Belmont Stakes 2014: The Nightmare of Leaving

The crowds exiting Belmont. (Credit: George Soukas; I was too depressed to take photos)
The crowds “exiting” Belmont. (Credit: George Soukas; I was too depressed to take photos)

California Chrome did not win the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and therefore did not become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. While my girlfriend Megan and I wanted to see history, his defeat is not what made the day a complete disaster. It was trying to leave the park that did.

In the time it took us to exit Belmont Park, a horse could have gone around the 1.5-mile track 54 times. Or it could have run across the streets of Queens, into Manhattan via the 59th Street Bridge, all the way to Penn Station (a destination for many travelers) and back twice…and then ran around the track eight times.

The day started innocently enough. Our Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) train to the track was crowded, but nothing worse than my trip in 2008, when Big Brown was going for the Triple Crown. Just inside the park’s entrance, a company distributed nasal strips in honor of California Chrome, and many fans wore them, presumably in support of the horse but maybe for better breathability in one of the few public places you’re still allowed to smoke. There were tables with free purple and green “Triple Chrome” signs as well as posters of the horse with check marks next to “Kentucky Derby” and “Preakness” and a blank box next to “Belmont.”

When trying to get food or drink or use the women’s bathroom, it became clear that the track was more crowded than in 2008. It turns out there were 102,000 people at the park, the third-largest crowd in Belmont history and 8,000 more than ’08. Some things have nothing to do with the bloated attendance figure and everything to do with management incompetence. For example, when Megan and I tried to cash our betting vouchers, we were informed the track was not giving out singles or coins. Though I was owed $84.10, the teller tried to give me $80 flat. While she was very concerned it would affect her “drawer,” she did accept my $1 bill in exchange for a five. I was given the remaining 10 cents on a voucher, which could only be used to make another bet.

How many people didn’t have singles and were therefore shorted a dollar or two or three? The track is always figuratively stealing money—this is gambling, after all—but it shouldn’t be literally doing so.

We waited until the race after the Belmont Stakes ended before trying to leave, hoping the extra time would clear out some of the crowd. It turned out that there was no good exit strategy. We joined the mob of people and inched forward, when we moved at all. The next race, the final one of the day, ended before we covered 40 yards (or less than one-fifth of a furlong). At one point, ahead of us, water burst from the ceiling for a few seconds, no doubt soaking whoever stood underneath. Closer to us, a pigeon decided to drop a gift from above.

After an hour we made it to the overpass that connects the park to the trains. There was a 20-minute stretch where we didn’t move at all, stuck in a hot, cramped mass of humanity. A friend who got in line after us was redirected underneath the overpass. Police told him they feared that it might collapse if more people got on. Why they decided to put people underneath this structure, then, is beyond me. At one point we heard the sound of machinery and saw sparks flying, as if metal was being welded. It’s reasonable to assume this was some sort of emergency repair job. After an hour and 40 minutes of waiting, we finally got on a train at 9:20. It was another 40 minutes before the train left, even though it had stopped letting passengers board well before that.

Throughout this ordeal, we received no communication from Belmont or transportation officials or any of the police officers on hand. I’ve had two days to reflect and I’m still going to say this was possibly the worst experience of my life. And yet, it could have been much worse. Someone could have passed out. Someone could have done something idiotic, like thrown a punch, something we saw happen twice during the afternoon, and started a riot. The overpass could have collapsed.

The LIRR expected 20,000 train commuters but wound up with 36,000. While it was clear there were not enough trains and they weren’t getting in and out fast enough, the old station apparently was operating at max capacity. The parking lot, I’ve heard, was equally disastrous. This is only a problem one day a year, and only this big of a problem when a horse is going for the Triple Crown. But it’s a huge problem nonetheless. Maybe the solution is to stop letting people board the trains to Belmont or stop selling tickets at the gate after a certain point. I would have been upset if I was suddenly told I couldn’t attend the race, but not nearly as upset as I was trying to get out of there.

Why the long Triple Crown drought?

Had California Chrome won, at least my hellish commute would have come after witnessing history. Instead, the Triple Crown drought extended to 37 years, the longest ever. After the race, one of Chrome’s owners, Steve Coburn, lashed out against the structure of the races, feeling it was unfair that horses skipped one or both of the previous two races and were fresh for the Belmont.* The Belmont winner, Tonalist, had not raced in the Derby or the Preakness.

*Coburn came off as a classic sore loser, even if he isn’t factually wrong. The Triple Crown is very difficult to win. It involves not just speed at different distances, but an ability to maintain that speed with limited rest between races against challengers that are well rested. Plus a whole lot of luck. Just because it hasn’t happened in a while doesn’t mean we should try to make it easier. As Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own says, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

Were things different in earlier eras? Did the same horses race in all three races? I looked at the last three Triple Crown winners as well as the last three horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and lose in the Belmont. The 1970s Triple Crown winners faced far fewer challengers, and far fewer well-rested challengers, than the three most recent contenders.

None of the photos being taken of Chrome ended up as mementos.
None of the photos being taken of Chrome ended up as mementos.

Below is a chart I put together using data from (click to embiggen). The first number in each box under the horse’s name is how many challengers he faced in that race. The second number in the Preakness box represents new challengers—horses that had not run in the Derby. The second number in the Belmont box represents new challengers (that had not run in either of the previous two races) and the third number is how many horses skipped either the Derby or the Preakness.

triple crown stats

Affirmed, for example, faced 10 horses in the Derby; 4 of his 6 Preakness challengers had not run in the Derby; 1 of his 4 Belmont challengers had not run in either of the two previous races, and two had skipped either the Derby or the Preakness.

On average, the more recent contenders faced at least 50 percent more challengers in each race than the earlier champions. And the 21st-century horses dealt with more challengers that had sat out the Derby and/or Preakness before appearing in the Belmont.

While these stats don’t tell the whole story, on the issue of rest alone it is harder to win a Triple Crown today than it once was.

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