By Joseph Staszewski
Only California Chrome may have had a worse day than me at the Belmont Stakes.
While the California-bred horse couldn’t end the 36-year-old Triple Crown draught, finishing tied for fourth behind winner Tonalist, this reporter endured struggles of his own among the crowd of 102,199 people.
Nonexistent cellphone service on my work and personal phones made making calls, texts and social media a near impossibility Saturday at Belmont Park. I would have had better luck reaching TimesLedger photographer Steven Schnibbe and fellow reporter Kelsey Durham with two tin cans attached with string.
The race itself was anti-climatic. The last time I was at Belmont for a potential Triple Crown clincher was in 1998 when Real Quiet came down the stretch. Ironically, the building was the loudest I’ve ever heard any sports venue as Real Quiet lost by a nose.
With California Chrome never moving into a place higher than third, the nosiest the crowd got was with chants of “Let’s go Rangers” later in the evening on their way out the doors.
“I’m sure one of these days, he will,” said California Chrome jockey Victor Espinosa, when asked if a horse will eventually win the Triple Crown. “Sooner or later, we need to break this, this bad, you know, karma.”
My bad luck continued as well. In order to get home I sat in exiting traffic with Schnibbe. I did so in an attempt to avoid walking more than the 2 miles I had already trekked while using Google maps with 3 percent battery to find my ride along a jam-packed Hempstead Turnpike. Oh, and I lost my notebook.
So why would anyone want to go to the Belmont Stakes?
The day is unlike any other sporting event in New York City.
It is more than just bets being placed and horses running. It is a celebration of summer in a way. Consider it a rather large barbecue or tailgate party filled with good food, music, some adult beverages and plenty of eclectic fashion.
People are camped out in the park area with beach chairs and blankets, watching the races on TV screens in a setting reminiscent of street fairs or neighborhood feasts.
“We haven’t missed a Belmont Stakes in the last 10 years because of the music and the food and the hanging out,” said former Kew Gardens resident Indy Sankaran, who came with his cousin.
Your eyes are continually drawn to each outfit that tries to outdo the next as you make your way through vast Grand Stand and park areas. There were large straw hats, bright red jackets and loud shorts — one pair was emblazoned with an American flag design. One gentleman was in a suit full of rainbow swirls that would have given Joseph’s multicolored dream coat a run for its money.
“It’s so cool,” Bayside native Sara McGuinness said. “There are so many guys here in full suits, like, that’s nice.”
Added Astoria native Nicol Martin: “It’s fun to dress up and bet some horses.”
But be prepared that sometimes hassles are part of the festivities when you are dealing with crowds a little less than double the size of a sell-out for a World Series game at Yankee Stadium.
If you want a unique experience, then just $10 will get you through the turnstiles. After my day, watching at home next year sounds just fine.