Thursday, June 11, 2009

Magical Belmont, Part 3

The morning of the Belmont began an hour later than usual because we did not expect to go to the backside. With all the extra security, it seemed like a fruitless effort, as I did not have a valid visitor's pass anymore, and she wouldn't be able to get photos of the horses galloping due to the closed track.

By this time, there had been so many bold moves on our part that we slowly changed our minds about the backside. What's the worst that could happen, eh? Famous last words that have come back to haunt me many times, but this time, nothing ever did happen. We went through the barns to the track kitchen, The Morning Line, which had nourished us well for the last few days. While rubbing shoulders with the likes of Edgar Prado and D Wayne Lucas, we sat in our newly traditional spot, and gave our order to the smiling waitress, who was used to us by now.

The tone was set for the day. It would be relaxing, at least in the beginning. With all the pressures of the upcoming tasks for Jamie's photo shoot, this quiet morning helped ease some of the anxiety.

By the time we got to the track, it had opened to the public, and thousands of people were already staking claim to spots in the shaded picnic area, as well as on the rail near the finish line. Immediately, I noticed folding chairs at the rail, which meant I would have a spectacular day! Just in case, I always keep a folding chair in the trunk for just such an occasion. So, while Jamie kept my spot, I ran to get the chair. What a start to the day! I would be able to sit after all!

The key to enjoying a day at the rail is to get to know the people around you. Friendliness develops an aura that sticks, even when the heat of the sun pounds for hours on end. Even after someone is drunk by 2 in the afternoon, if there has been an effort to be kind, it's likely that person will stay kind, even if his/her noise level escalates.

To the left of me was a couple connected to the racing secretary for Belmont. To the right of me was a woman attending her 15th Belmont. Both were quieter than normal, but there were enough conversations for us to feel obligated to defend our seats in the event one gets up and some fan attempts to steal the spot.

The day couldn't have been more perfect for weather, though the sun was rather hot on the head. No matter. The breeze was cool, and the fans seemed to be in great spirits. Throughout the day, I watched for Jamie as she moved all over the track taking pictures. At times, she could be seen herding with the group of quirky photographers that had quickly become a tight-nit posse. At times, even on the rail, I missed that action of personalities that I had experienced the previous two days.

Though there were about 8 hours of racing that day, the time went by so fast. Great performances by Munnings, Gabby's Golden Gal, and Fabulous Strike accented the day, and I was very happy to see Benny the Bull make a comeback with a strong second-place performance. Also, the buglers opened the races with excitement with their unique calls to the post. Smiles were abounding all over the track.

The good-natured crowd would creer for the most umlikely of things throughout the day. Of course, they would cheer any time a camera turned to them. "I'm on TV!!" Other times, they would cheer for obscure things, like a truck full of people or the tractor that pulled the gates for the Belmont race. Once, one of Jamie's colleagues, Lauren Pomeroy, had a huge 600mm lens poked into the ground right in front of us. In a moment, the people behind me were snapping pictures of and cheering the lens. Lauren never knew, but I was laughing the whole time.

But everyone was waiting for the big moment. The Belmont. That event that is nearly impossible to comprehend due to its history and status. Secretariat's ghost looms strongly over the track at all moments, and these horses were going to run in his wake once again. How would they fare? Would it be another embarrassing performance in 2:31 with a longshot, or would it be a solid performance for the ages?

Really, it was neither, though it was exciting in all the right ways. The crowd surged at ever moment Mine that Bird passed them. Clearly, he was the favorite in the hearts (and pocketbooks) of the fans.

Waiting with my heart in my chest, the horses loaded right in front of me. When in the gate, the roar of the crown nearly lifted me of my feet, and then in a flash, the horses were out of the gate and down the lane.

We all watched the monitors as the horses galloped down the backside. At this point, the front runner is not usually a factor, but surprisingly, Dunkirk was setting a blistering pace. 23 and 47 for the first two quarters. Though he is a blue blood as they come, I had no belief that he would hold that pace and win.

On the far turn, the crowd began to surge, and fingers pointed at the board. Mine That Bird's number 7 had flashed onto the fourth place spot. There was another surge when he hit the second spot. He was making his move! And then, after all these weeks of his stardom, he did the impossible again...he took the lead. The crowd went wild, jumping up and down and hoping he could keep the lead.

But Dunkirk was not through! After such blistering fractions, he refused to fade away and sped back to challenge for first.

And then, it happened. Summer Bird.
The horse that had a similar running style to Mine That Bird was making his move. He was one of my picks for the Belmont, especially after Bill Nack singled him out, and I had though of putting 20 dollars on him to win just for fun (and for respect of Bill's expertise). I should have done it. In a flash, Summer Bird mowed down the competition and surged to a convincing win.

The 141st Belmont Stakes belonged to a long shot once again at 11-1, but this time, it was a long shot who legitimately had a chance in this field.

Hopes and dreams were born and dashed in the respectful time of 2:27 for the race. Some booed, and some cheered. An inquiry involving the second and fourth place horses subdued the crowd a bit. However, it was exciting all around. Nobody got hurt, and it was a real racehorse race. The drama to all of it, both behind the scenes and on the track made for memories that I will never forget.

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