June 7, 2014
FARMINGTON—They were there. They were ready. They were ready to cheer, ready to anoint and celebrate a Triple Crown winner, the first since Affirmed in 1978. For those who don’t know, Farmington is a town about 15 miles east of Rochester, NY, the home of Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack, some 390 miles from Belmont Park. The crowd was pretty big, bigger than usual, though it must be noted that the gaming machines on the first floor always draw its usual cast of characters.
I’ve been to Finger Lakes, the race track, several times in my lifetime. Born in the Buffalo area, I spent 14 years in Rochester if you include the five years at SUNY Brockport. Many times, on my way back to Albany from Buffalo, I’d stop at what the locals’ call, “The Thumb,” watch a few races, then hop back on the Thruway and head home. Most times, there were a few hundred hard core racing fans trying to pick some daily doubles, some exactas, maybe a few trifectas. But, Saturday was different. The horse crowd was bigger, much bigger and you certainly didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why.
The Triple Crown was on the line, and for some that was the reason why thousands flocked to the track hoping to see history. For some, they wanted to be there, among the throngs, to celebrate what would truly be an American event. Unfortunately, there are very few American events these days. Sure, there is the Super Bowl, where non-sports people gather at parties and celebrate what has blown up to the point where some think the Monday after should be a national holiday. The Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis and Daytona 500 qualify as some sort of American events, but too many people ignore them to truly call them that.
The Belmont Stakes was that event. Most of America had fallen in love with California Chrome, the little horse that could. America watched him roll through the Kentucky Derby, blitz through the Preakness, all under modest pedigree. He had the two working class owners, the 77 year old aw-shucks trainer and that makes for a good story. And, for that reason, people wanted to be around other people to partake in the potential glory.
Rachel and Brad Harmon, of Fairport were there because they wanted to be part of the history, more importantly; they wanted to celebrate it with others. Both admitted that they weren’t big horse racing fans, although Brad certainly knew his history.
“We come to Finger Lakes maybe two times a year,” said Brad, “we decided to come out, to check out the environment and be around the people.”
When I asked Brad if he remembered the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978, he nodded in agreement. He was confident that California Chrome was going to join Affirmed as a Triple Crown horse.
“I think (Victor) Espinoza is calm and so is the horse,” Brad said. “I’m going to root for him because he’s been the best horse so far.”
Rachel was not as sentimental.
“I’m betting against him, partly to be against Brad,” she said with a smile, but in her spousal defiance, was what bettors want the most: money.
“I’m here to make some money, and you won’t make a lot if you bet the favorite,” she said. “To me, history is not that big of a deal.”
Rachel and Brad were on the concourse wagering on the nine race card, which ended at about 4:51 PM. That left two hours before the horses went to the starting gate and with no live racing to watch, it was time to head to Remedy, the restaurant/bar with the 22 foot television to get ready for Chrome’s run for history.
It was there where I ran into Julie and Dave, a married couple from the Rochester suburb of Greece, ironically a town that I lived in for four years in the mid-1990s. Like most, they had their pros and cons when it came to forecasting the fate of California Chrome.
“I think he’ll lose in a photo and finish second,” Dave said. “It’s just not that easy to do.”
Even though both Dave and Julie are 52, their memories of Affirmed in 1978 were foggy, especially Julie’s.
“I’d like to see a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime,” she said, though I reminded her that technically, she was alive back in 1978 when Affirmed swept the trio of races. “I think it’s a great story, I like the underdog and I’m rooting for the underdog.”
Both admitted that they come to Finger Lakes a couple of times per year, usually for the promotions, not necessarily for the racing, but this was a special day.
“I have faint memories of Affirmed, and I had to brush up on him a bit this week. I hope to see some history today,” Dave said.
I was able to secure a good seat right in front of the big TV and sat to next to Bob, a self-described fan of the sport. “I always watch the Triple Crown, I was here for the Kentucky Derby and it was pretty fun, and if California Chrome wins today, it’s going to be wild in here.”
Bob says he comes to Finger Lakes about two times per month and that was evident when the server brought him his usual beer without asking him. He lives in Victor which is no more than five miles from the track that opened in 1962. Like a true fan, not only did Bob feel that Chrome wouldn’t win, he had his trifecta already selected.
“I’m going with Ride on Curlin, Commanding Curve and Medal Count,” Bob said. “I think it’s just too tough for California Chrome to win. The other horses have had layoffs, Chrome has to be tired, and the distance is going to be too tough for him to overcome. I’m hoping he wins, but he’s facing rested horses and some new shooters.”
The Hall brothers, Steve and Jeff were also sitting with Bob and me. Both were energetic and excited for the race. In fact, Steve bet $300 on Chrome to win so he had a vested interest, but was far from a seasoned horse player. Jeff and I talked a lot about the massiveness that is Belmont Park and how Big Sandy can fool even the best horses and best jockeys. Jeff just didn’t have a good feeling about California Chrome.
“Too much pressure, way too much pressure,” Jeff said.
By 6:30, it was standing room only at Remedy and when California Chrome came out of the tunnel, the bar crowd roared its approval. They were in his corner, they wanted to see the magic, the history that 75 percent of the crowd either didn’t see or didn’t remember back in 1978. Even those who had parked themselves in front of gaming machines for hours sauntered over to the bar with the big screen to see if they would see history.
When they entered the gate, they roared again, and when they took off they roared some more. The Belmont is a long two and half minute race. Though two and half a minutes goes by quickly, in a horse race that’s a long time and in a sense, time stands still. Chrome started well, he was in a good position and for the fans who were watching, they had to be patient. The fractions of 24, 48 and 1:12 plus were fair, but that was only the halfway point of the race. Time wise, it wasn’t the halfway point, there was still one minute and 15 seconds of racing to go, a long time especially when you’re California Chrome and it’s your third race in five weeks.
Shortly after, jockey Espinoza took Chrome out wide. To me, he moved too early, underestimating how much longer there was left to race. But, Espinoza said he did what the colt liked to do and that was get to the outside. When he went outside, there was a crescendo in the crowd; they were waiting for him to make his move, the move that took him to the winner’s circle at Louisville and Baltimore.
This was a smart crowd. They saw him get to the outside, but they sensed something was wrong. That explosiveness wasn’t there, he didn’t move to the front with that ease that we had seen earlier. With a quarter mile to go, they were yelling, but it wasn’t that passionate yell that many had anticipated in the days before. With a furlong to go, they knew that history would have to wait. It was over. The People’s Horse had faded to fourth and it wasn’t going to happen. There was a collective moan in the crowd. For a brief moment, there was a disappointment, a letdown, but this is where I really paid attention to what was going on.
I looked around and I saw a lot of smiles, a lot of grins. Those who had ventured out to Finger Lakes Racetrack to see history didn’t see it, and they were okay with it. They enjoyed the race, the grins were the “wow, that was a fun,” grin. The looks on their faces reminded me of the looks you see on people when they get off a really fast roller coaster. Their eyes are big, they look astonished, but in a minute, they would be back to normal. People like me raced out of the bar, jumped into the car to look for post-race analysis on the radio. The die-hard fans, those that believe that a Triple Crown winning horse would boost the sagging horse racing industry took it hard. But, for the majority, it was ten minutes of their life. Most wanted to see it, but in ten years, most would have forgotten that California Chrome had won the Triple Crown.
The next thing you knew, the big TV was pulled up, the curtains opened and an Aerosmith tribute band, with the lead singer almost looking like Steven Tyler began to play. He asked for the crowd to roar and the crowd followed his command. The game players ran back to their stations, others headed for the exits while others went to the bar to get another drink and listen to the tribute band.
And like that, it was over.