My journey to the Belmont Stakes began on the Friday before. I left work early filled with excitement and well wishes from my coworkers in hopes of seeing California Chrome become our 12th Triple Crown winner. I rushed home and finished packing, gave my family a kiss goodbye, and I was on my way. I was staying with my brother-in-law Mark, who lives in Brooklyn, and as I started my quest, I texted him, “No sleep till Brooklyn – see you soon”, and so the trip began.
I hopped in my 2005 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, affectionately known as Ruby, and away we went. I live about 15 miles south of Boston so the trek was going to take about four hours before I arrived in the Big Apple. This was my first trip being away from my wife and son on a solo mission, and I was a little nervous to be away without them. I am never far from either of them, nor do I like to be. She eased my mind and assured me they would be fine and to have a good time and enjoy myself.
I have always loved a nice road trip and travelling was good for the soul I have always thought. As I was driving south on I-95 in Massachusetts enjoying my freedom and thinking about California Chrome becoming a Triple Crown winner, and who would win the Met Mile, I hit a bump. Ruby did not like this as she began to shake and rattle uncontrollably for about five seconds. It scared me half to death. Upon a quick Google search it seems I am not the only Jeep owner who has had this problem and it is known commonly as the Death Wobble. I thought my voyage might end right there. I couldn’t believe it. After the shaking stopped though Ruby seemed fine and I had a decision to make. Should I continue with something clearly wrong with my vehicle, or should I turn around right here? If my family was in the Jeep we would have pulled over and that would have been the end of it. I drove a little further though and I deemed in my head that everything appeared to be well enough. A Triple Crown was on the line, I had media credentials, and I would not be denied.
The next three and a half hours in Ruby was a rough ride. As I was driving through Rhode Island, the Death Wobble happened two more times. I decided that going around bends with bumpy roads, or just bumpy roads in general, were not good things for the old girl. I had also determined that I could not speed and that I must drive between 55-63mph for this not to happen again. When I found a road to be smooth I sped up some, and if I thought the road looked old I played defense. This is the way I would drive for the remainder of the trip. After one more scare in Connecticut and some traffic in Queens, I arrived in Brooklyn at 11pm.
It was a relief to finally arrive safely, and it was nice to see Mark. We had a few beers at his place and I told him about my troubled travels. We enjoyed one of our favorite past times, which is making fun of his sister, my wife, and had a few laughs. Both of us were hungry so we went to a spot in his neighborhood where we had some fried pigs tails, you eat them like chicken wings (they were surprisingly pretty good), and biscuits.
We discussed my plan to get over to Belmont while having a few more beverages and I handed him his ticket and advised him it was probably best for him to come later in the day. The beers tasted great and before I knew it, it was 2am. Nowadays the only time I see 2am is if my son isn’t feeling well or if nature calls for one of my dogs. We got back to his place, I set my alarm for 6am, and my head hit the couch at 2:30am.
No sooner did I fall asleep, then my alarm was buzzing. I had only gotten three and a half hours of sleep, but I knew the adrenaline of a Triple Crown on the line would be enough to get me through this day. That and coffee. So I grabbed a cup, got myself together, and made my way towards the trains. I was a little groggy from my arrival celebration and I hoped I remembered how I was told to navigate there.
Everything was going smooth until I hit Penn Station and had to switch over to the LIRR. I arrived there around 8am and the first train to Belmont was not until 9:45am. I could not wait that long and I had to find another way. While in line to buy my ticket, I overheard a couple with the same problem. She wore a green dress and he donned a purple tie, clearly California Chrome fans. They were advised if they wanted to get there quicker there was another way and that they wanted to get off in Queen’s Village and walk. I decided to do the same.
As I waited to catch the train, I approached the couple that I had seen in line and jokingly advised them that I would be stalking them to Belmont Park, as I had no clue where I was going. They laughed and were more than happy to help a fellow horseracing fanatic. Their names were Christy and Mike and they had come down from upstate New York. I told them I was affiliated with Horse Racing Nation, which they thought was cool, and they told me they were friends with Edgar Prado, which I thought was cool.
On the train over, you could tell there was a party vibe in the air. A group of New Yorkers, teenagers, were swilling 40 ounces and it was only about 9am. I got off at Queens Village station and made the walk over to Belmont with my new friends Christy and Mike. You could just feel the excitement. Will California Chrome do it? We were all pulling for him. I gave them my best bets of the day, Kobe’s Back and Clearly Now, which I hope they ignored. I appear to be addicted to betting these two and it has not worked out well at all. I am officially off both of them for the record, so you should definitely bet them next out.
Upon arrival to the park I met up with Brian Zipse to retrieve my credentials. Up until this point Brian had been a Kaiser Soze like figure to me. Was he real or just an internet myth? He was indeed real and passed me my credentials through the fence and told me he would see me on the inside. I went around to the clubhouse, got frisked, and made my way in.
Once inside I met up with Brian who was with Matt Shifman, and hanging out with Ed Stanco, the owner of Princess of Sylmar. Ed was telling us about how great the Ogden Phipps shaped up, how great it was for Beholder to come out, and that this race was for the true horse racing fans. I couldn’t agree with him more, and I wished him the best of luck with his filly. It was a privilege meeting him and hearing what he had to say about the race.
Matt, Brian, and I decided to make our way to the press box to get settled. Along the way we stopped beside the paddock where I met a few more of members of the Horse Racing Nation team, Ashley Tamulonis and Gary Quill. As we were hanging out there Matt turns to us and says, “There’s one of Chromes owners.” It was Steve Coburn just walking on by, chomping on a stogie. He is a big dude and probably looked even bigger today. I remember looking at him wondering what must going through his head. It has to be an unreal feeling waking up, walking into Belmont Park on a near perfect day, and your horse is trying to win a Triple Crown. The guy seemed larger than life to me at that moment.
We took a “Press Only” elevator up to the press box. I would spend a lot of time on this thing throughout the day. I felt bad for the lift operator as it was sweltering in there and all she had was a hand fan to keep her cool. Once we reached floor “P” we all got off and made our way down the corridor until we reached a sign that pointed us down a set of stairs to the press box. We made our way down and at the bottom of the stairs as you enter the first person I see is Mike Watchmaker from the Daily Racing Form. For me, I couldn’t even believe I was in there. It was strange seeing all the media types I follow and being in the same room with them. I overheard Mike Welch discussing Chrome’s pedigree with a retired jockey who I did not recognize while walking down the hall. I took an elevator with Richie Migliore, who showed me a shortcut and advised me to go through a door, but don’t get caught. It was a special experience for me to be rubbing elbows with people who I believe to have the best job in the world.
As I began to explore Belmont Park, one thing was for sure, the place was electric. The whole vibe was truly awesome and everyone was in a good spirits. There seemed to be three groups of people there. People who love to party, people who love horse racing, and people who loved to do both. I met a lot of interesting people throughout the day while I was wandering the park. I met a father and son who had been going to the track together for over 47 years they said. I thought to myself I hope my son and I share that special bond that these two had. I talked horses with another guy down by the paddock before the Woody Stephens, he was on Social Inclusion, and I was on Kobe’s Back. I wished him luck before the race and he said, “Why you wishing me luck? If I win, you lose”. I told him I just want one of us to win.
A healthy, young, slightly intoxicated, blonde woman came up to me at one point, grabbed me by the media pass that was around my neck and asked how she could get one of these. I advised her if I was in charge of handing them out that she would be the first to get one, but being that I wasn’t in that position, I was afraid she was out of luck. She then went on to say that Belmont Park was “decadent and depraved, or maybe just depraved.” I told her I read Hunter S. Thompson as well, and she seemed impressed. Seeing that I wasn’t parting with my media credential though, we shook hands and wished each other a nice day. I teased my wife about this situation, letting her know that I still had "it”, but in reality I’m pretty sure she just wanted the pass.
The day was beautiful, and I wish I could say the same about my handicapping, but the truth is I was having a dreadful day at the windows. The teller in the press box was breaking my chops, saying he was going to get all of my money. I warned him not to worry and that I would be getting all of it back and then some by the end of the day. It wasn’t meant to be though. He won this battle and did indeed get all my cash.
As the day dragged on, more and more people began filing in. Mark arrived just about the time Palace Malice was crushing his foes in the Met Mile. I couldn’t believe I found him as easy as I did. By the time he arrived the place was jammed. The excitement that filled the air was contagious. Mark, who is not a gambler and not that into racing, even he got into it. Everyone was here to see history be made and you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.
As the big one approached and horses reached the paddock for the Belmont Stakes, the anticipation was reaching a peak. If you could bottle up this feeling and sell it you would be a billionaire. Anytime the crowd caught a good glimpse of California Chrome they erupted. We hung out near the paddock, which was jammed. They had a huge screen there and I had a feeling it would clear out once the horses made their way to the track, and I was right. I told Mark that I would probably start crying if Chrome ended up winning this thing. He said, “Oh cool…I should probably record it,” it would be used to ridicule me at a later time I’m sure.
Listening to Tom Durkin announce the horses as they entered the gate let you know just how big of a deal the situation was. As the field of 11 sprung from the gate I was locked onto California Chrome. It seemed like he broke well and he went up to press the pace. I watched him intently and kept telling myself he seems to be in a pretty good spot. Mark recorded the big screen we were watching on his phone and as the rounded the final turn everyone in the paddock area was imploring California Chrome for more. I thought he had a shot as they went down the stretch, I kept waiting for him to kick on by, but it wasn’t meant to be. Mark, who had been watching the race through his phone screen while recording it, had no idea if Chrome had done it at first. He told me he had chills and goose bumps and only realized he did not win by the reaction of the crowd. The place fell silent. It was as if someone had taken a pin to the place and just popped it. The only thing I remember hearing was someone stating that we will never see a Triple Crown winner ever again.
Mark and I hung out for the last two races to let some of the crowd spill out. We walked around the park a bit more now because it was a lot easier to get around. The place was absolutely trashed. We commented how we felt badly for whoever had to clean up this mess. After the last race went off, we made our way to jump on the LIRR and get out of dodge. The line for the LIRR was insane. We waited in it for about 10 minutes before we decided to try a different tactic. In hindsight, we got lucky with this decision because I have heard a lot of grumblings of how it was a disaster for those who stayed waiting around in that line. We decided to try and walk to the station where I got dropped off, Queens Village.
As we started walking, both of us were just beat from a long day. We were warned by a woman that we don’t want to be around here when it gets dark. This added some urgency to our need to find our train home. On the way, we saw a bus pull up and Mark said if we jumped on this thing we would be alright. We ran up to the stop, crammed onto the bus and off we went. The bus was full of Belmont revelers, a lot of which were pretty inebriated at this point. There was a lot of chanting and the kids directly behind me were passing around something in a paper bag and chugging from it. I remember a young Irishman getting on the phone with a friend saying, “Harry, it’s me…its myself. You missed it man. What a vibe over there at the Belmont. One hundred thousand of us just going wild man.” I would have to agree with his assessment.
We jumped off the bus at some point, where I don’t know, to catch a train. Once on the train we finally got a chance to sit down. Mark said to me this is the most room we have had all day. He was right. As soon as we sat down the man sitting across from us noticed the racing form hanging out of my bag and it turned out to be a great conversation starter. What should have been a long, boring ride home went by in a flash as we shared stories from the day and betting on horses in general. The man sitting across from me was with his uncle and a friend who attended his first race today. I think we have a new fan in him. We talked about our biggest scores, toughest losses, and how in the late 60’s his father won 30 grand at the track and bought the building he now lives in in Brooklyn, which is now worth about 5 million.
The guy sitting directly next to me also loved horse racing. He talked about an OTB he goes to, I forget the town, but he said it was the biggest in the northeast I believe. He advised us to definitely go there someday, but to also not act up in there or they would put a bullet in our heads as a lot of the old wise guys hang out there. He told us all the tracks he has been to in England and France, and about the time he went to the Arc and how there is a different kind of elegance over there at the races. It was an interaction I will never forget. Horse racing is a funny thing. If you put the crew I was with on the train in a room and saw us you would think there is no way these guys have anything in common. We were all different ages and races, with the only common denominator, that we all loved horse racing passionately. It was like talking to old friends.
We got off at our stop and wished our new friends good luck. We decided to grab some food somewhere and went to a nearby bar that Mark said was solid. Written in chalk on the menu board outside said, “Come watch California Chrome make history”. We talked about the day over a few beers and a burger and when he was in the middle of telling me a story I looked up saw ESPN displaying comments made after the race made by California Chrome’s owner Steve Coburn. All I remember is seeing the words “cowards” and “god-damn cheaters”. We both laughed and said whoa, and that is how our Belmont Stakes day adventure ended.
In the morning I packed up my stuff, shook Mark’s hand and thanked him for the hospitality, and off I went. I left New York with blisters on my feet, a hangover, a couple hundred less in the bank, and having not seen a Triple Crown winner. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if California Chrome had won. Belmont Park would have exploded. I had a four hour trip home to think about everything that went down. It was a hell of a trip. In my quest to see a Triple Crown winner, I’d imagine my chart comments would read something like this: bothered start, fought on gamely, but was ultimately denied. I look forward for the opportunity to do it all again, hopefully with no Death Wobbles next time.