If I were to describe my experiences at the 135th Belmont Stakes, held June 7, 2003, and the 150thBelmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, held last Saturday, parts of each story would mirror each other. On both days, throngs of fans of all ages, demographics, and levels of fandom crammed into Belmont Park to see a Thoroughbred race for the Triple Crown. On both days, the story line centered around a chestnut horse who defied the odds just to make it to Belmont Park with the chance to win racing’s most coveted prize.
Funny Cide, the protagonist of 2003, was the first gelding to win the Kentucky Derby since 1929, and the first (and only) New York-bred to win the race. Justify, the latest star, made Funny Cide’s accomplishments seem almost ordinary, having broken the “Apollo Curse” to become the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve without racing at age 2 since 1882.
However, it is the differences between these two Belmonts that are most significant to me. In 2003, I attended the Belmont as a wide-eyed 10-year-old who was obsessed with horses and fell in love with a fellow New York-bred. I stood all day in the rain with my family, and frankly, I had no idea what was going on. After Funny Cide finished third in the Belmont, my mother and I were separated from my father and brother, and we got lost trying to find our car.
Fast forward to 2018, and the plot was just a bit different. This year marked the 14th Belmont Stakes that I have attended in person, but it was my first as a full-time employee in the racing industry and a credentialed member of the media. Where I once got lost in the parking lot, I now knew every corner of the property.
Forget racing friends – I didn’t know anyone who liked horses when I was 10. Last weekend, I spent as much time reuniting with racing colleagues as I spent dissecting the contenders in each race. I was not born into racing and felt like an outsider in my early years of burgeoning fandom, and yet, as I rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent members of the industry, I tore down that invisible barrier. After 15 years of immersing myself in the horse racing industry, I belonged.
Of course, the most glaring difference between my first Belmont Stakes and my 14th was the outcome: Justify romped to victory, and racing welcomed a 13th Triple Crown winner. When Funny Cide lost in 2003, I was one of many who questioned whether I would ever see a Triple Crown winner. The failed bids of Smarty Jones, Big Brown, I’ll Have Another, and California Chrome only strengthened those feelings. Remarkably, Justify is now the second Triple Crown winner that I’ve been privileged to see in person, after American Pharoah’s majestic win in 2015.
I will admit that I was not as emotionally invested in Justify as I was in American Pharoah or any of the horses who had previously bid for the Triple Crown in my lifetime. Ending a 37-year Triple Crown drought can have that effect, but, in its own way, this Belmont Stakes may turn out to be the most memorable of them all.
One of the privileges of having a media credential is the ability to enter the backstretch stable area. While some people outside of racing may have called me crazy to show up at John Terranova’s barn (where Justify was stabled) at 6:20 a.m. the morning after the Belmont Stakes, I would have thought myself crazy not to. My reward for almost no sleep was getting the opportunity to stand within a few feet of Justify and mingle with members of the racing media who love the sport as much as I do. My iPhone pictures can’t compare to the work of the professional photographers who stood alongside me as we admired greatness together, but my memories of the morning will be just as clear.
I would like to think that my experiences in the days leading up to and following the 2018 Belmont Stakes represented a culmination of my relentless pursuit to become involved in the sport of kings. Following the 2003 Belmont Stakes, there is no way I could have fathomed my transformation from a horse-crazy girl watching the Kentucky Derby on television to a horse-crazy woman working for The Jockey Club and hanging out with a Triple Crown winner. While I am grateful to Justify for anchoring a weekend of a lifetime, he is just one of many members of the racing world, both human and equine, who remind me every day that I am so very lucky to be a part of this industry.