” At least, I think he might have said it. You couldn’t hear a thing because of a gigantic swelling roar. The crowd was yelling and screaming. Portions of sentences floated in space around you. “He’s on the inside!” “He’s on the first turn!” “ “Twoooooooooooooooo, Two, Twoooooo,” “Go Victor go,” “C’mon Victor – easy does it!” “Go California Chrome,” “Who’s in front?” “He’s trapped!” “He’s switching lanes!” “He’s on the outside!” “Go Victor go!” “Now! Now! Let him go NOW!!!” “He’s moving!” “He’s third!” “He’s going to get them!” “Let him go!” “NOW! VICTOR! NOW!” The crowd screamed and implored and pleaded. As every binocular pinned with laser focus on the red colt in purple blinkers, suddenly your brain was telling you a message your heart did not want to hear.
I heard it. Quietly at first, and then I knew. “Not today honey, not today.” It was the voice of my departed mom. Then it was my voice and I knew. My binoculars filled with tears as I sought the purple and green silks behind the first three horses. I didn’t know who won and for a moment I didn’t care. I watched the horses gallop out and set my binoculars down. I slumped down in my chair and cradled my head in my arms.
The crowd noise ceased. As Joel Rosario brought Tonalist to the winner’s circle, the crowd busied itself with picking up and packing out. It was quiet. We walked silently down to the paddock area. Friends hugged and said good-bye. We simply said “see you later” and walked away in our own thoughts.
How hard is it to go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in less than two minutes? When you have spent six weeks climbing the stairs of hopes and dreams and others have spent three years getting ready for this moment. How can life prepare you to be a loser when you allow your dreams to soar? We celebrate our champions. We raise a glass and hail them. We rarely salute the horse that came in behind the winner.
As I walked with the crowd, I felt twinges of embarrassment. I chastised myself for allowing my dreams to believe that “it” might happen again. Things that were tolerated before the race became magnified after the race. I pulled off my earrings because they were annoying me. I suddenly ached with exhaustion. I was cranky, hungry and I felt the need to get away from people. This was ironic because I was in a crowd of 102,199 people and it felt like every single one of them bumped into me.
SUNSET ON BELMONT DAY
I know what I need to do as my brain rants and raves about horse racing, dreams and Triple Crowns. I needed to regroup. So I took my program, walked into the paddock area and sought solitude in the shadow of the Japanese white pine tree. I studied the program through my tears and urged myself to focus while choosing a horse for the next race. Then a little bit of the peace I was seeking came. A good looking colt named Pazolini (by Bernadini) looked me in the eye. His jockey happened to be Joel Rosario and he smiled a quick smile.
I followed them out of the tunnel and stepped over the debris of the day littering the apron. Cans crunched underneath my feet and losing tickets drifted into piles on the pavement. Most of the crowd had dispersed to the parking lots (in their attempt to leave the track) and they probably missed the spectacular sunset. As the golden light of the sunset diffused the sharp edges of the track, the horses turned for home.
As Pazolini walked into the winner’s circle, his connections were cheering. It was fun to see their joy and happiness. I watched the sun set and I let my emotions settle down with it. The pink clouds were slowly changing to blue and gray. I may not have witnessed a Triple Crown win, but I was a witness to racing history. It was a glorious ride with California Chrome.
CALIFORNIA CHROME AND EXERCISE RIDER WILLIE DELGADO
As I left the track, I was unaware of California Chromes injury and had not seen Mr. Coburn’s post-race interview. I discovered this information later. I went to bed thinking about loss and woke up thinking about loss. I was sad that a friendly old geezer lost his charm when he lost his sense of humor.
Dreams come and go. With every horse there is a possibility. We may not have a Triple Crown winner, but we have a wonderful colt who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. I commend trainer Christophe Clement and all his connections for their exciting Belmont Stakes win with Tonalist.
I know I will return to Belmont Park again and again. I need to see the ivy covered walls and enjoy its rich racing history. I want to sit underneath the trees in the paddock and reminisce about the horses, friends and races that I have witnessed. I will continue to wait for a Triple Crown winner. In the meantime, I will celebrate what we have. After all, it’s time to take a look at the 2-year-olds and open the door to a new dream.