ELMONT, N.Y. – As American Pharoah rounded the third turn and pulled away from the field, the man in the navy blazer turned and – to no one in particular – screamed, “BRING ME MY MOTHERF*CKING MONEY!”
He seemed not to care about the Coors Light slopping from the glass in his right hand onto his white shirt and khakis.
As the horse grew closer, men jumped up and down, shaking the bleachers and slapping one another’s backs. A woman – who said she’d traveled globally for horse racing – stopped screaming as her voice caught. Three girls popped small champagne bottles and the corks flew over the raised hands.
Even Navy Blazer’s continued bellows were drowned out by the crowd as the horse neared the finish line. I am not a horse racing fan – this was my first time at the track – but suddenly, I felt caught up. Numbly, I felt myself cheer wildly and high-five strangers.
American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown horse in 37 years.
Sitting at breakfast, my friend Sam asked me to come to Belmont with him, which he was covering. I agreed begrudgingly because the ticket was $10 and there was an outside chance at history.
After buying the ticket, I realized my error. For breakfast, I had thrown on thrice-worn board shorts and an old, stained, The Office-themed “Scott’s Tots” t-shirt. That would not do for one of the only sporting events in the country where the dress is as much a competition as what happens on the field. But I didn’t have time to go home.
Of the 90,000-plus in attendance Saturday, I saw one other man without a collar.
Wanting a better view of some of the earlier races, I slipped into the “Club section” – credit my mother’s lesson about always assuming an air of belonging – where my ugly-duckling complex worsened.
There, an usher grimaced at me. She asked me politely to leave – though it may have had more to do with my absence of a green club wristband than the presence of a t-shirt. As I turned to go, a hand grabbed my shoulder.
A stumbling, well-dressed blond man seized hold of me and shouted at the usher that I belonged. I must’ve misplaced my bracelet. (The same usher had just evicted this man from the reserved seats, perhaps prompting his rebellion.)
“Hey!” he shouted. “Stop disturbing my friend, uh…” – a glance at my shirt – “Scott! He’s with us. We love Scott.”
Already frayed from his earlier belligerent protests, the usher harrumphed and left. The pinstriped, straw-hatted man guffawed and stuck his hand out.
Jesse, a “former frat star” at Lehigh, was rolling with his frat pack. The four of them smelled of liquor and smoke. Right then, that smelled like victory.
After a few races, Jesse & Co. went to the bar. I met up with Sam. We didn’t really know how to bet the horses, but we picked the ones with middle-of-the-road odds. Consulting an elderly woman, she explained what the numbers on the slip meant (which is almost nothing). But we really learned the meaning of gambling by playing and, of course, losing.
Sam left to keep working and I sat for a while, attempting to conceal my non-club-level clothing and taking a rest. (We arrived at 11 a.m., the big race post time was 6:50 p.m.)
Women wearing colorful dresses and ludicrously-shaped hats strutted in heels higher than Jesse. Men in loud suits bought expensive champagne and tallboys, carrying them back to the seats.
Benches facing the five televisions with racing coverage filled with men furiously scribbling in notebooks and, sometimes, shouting at the screens, at a horse, to run faster. Sweaty men tore up betting slips in line to wager more. Later outside, one man, sitting at the top of section 308, launched into a rage as the horses came out from the tunnel for the race preceding the actual Belmont.
“Are you f*cking joking?” he yelled as he grabbed his head. “My horse is overweight! She’s got fat legs! My horse has fat legs!” (The horse finished a close second.)
Before, the Belmont was relaxed, even abuzz with nervous energy; waiting on history. Not a hint of Hunter S. Thompson’s purported decadence or depravity.
But after, with a rush on the ticket offices to claim the winners, the scene was madness: Inebriated patrons in bizarre clothing stumbled in a mass of cacophonous voices towards the little windows. It seemed like a disorienting, non-childproofed version of a Mad Hatter tea party.
Despite the excitement and the energy, it felt strange watching. A man clutching two champagne glasses dozed off on a bench. An announcer shouted over the TV, “That’s why this is the greatest sport in the world!” The owner of the horse accepted the Triple Crown hardware on TV and said he’s never felt prouder of a horse.
But I thought: What does that horse care? He’s going to go back to his paddock tonight and cruise for sugar cubes like any other night. He doesn’t know what he’s just won.
I thought of the words that a man had said to me while waiting for the race to start.
“Your first race, huh?” he said. “Sh*t, if Pharoah wins today, you might never need to go to another one.”
Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.