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.

26 Comments

Leave a Comment:

needler in Virginia

Jacqueline, the memories are coming thick and fast, and for that I thank you. It seems FOREVER since the Crown was last awarded; while it has been so many years, and so many shattered dreams ago, we STILL hope and that, I think, is the reason breeders breed, trainers train, jockeys jock (oooooooh, apologies!), bettors bet and fans remain fanatical about the possibility. Every time a starting gate opens, we hope. Every time, a foal is born we hope. Every time a maiden wins on the first try we hope. Every time we stop breathing at a tight finish, we hope. And EVERY time a stunner, who stands over a lot of ground and has that look of eagles, steps onto the track, we hope. Maybe that's why I love this ridiculous, sublime, spectacular, sometimes-suicidal but always breathtaking sport of horse racing. Call me an optimist?? You bet!! I'm still hoping my grandchildren and I will see another Triple Crown winner. Call me a dreamer?? Damned right!! There's always next year...........

Cheers and safe trips.

25 May 2010 1:46 PM
anna

if only take control hadn't got hurt when he had because he might've been the one and he had a pedigree for it being by ap indy a horse of the yr out of a horse of the yr azeri

25 May 2010 2:02 PM
Cgriff

Jacqueline,

Don't jump off the tracks of the Special yet!  One day - hopefully soon - you will disembark to see history be made and a Triple Crown winner annointed.

I believe - if the right cross for precocity is bred - you'll see a Tiznow colt or filly do the trick.

But that's just my personal hope. Regardless of what sire - I hope to see another horse join the 11 immortals!

25 May 2010 4:08 PM
nina

To me the Belmont is Secretariat. After that race I have not seen anything as exiting although Rags to Riches win was incredible. I'll be watching.

25 May 2010 4:43 PM
pinnochio

nina,

I had some difficulty seeing Secretariat, as he thundered down the stretch all alone--a heavy mist followed by raindrops obscured my vision, and that of those around me. Strange, it rains whenever I replay that Belmont.

25 May 2010 7:15 PM
Slew

Anna" I'm with you on Take control; he was sensational is his debut...but consider...half the horses running are connected to Seattle Slew, many via AP Indy, while the other half seem to be by Mr. Prospector.  Some are both.  It should be an exciting Belmont.  Even without a Triple Crown on the line, the contenders have all proven they are all worth watching.

Ms Duke, those memories are extra special and you painted a lovely picture of eager anticipation.

25 May 2010 7:49 PM
So Cal Racer

Triple Crown one day will emerge but for now.. nothing because of Trainer that does not care or does not have..  the desire to win the triple. but hopefully one day some trainer will have the guts to say I will win the Triple, not just KY Derby or Preakness but the Belmont.. and when that day come who ever you are trainer I thank you for your effort to bring this sport back in history.. not given up yet will wait "come and prove yourself"..

25 May 2010 8:34 PM
joe c.

2004.  I recall the trip back.  Stunned at Birdstone's defeat of Smarty, the car's riders roared at the sight of some of the 120,000plus exiting onto the expressway.  That long, stagnant line of red brake lights snaked far into the dusk.  "I can't believe he lost," one rider lamented, echoing all of our unspoken thoughts.  Back to now: With all its problems, will NYRA offer track bus service from Jamaica Center?  

26 May 2010 3:00 PM
midel

Jackie,

Beautiful description of a great NY tradition.  Your rendition of the train ride created an especially memorable image for me. Anyway, for better or worse, I'll be up there again this year; wish I could ride the SPECIAL with you and Roger.

26 May 2010 3:24 PM
TerriV

Needler in VA, very well said.  You said it exactly, no matter how cynical we say we are, every year there is hope.

26 May 2010 7:53 PM
mike rullo

to bad cocalero didnt get started earlier, he is a serious race horse

26 May 2010 9:54 PM
needler in Virginia

Thanks, TerriV. I really DO hope every year, silly as that seems lately. There's always 2011...that will make it only 33 years since Affirmed..........YE GODS!!!

Cheers and safe trips.

26 May 2010 9:58 PM
SlewBaby

We won't ever see another triple crown winner again.  These horses today are not like the horses of the past--they're a much different breed now.   Years ago, the thorougbred was much more appropriately bred to run a triple crown-type race series--that's what the thorougbred was bred for back then--to race--decades ago when they bred them right--not so today. Many breeders back then imported european stallions to stand here in America to improve the breed; Native Dancer and Bold Ruler both had European sires and I believe Citation's sire Bull Lea was sired by a european stallion Calumet Farms had purchased for their breeding program--forgot his name. If you go back 70 years or so and look at the breeding practices of the major thoroughbred breeders in this country at the time--many of them used european influences in their breeding programs--there was a specific reason for this.  In what decades did we witness some of the greatest horses of all time?--the 1930's, 40's, 50's, 60',s and, who could forget, the incredible 1970s...AND why did we see so many great champions during these decades--because they were breeding them the right way years before that.  During the 1980's, 90's, 00's, we had some nice champions--but, they were few and far between; we saw them running in fewer races, making less starts, retiring too soon or requiring drugs in order to run (lasix). I believe the gene pool is  completely diluted with speed, and the handful of top stallions are spread so thinly across every hemisphere that almost every horse is sired by one of the top 7 or 8 stallions. The american thoroughbred today is either a sprinter or a router-type who usually cannot win anything under a mile and an eighth.  You just do not see any genuine multi-dimensional-types (Secretariat, Slew, Affirmed, Citation, etc...) anymore.

27 May 2010 2:06 AM
needler in Virginia

Slewbaby........AMEN and AMEN!! But I'm hoping for another freak, aren't you?

Cheers and safe trips.

27 May 2010 11:49 AM
pinnochio

SlewBaby,

The fly in the ointment is that the "best" horse of a poor lot may sweep the series, some day soon; only good fortune has spared such an occurrence from having already happened.

When that sad day (for some of us) arrives, and that champion is lauded like the "Second Coming,"

with claiming race times of 2:03, 1:56, and 2:29, many will scoff--and recall the greats that lost the crown, but would have gobbled up this new hero as a snack.

27 May 2010 3:37 PM
Flora

What Pinnochio & Nina said, squared. :-)

Are there any more Better Than Honour offspring in the pipeline that are in active training? Maybe next year....

27 May 2010 4:01 PM
Slew

We've had champions, but some have just missed by a hair.  I'll always believe Point Given could have been there...

But, SlewBaby, you're right about the breeding, but don't forget the effects of the medications too.  Euros race without meds, and are sturdier.  I was ever so disappointed to see Sea The Stars retired at 3...but who knows what his progeny might become.  I think we'll see another Triple Crown winner (as long as they don't dumb down the challenge), and we'll all be ecstatic.  I don't think we ever realized just how glorious the 70's were, except in retrospect.  Wow! What a decade!  We were certainly spoiled.

28 May 2010 9:51 AM
Fran Loszynski

Great article. But your train should head for the Belmont- Have fun, and enjoy the race-remember it's the race you least expect that gives us a thrill! Hope someday you're on the Belmont Train that stops at BELMONT PARK

AFLEET ALEX'S KID COULD WIN THE TRIPLE CROWN TODAY

28 May 2010 11:04 AM
Secret Stuff

Slew Baby, I think to say that we will never see another Triple Crown winner is a little harsh.  That's been said before, in the long drought before Secretariat.  The 70's spoiled us and made us forget how truly difficult it is to win those three races.  I do agree with you as far as what the horses are being bred for, but it isn't just the breeding that's responsible-compared to, say, Seabiscuit, who raced on the average of once or twice a week, to the horses now that are only raced every six weeks.  You can't just breed stamina, you have to build it, too.  

29 May 2010 8:59 AM
Katherine

For my two cents worth, we have had many good horses recently that were near misses. It may not be entirely due to breeding that we have not had a triple crown winner. What about the great trainers who believed in long gallops and ran horses more than four or five times a year? I think current training methods have a lot to do with today's state of affairs.  D Wayne Lucas reminds me of those trainers of yesteryear.  Tim Ritchey worked Aleet Alex like those trainers of yesteryear in spite of criticism of his methods. Alex had the speed breeding mentioned but it did not make him a frail sprinter. His vet commented about how hard his bone was when she inserted a screw.

Owners these days if they have a super star are offered huge money to syndicate or sell their star or seem to want a quick spectacular career and then whisk their stars off to the breeding shed with an attractive syndication.

Yesteryear racing it seems was more important to the great breeders and sportsmen.  Racing has become more business than sport today.

Today's breeding is not really the issue, there are many hard knocking claimers who race until they are ten and run 50 plus times and still retire sound. We won't ever again see horses the likes of Round Table's caliber racing sixty plus times.

30 May 2010 11:16 AM
OLD TIMER

Nice story. That train does have a character all it's own. Just the feeling of leaving the hustle and bustle of the big city and being deposited out in the pastoral reaches of Belmont Park makes it an experience like no other. I still remember those vendors selling the ice cream bars on the train platform, and grabbing a couple for the ride home.

Back in the day, Belmont would see 40,000 to even 50,000 fans on a Saturday even when there was no Belmont Stakes. It's sad that now they are lucky to draw 10,000 and this year it will be interesting to see the attendance figures with no Triple Crown, nor even a Derby or Preakness winner on the line. Nevertheless it has the makings of a great race.

I don't know what the sport has to do to bring back the day when even a Brooklyn Handicap or a Mother Goose would bring 40,000 plus out to the track.

31 May 2010 7:01 PM
ButterfliesAreFree

Pinnochio, agree with you 100%!!

01 Jun 2010 7:24 AM
luv the boy

great reading this week, Jacqueline.  I felt like I was going to the Belmont, myself.  gave me chills.  I agree with one reader, I think we may never see another triple crown.  but I do think Zenyatta could have done it.  it just seems there will never be another Secretriat or Whirlaway or Citation etc.  thank you for  your great article this week.  we can only hope and pray.  I have a big mirror in my bedroom with a plaque under the mirror.  "Triple Crowns"  and pictures of all 11.  but it's lop sided because there are 6 on one side and 5 on the other.....so still waiting--------

01 Jun 2010 3:05 PM
Householder

Sure Point Given was good (Beating the final times of Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the Belmont) but how about another Baffert trainee...a horse that cost $17,000 and 7-8 attempts to break his maiden...Real Quiet?  I think I saw the MP silks and Baffert just win the Preakness so they are still in this game.  

It is a different game though.

01 Jun 2010 6:15 PM
Householder

Seabiscuit was a gelding as was John Henry who still holds the record for number of stakes wins at Santa Anita (12 stakes wins).  Another gelding Best Pal raced 47 times taking the Santa Anita Handicap in 1:59 as a 7 year old!  

01 Jun 2010 6:38 PM
Stephen M

Jacqueline---you are too young to remember--but living in the city for a short while when I was just starting in the business I took the Special to see the last triple crown winner. How exciting--I dont know which way was better--the anticipation of Affirmed/ Alydar or talking about the result. Anyways, thank you. A fun day of many that we have had in this beautiful world of horses.

09 Jun 2010 1:40 PM

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