California Chrome fades on the track but brings a surge to the stands

  • Saturday, June 7, 2014

Exercise rider Willie Delgado rides California Chrome around the track at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., Wednesday. AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG

The first train arrived an hour before post time for the opening race, pulling into a creaky rail station unaccustomed to the crowd.

Newcomers to the sport, drawn largely by the prospect of the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, adjusted their fedoras and snapped photographs.

Track regulars grimaced, cursing the colt responsible for the crush.

“We were all praying three weeks ago that California Chrome would lose,” said Frank Alheidt, 63, who has attended nearly every Belmont Stakes since 1978. “My prayers weren't answered.”

With roughly 100,000 fans expected to arrive Saturday, Belmont Park's annual big moment promised to be the biggest in years — a stiff test for racing officials who have been criticized in the past for their lack of preparedness on major race days. In 2008, for example, amid sweltering heat, overflowing toilets marred the Triple Crown experience for fans of Big Brown long before the horse finished last in the race.

Although officials said the day had been relatively smooth, there were some unexpected wrinkles. After telling riders during the week that it had added enough trains to carry “up to 20,000 thoroughbred racing fans,” the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that nearly 36,000 people had boarded.

The agency planned to add trains “as needed” after the race, but attendees were cautioned about the possibility of significant waits. After the race, winding lines stretched from the platform, leaving attendees waiting near betting windows or on stationary escalators.

Earlier in the week, the authority estimated wait times of up to two hours.

From the first train out of Pennsylvania Station, around 9:45 a.m., many cars were overstuffed from end to end, their aisles so full that scores of would-be passengers in Queens were turned away.

“Oh, my God,” one mouthed from the platform. Another gestured through the window, imploring people to move in.

On the track's expansive grounds, most fans found the crowds more manageable during the opening races. Near the picnic area, where a man wore a folded six-pack container as a hat, Carol Wakefield, 67, from Baldwin, New York, cozied up with a mystery novel, peering at the pages through a magnifying glass.

“I can block it out,” she said of the crowd noise, as the third race began.

As part of a marketing campaign, a company handed out nasal strips, a nod to California Chrome's accessory of choice. Nearby, at a small playground where adult supervision is “recommended” but only occasionally rendered, children tossed bean bags at each other as parents studied racing forms.

Other children were more focused on the races. Melissa Mendez, 44, and her 8-year-old son, Gabriel, wore shirts emblazoned with messages about California Chrome.

“Chrometastic,” one read.

“Got Chrome?” said the other.

A friend, Wind Larson, 39, wore a crown with three fake roses, held together by wire. Others in their group also had crowns.

“It's Burger King, with chrome spray paint,” she said. “The lady thought we were nuts when we asked for nine crowns.”

By midafternoon, a crowd pocked with horse racing novices appeared to grow restless as they waited for the big race.

Near the paddock, hours of alcohol consumption, which no doubt aided in the morning's good cheer, seemed now to exacerbate tensions.

With long lines of inexperienced bettors, some track veterans were growing frustrated. Several were stranded in line, unable to make their bets, beneath the clubhouse seats before the ninth race, as a pari-mutuel clerk struggled to input a series of wagers quickly enough.

“Get her out!” a man shouted, and a brief chant began.

Fran Behrendt, 79, sighed beneath her sun hat from the middle of the pack. “There's no air,” she said.

Outside, the stubby remainders of cigars littered the grounds, beside small heaps of betting tickets. In some corners, few flat surfaces were without a discarded beer can or six. Beneath a perpetual stampede in the food area, a paper sign, blown from across the track, read as something of a cruel joke. “Private Party,” it said.

While most attendees were disappointed with the outcome of the Belmont Stakes, particularly as they waited for trains or remained stalled in traffic, there were some winners.

Samantha Huefner, 33, from Manhattan, posed with three $100 bills that Tonalist's victory had netted her, fanning herself as a friend snapped a photograph.

“I just liked the name,” she said.

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