The morning of June 6 dawned with heavy skies and intermittent rain on Long Island, but none of that deterred over 90,000 racing fans from pouring through the gates of Belmont Park in hopes of seeing American Pharaoh win the Belmont Stakes become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1979. They were not disappointed.
The 13 race card included 10 graded stakes, and excitement built throughout the afternoon. Even the Trustees’ Room, where the Jockey Club’s Stuart Janney presided over his customary table, had an excited buzz, and the Turf and Field Club was a raucous throng from early on. Beautifully dressed young men and women came pouring off the Long Island Rail Road trains and through the Clubhouse gates, the guys wearing “Mad Men” hats and the gals favoring ever higher platform heels. The crowds were still pouring in at 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon when Honor Code turned back Tonalist, last year’s Belmont winner, in the Metropolitan Mile. Racing fans from around the country swarmed the enormous old Belmont plant, and paddock sightings included Billy Turner (masterful trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew), Ian Highett, Shel Evans, Kaleem Shah, Bill Farish, Van Cushney, Frank Loughran, Emilia Fanjul, Charlie Fenwick, and Bill and Renee Lickle with their beautiful granddaughters.
As anticipation of the big race rose a group of my college friends including bloodstock agent Kip Elser from Camden, South Carolina, and Louisville lawyer John Egan, ventured out from the Champagne Room and took their places standing on benches close to the rail about 300 yards down from the starting gate. The roar as American Pharaoh came out onto the track was terrific, but only half as loud as that which accompanied the starting gate springing open. The horses went by us in a blur but Pharaoh was already clearly in the lead. After honest fractions Materiality fell back on the far turn and Frosted and Keen Ice came on, but American Pharoah, beautifully trained up to the race by Bob Baffert, dug in and began to pull away, and then came the loudest, most prolonged roar of all. His final quarter was just as fast as Secretariat’s record-breaking performance in 1973, and as Victor Espinosa raised his clenched fist crossing the finish line wondrous things began to happen. Up in the press box, Joe Drape of the New York Times reported the next day, hard boiled members of the Fourth Estate cheered and wept. A lady standing next to me I had never met before gave me a spontaneous hug. John Egan’s pretty and enthusiastic daughter, Stewart, just down from her freshman year at Choate Rosemary Hall and on her first trip ever to Belmont Park, threw her arms around me as well. “You’ll tell your grandchildren about this,” I assured her. It was that kind of a day, and just what the Sport of Kings needs—even better than a new king of racing, a Pharoah.