I watched the race at a local bar.
I arrived around 5:30 p.m. Eastern Time, meeting a friend for what I demanded be only one drink and a quick bite to eat. There was a horse race; I needed to be back home in time to watch it for work. Assuredly, the Pittsburgh Pirates game would envelop the bar's television sets; there was no point in asking otherwise.
This wasn't a "horse racing bar." This was a local hole in the wall, the type you see in the movies and television when they're trying to convey the depth of a main character's spiral. The lighting is terrible, I've never trusted the food enough to have anything but buffalo wings and, while the customers and staff are friendly, my brain was predisposed to believe they'd much rather be watching a mid-June clash between NL Central teams than one of the biggest sporting events of 2014.
I was wrong.
From the moment I walked in, the energy was different. Not like anything I'd ever felt here before. There were people I'd never seen before holding little placard cards with numbers on them. There was a guy sitting at the one oblong table that's nestled way too close to the bar, writing down people's names and picks. Apparently, everyone who entered the bar that day had to give their picks. Apparently, I knew nothing about the bar I already thought I frequented too much.
There is no other feeling like watching a sporting event with a large group of people. One of the best nights of my life in college was going with a friend to watch WrestleMania XXVII at a sports bar. I'd stopped watching wrestling probably a decade ago, but there was something about being in that room that made me want to break out the wrestle dummies and go flying off the top turnbuckle—also known as the arm of my boyhood couch—again.
I was reminded of that night as we settled at our table Saturday. The music was turned off, the volume on the bar televisions went from 50 to 60 to 70 and everyone sat in anticipation. No drinks were ordered, no food brought out and I'm pretty sure no one even took a bathroom break. Each holding champagne with a strawberry nestled in the bottom of a glass, we sat in bated breath awaiting history.
It never came.
Like he had in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, California Chrome got out of the gate well. He hung between third and fourth place, settling behind Commissioner and General A Rod the way he'd done with Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia at Pimlico and Uncle Sigh and Chitu at Churchill Downs. There were screams and yelps and claps as Victor Espinoza seemingly got California Chrome into position. Then there were more screams, these ones angry, quite a few unprintable expletives and then stunned silence as Tonalist, not California Chrome, made the late push to the front.
The silence was striking. People yell and curse at bars all the time. Rarely do you see a group of more than 100 people sitting without someone being that guy. Even rarer is the case of 100,000 roaring fans being reduced to a murmur that would be acceptable at the public library. The mood shifted from exuberant to dejected in 2:28.52—the time it took Tonalist to edge out Commissioner by a nose.
I finished my beer, paid my tab and said my goodbyes within 15 minutes.
Sportswriters like to say we have no favorite team. Which, of course, is a blatant lie. Our interests may differ from childlike expressions that we remember from our youth, but it's impossible to not root. Beat writers understand that the better their local team does, the more exposure they'll receive. The very job of a columnist is to spark conversation; we all want to write about things people care about. It's fair to say most of us root for the best story, but that's lipstick on a pig. Rooting is rooting, even if it's reasoned by professional interests.
It's safe to say almost everyone at Belmont Park—from the fans to the race organizers to the press box and damn sure the controversial Steve Coburn—was rooting for California Chrome more than they'd care to admit.
Affirmed was the last Triple Crown winner. In 1978. We're talking the year Grease came out. That's a long time ago—long enough to make some folks wonder whether it will happen again in their lifetime, or even happen at all. I was 12 years from being born when Affirmed captured the Belmont, and it'd be a lie if I said the drought hasn't clouded my perception.
And you could see it on the faces of everyone in Southeastern New York; the high-definition only made it worse. Tears were shed, regrettable things were said and almost no one will remember Tonalist's win in a few years. Only that California Chrome became Lucky No. 13 to win the Derby and Preakness since 1978 without completing the trifecta.
It's beginning to put a strain on the entire sport.
Unlike Major League Baseball, which went through its own four-decade Triple Crown absence, there is nothing else tying the public to horse racing. There are no teams. There is no 500 home run club. This is not a world in which Derek Jeter's jump throw, Miguel Cabrera's lumbering swing or a pennant race can make you forget.
The Triple Crown industry is the horse racing industry. That's it. That we're decades removed from a horse winning the trifecta and the sport's popularity has diminished into a niche over those years is no coincidence.
Still, there's something to be praised about the Triple Crown's difficulty. It should be hard. Horses that win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont should go down as immortal. There is a reason that people gathered in holes in the wall across the country to cap off their weekend with a horse race. They wanted a communal moment. They wanted something to talk about with their friends, their significant others, their co-workers on Monday morning. No one enjoys learning about history in school; we all want to be a part of it, no matter our minuscule contribution.
California Chrome was the vessel for that hope. No one was rooting for California Chrome out of personal affection—though that horse's backstory was certainly something out of a PG-rated Disney movie. We were rooting for a Triple Crown.
And we'll do it again.
There will be another California Chrome, just as there was another I'll Have Another, Big Brown and Smarty Jones. By its very nature, horse racing hits the reset button every year. There is no redemptive story arc coming for California Chrome at next year's Belmont. There will be new horses, new trainers and new owners. Soon, the disappointment of Saturday won't register in the national consciousness.
The horse racing industry is the Triple Crown industry. But the Triple Crown drought industry is one of its own, one where we're all the overeager supporting characters.
Soon enough, we'll all sit down again at our own local bars. We'll plan to leave early but stay through the last gallop, hope in our hearts but dread crowding the back of our minds. We'll sit in silence as the horses run to the post and then scream and clap as the favorite puts itself in position for a late charge. And, someday, the victory champagne will be guzzled down instead of left to go stale on the counter.
Here's to hoping we're all around to see it.
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