Train Ride to History? - By Jacqueline Duke

 (Originally published in the May 29, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

All aboard the Belmont Special!

Three times this century we’ve piled in with the masses for the heady trek from Penn Station to Belmont Park, thrilled at the possibility of a Triple Crown winner. Though there will be no winner this year, the chaos in New York and the prospect of racing’s demise there stirred memories of the conductor’s call. So did news that the Special, which has spirited fans to Belmont Park since the track opened in 1905, has reduced service to just two days: June 4 and June 5, Belmont Stakes Day.

How eagerly we boarded the Special, packed in lurching railroad cars with all manner of humanity. We listened to excited discourse about the favorite; heard the reassuring crinkle of well-handled Racing Forms; felt the strange unity among so diverse a crowd.

It was tricky sprinting for the steps when the doors opened to disgorge us on the platform at Belmont Park’s western entrance. We always wanted to be first through the stiles but never could resist that first striking view of the track as we topped the stairs. Passes, programs, return tickets—all in order. We were ready to witness history.

How could we forget 2003, so wet and dreary yet so vivid with the fervor of New Yorkers hoping to see the first New York-bred to win the Triple Crown. We sure looked bedraggled by post time, hair ruined, shoes sodden, but what the heck. We desperately wanted Funny Cide to win, and we cheered wildly when he emerged from the tunnel onto the track. We secretly worried, though, about his rapid pre-Belmont workout and whether he could run in the mud. Sadly, a frazzled Funny Cide finished third, behind the splendid Empire Maker. Our shoulders slumped, and we no longer cared if we got drenched. We trudged from the track to the tracks, pressed against other soggy racegoers for the silent ride back to town.

Then we were back, just a year later, this time to see Smarty Jones win the crown. As the Belmont Special lumbered eastward, passengers grew nearly frenzied with excitement. We felt it, too. This time when the train doors opened, we pushed with the best of them. We were veterans of this drill now. 

Everyone agreed that Smarty Jones, with his unblemished record and sympathetic owners, was a lock. Anticipation gripped the record crowd of 120,139 that afternoon, and the hours til post time uncharacteristically flew by. How deflating, then, to see Smarty Jones almost get the job done. How eerie, too, to experience the odd, sudden silence that replaced the deafening cheers when tiny Birdstone swooped by the rubber-legged hero in the final strides.

The stunned crowd couldn’t comprehend it, and even the winning connections hung their heads. We felt sucker punched as we headed for the train, not even caring if we got on the first one out.

Then there was 2008, the year of Big Brown. We had some reservations about going, put off by the boasting and the crassness even more than the revelations about the steroids. Still, we donned our best and once again boarded the Belmont Special, two among 20,000 who would ride the rails that day. Still, we felt the tingle of excitement that a Thoroughbred can inspire. When the doors opened, we pushed ahead, as we had always done. But we didn’t sprint upward, for it was too hot, nearly 100 degrees. The heat made the hours drag, and then, perhaps prophetically, the plumbing broke throughout the track. Geysers sprang in the grandstand restrooms while the water ran continuously like fountains in the most exclusive sections. It was a wretched afternoon, and for Big Brown and his connections, a wash.

As soon as we saw Kent Desormeaux wrangle Big Brown to a wimpy halt at the top of the stretch, we bolted. Heat be damned. We wanted to get out first and be the first aboard the Belmont Special. We did and we were.

With no Triple Crown on the line this year, we wonder if many will board the Belmont Special. What can the ride be like if there is no excitement? Can there be a Belmont Special if there is no Belmont?

We sure had fun, though, lumbering eastward, encased in metal time capsules, history seekers aboard the Belmont Special.

Jacqueline Duke is special projects editor for The Blood-Horse.

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