Before this June, the last time a thoroughbred (race horse) won a Triple Crown – i.e., swept the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes – my father was 24 years old. Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. The World Wide Web was at least 11 years away and Bob Metcalfe had only invented Ethernet a few years prior. The original World Trade Center had been standing for less than 10 years. Manhattan was synonymous with crime and urban decay. Downtown Brooklyn was a community in which a family of teachers could afford a house. Michael Jordan was 15 years old. I wasn’t born.
37 years doesn’t seem a long time. Sports, though, has a way of stretching out the years. Part of the thrill of watching sports is anticipating a famous, long-standing record being broken, but when said record resists being broken, its casts a long shadow that feels like it will never go away. The first time I remember watching a horse trying to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978 was in 1997, at which point the drought was already a respectable 19 years. Silver Charm couldn’t deliver, beaten by Touch Gold (you can’t make this stuff up) in the stretch while I watched from a TV in Florida.
The next year, Real Quiet suffered one of the worst defeats in sporting history (right up there with Ghana’s World Cup loss to Uruguay) on an unlucky head bob at the end against Victory Gallop, as my grandfather and I watched from his Kentucky living room. Charismatic broke down past the wire after fading against Lemon Drop Kid. War Emblem stumbled out of the gate. Smarty Jones was run down by Birdstone while we all watched while on vacation in Vermont. Big Brown had a shoe loosened and eased up while I sat in the June heat one summer in Rhode Island right after I had graduated college. I’ll Have Another scratched the day before the race as I checked ESPN from my Chicago apartment. California Chrome was stepped on by another horse and couldn’t pull out the victory.
The Triple Crown drought seemed so long perhaps because it followed me through adolescence, high school, college, and the beginning of my career. I watched horses fail from TV sets in 5 different states, from ages 10 to 27. When California Chrome owner Steve Coburn huffed that he would never see a Triple Crown winner in his life after Tonalist won the Belmont Stakes, I kinda believed him.
On June 6, 2015, I was prepared to make it a staggering 6 states from which I had viewed a Triple Crown chance get dashed. I had watched American Pharoah’s victory in the Kentucky Derby from Chicago, his triumph in the Preakness from a Manhattan bar, and now I was off with my brother and his friend to Belmont Park itself to see the horse attempt what so many had deemed impossible for the modern thoroughbred.
Going to Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes day, with a Triple Crown on the line, is surreal. I expected the worst – a breakdown, a devastating loss in the stretch, an unruly crowd – but the entire place seemed sun-soaked in optimism. Women were hearing hats and men were wearing blazers and smoking cigars. The general admission area was crowded but respectful, and perfect strangers stood up for the privileges of others. Tickets were not expensive. It made me feel great about “human nature,” whatever that is.
Prior to Race 11 (that’s the Belmont Stakes) I had the anxiety of someone having to deliver a speech on the first day of class – and I was only watching! It’s hard to explain how intense the feeling is. Triple Crown opportunities don’t happen every year and the race itself is so short after so much build-up – hell, the entire Triple Crown usually takes less than 6 minutes to run each year. When the race started, I was swimming in the sunshine and the heat and the barely audible sound of the track announcer shouting over the crowd of 90,000+.
I couldn’t even see them as they rounded into the backstretch. My brother was confident, as I had been so many times in the past watching Real Quiet and Smarty Jones jump out to their seemingly decisive leads. My hands were sweaty. Finally, the 8 horses came into the stretch, with American Pharoah well ahead and extending his lead. He blazed past us; I would have been worried about him being caught had I been watching on TV (weird angle on the replay) but in person there was no doubt. Here was a horse that was dominating without even seeming to try.
He coasted past the line. My relief was met with a tingling feeling in my hands that I couldn’t recall ever feeling, and, yes, a few tears. I jumped and hugged at least two people around me. I high-fived a guy who had been arguing with a Red Sox fan who had been smoking near his friend prior to the race. The noise felt like the woozy din from a video bar after you are two drinks too drunk – faraway yet immersive.
I kept waiting for something to go wrong, for there to be an inquiry or a post-race injury, something that would snap me out of it. Nothing happened. We were inside history in the weird bubble of Belmont Park, which on this day had the multicultural sweep of New York City compressed into rustic, tree-fringed throwback of a suburban race track. It’s fitting that the track literally straddles Queens and Nassau counties, bringing together the buzz of NYC proper with the quietude of the outside world.
They put up a panel for American Pharoah next to the other 11 Triple Crown winners in the infield. It was done quickly, as if to punctuate the action with an exasperated “Finally!” Within the hour, we were on the Long Island Railroad back to the rest of Queens, outrunning the crowds just as the horse had outrun 7 competitors and innumerable ghosts of failure.