As I type, I'm at Belmont with Mark, during the break between the 6th and 7th races. It's brisk and cloudy, but not raining. At least, not anymore.
Getting here wasn't too hard -- the NJ Transit train even arrived about 10 minutes earlier than we expected it to, so we were able to catch the 12:01 LIRR train to Belmont. That got us here about an hour earlier than we arrived at this time last year.
I picked a standing spot just after the final turn, while Mark went to the Men's Room. Then I sent him a text messsage and a picture message on his phone, to show him just where I was. Pretty handy stuff, that technology. :o)
Unfortunately, I took my place just in time to see a horse break down just before the final turn, in the third race. It was the favorite, and it was wearing #9. The jockey pulled up and got off, and some people hurried to help take the saddle and whatnot off. The horse was lame in one of his front legs, but he was standing. I felt terrible for the poor horse. They came out with what looked like a big ambulance for the horse -- a white enclosed truck that they loaded the horse into. Then they drove back in the direction of the barn.
I was remembering some stories my former interpreting classmate, Bob A, told from his experience working at Philadelphia Park. He described a big blue screen or tent that they erect right on the track when a horse has to be put down, so that the spectators don't have to see the horse receive the final act of mercy. I hope that the fact they were trucking THIS horse back toward the barn area is a good sign. Either way, it was upsetting. Poor horse. I think his name is Grace Course, though I'll have to check the program to be sure. I hope he'll be OK.
Interesting tidbit: a few races later, I noticed that there was an ambulance driving several lengths behind the horses, keeping pace with them as they ran along. It literally drives the entire way around the track, following the pack. So now we know who comes in last for every race. It's not the final horse in the bunch; it's the ambulance driver.
A few minutes before 5 PM, the track announcer pronounced, in a solemn tone, "Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please". THAT quieted the huge crowd immediately, because not one of the myriad announcements during the entire day had begun with those words, nor were they uttered with such a somber inflection. As the passing of Ronald Reagan was announced, his picture was shown on the jumbotron, with the caption "Ronald Reagan 1911-2004" and a picture of an American Flag underneath. Everyone stood and there was a moment of silence. (I was pleased to note how many people had the presence of mind to remove their hats, without having to be reminded to do so.) When the moment of silence was finished, they showed a closeup on the jumbtron of the American Flag that flies over the Belmont track, and there were cheers and applause. The tone of their reaction gave me a momentary flashback to the way crowds at sporting events responded to theg image of the US Flag after 9/11. Then I remembered how very close Belmont is to New York City. As traumatic as September 11 was on everyone in this country, needless to say, the cities that literally lived through it also experienced an aftermath that the rest of us can't even begin to imagine. If they're still experiencing a rush of both pride and defiance when the Flag is spotlighted, it's understandable.
Last year, Mark and I stood in the standing-room-only area near the finish line. a race or two before the Belmont Stakes race, the crowd started to really build up a lot. Then, just prior to the race, the crowd started to surge forward, shoving for better vantage points. This year, we were about 1/3 of the distance between the final turn and the finish line, and the crowd was tamer. It still started to build up quite noticeably a race or two before the big one, but there was no shoving match. Well, not one as bad as last year's anyhow.
This year, I came prepared. I brought a small folding ladder along; its one step is just tall enough to put me at eye-level with a tall person. I figure it's not cheating if I'm standing at the same height as Mother Nature has bestowed on some people. ;o) Thanks to the ladder, I could see over not only the people in front of me in the standing-room-only area, but the ones in front of us in the grandstand seating area. Let me forewarn you, if you plan to head to the standing-room-only area on the concourse, that the people seated in the grandstand all stand up when the race is in progress... if you're a short person like me, you're going to find it challenging to be able to see anything on the track.
That's why I felt sorry for the young lady who arrived, with two male companions, just before the 10th race (the race prior to the Belmont Stakes). I was already standing on my ladder by that time, and decided that the best bet was to stay there all the way through the end of the Belmont. Between other races, I would step down and sit on the little folding chair which I also had with me. But I knew from our experience last year that a LOT of people were going to start looking for a vantage point as the Belmont approached. I didn't want someone to think, "Oh, here we go, a good spot!", only to have their line of sight blocked by me once I got up. I figured that the best bet would be to get up and STAY up, so anyone who wasn't tall enough to see over or past me would know to stand elsewhere. (Did I mention that they would also have to see over the people in the grandstand seating area in front of us, who were sure to stand up once the race began? So with or without my having a ladder, the worst visual obstruction wouldn't have been me, anyway.) The young woman and her friends stood immediately to my right, and I could tell that she was at least as short as I am. She was quite petite and couldn't see over the (tall) people in front of her AT ALL.
She and her friends, and Mark and I, were behind the row of people who'd arrived first and had been standing right at the rail of the concourse all day. The three people in front of her and her friends were tall, and she couldn't see past them. The man and woman in front of Mark and me were of average height (still too tall for a short person to see over them, though) and they both had folding chairs set up behind them. The petite lady and her friends politely asked the couple in front of Mark and me if they could please fold their chairs.
The man 's response was rude, at best (and the woman said nothing at all). "Well, how much more do ya think you're gonna f-n see?", he snapped. "We've been here all f'n day! You shoulda f-n arrived earlier, then". As surly as he was, he and his female companion DID fold their chairs, but the petite woman made no move to take a place directly behind the couple.Who the heck would have wanted to stand directly behind someone who was that hostile? Which, I suspect, was the man's intent. Not that there was room, anyway; everyone was so crowded-together at this point that the moment the chairs were folded, the crowd just compacted itself to close off any available space.
So the next solution they tried was for one of her male companions to ask the tall guy in front of her if she could please stand in front of him (at the rail). Now, this SHOULD have caused no problem, since she was shorter than his shoulders. He would have been able to see over her with NO difficulty at all. But he refused to let her in front of him. That really irritated me, because I remember countless Mummers Parades in Philly where it's EXPECTED for people who are tall to let shorter people (especially kids, but shorter adults as well) stand in front of them. But this was the Belmont Stakes, not the Mummers Parade, and the etiquette on the concourse is an entirely different animal. The petite young lady and her two male companions stayed where they were.
Oh, speaking of entirely different animals... as we waited during the half-hour or so between the 10th race and the Belmont, I suddenly noticed that peeking out from the petite lady's half-zipped jacket was a teeny chihuahua(!). The dog was so minute, I wondered if it was a puppy, but even grown chihuahuas are so small, I wasn't sure. He was a quiet little fuzzball, though, and he let me pet his wee head and give him a brief chin skritch. :o) He sure was cute! (BTW, I thought it was a bad idea to smuggle such a tiny dog into a crowd of 120,000 spectators, but I kept my opinion to myself.)
So, finally, the big moment came. Smarty Jones and company had their post parade, which travelled noticeably farther than the post parades for other races. I presumed this was done to allow the many fans with cameras to get shots of the participants. BTW, this was when another visual obstruction made itself apparent... some of the now-standing people in the grandstand seating area were reaching their cameras waaaay above their heads, to get a better shot of the track. (Is anyone still wondering why I brought a stepladder this year? I knew all this would be going on after my experience last year.)
After a rendition of "New York, New York" :o), the race began. EVERYONE was cheering for Smarty Jones. So when Smarty took the lead, somewhat early in the race, the crowd just ROARED. He stayed ahead of the pack for nearly the whole way, too. As the horses rounded the final turn, suddenly one of the petite lady's male friends reached down and boosted her up, supporting her under the arms and raising her high enough to see over the crowd. At least, I hope she could see. I'm not sure she was expecting the sudden assist from her companion. (and it didn't occur to me until several hours later to wonder how she managed to keep hold of the chihuahua during all this. But she did.)
The crowd was deafeningly loud, cheering the sight of Smarty Jones in the lead and a few seconds away from winning the Triple Crown. But then, suddenly, a horse with a light-colored saddle cloth surged ahead. The volume of the crowd's noise remained the same, but the tone changed as people exclaimed with surprise and urged Smarty to retake the lead. I myself was grateful for the loud crowd, because I blurted out an "Oh, SH**!" when I saw the other horse move ahead. But with the crowd making so much noise that it was impossible to hear oneself think, I'm sure that nobody heard what I said.
As it turned out, the race lasted just a few seconds too long for Smarty Jones. The other horse, Birdstone, overtook him JUST before the finish line. There was not enough time, and Smarty didn't have one last burst of energy in him to outrun Birdstone before the race was over. For the third time in three years, the horse who'd won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness failed to win the Belmont Stakes and earn the Triple Crown. Just the fact that there have been 156 Belmont Stakes run, but there are only 11 Triple Crown winners, is a testament to how enormous of a challenge it is to win all three races.
In any event, Mark and I didn't get to witness a bit of history at Belmont Park. But I still had a terrific day yesterday, and I'm looking forward to seeing Smarty Jones run in the Pennslvania Derby on Labor Day. Team Smarty have done Philadelphia proud already, with their Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins. IMO, there was nothing left to prove to anybody, with or without a Triple Crown victory.