Commentary

Belmont Special

Union Rags' win after Triple Crown scratch apt for track of upsets, disappointment

Updated: June 9, 2012, 10:35 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Was this the dullest great race in history?

A horse race feels like nostalgia even as it happens. This is especially true at the Belmont in a Triple Crown year. The gates fly open and set loose the past. It is a race best run in black and white.

They put on special trains to Belmont Park for Stakes Day, and in those Triple Crown years Penn Station bucks and hums with half a hundred thousand voices raised in expectation, all sharp suits and sharp elbows on every outbound platform. But this is no longer a Triple Crown year.

[+] EnlargeJohn Velazquez, Union Rags, Mike Smith, Paynter
Richard Mackson/US PresswireUnion Rags, with jockey John Velazquez in yellow silks, beat out Paynter to win the Belmont Stakes.

Friday morning's scratch of I'll Have Another rendered the race an afterthought, a footnote to someone else's fairy tale. And because the Belmont Stakes has so often been about spoilers and disappointments these past 34 years, it seemed almost apt.

Horse racing is a time machine. Its fortune and its purpose lie either in the past or in the future. What has happened and what might happen are its only selling points. It has almost no power in the present. So on Friday, when trainer Doug O'Neill sneaked his horse out early then missed the morning media gaggle, the rumors start. The stable gets crowded, people talk and tweet, and a few hours pass and O'Neill tells Dan Patrick on the radio that the run for the Triple Crown is over. By 1:21 p.m., the end of the news conference, the imagined resurrection of American thoroughbred racing is finished for another year. Whether the scratch is an act of altruism or self-interest is unimportant to history.

Since 1978 the Belmont story has been about our letdowns. Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2008, but lost the Belmont. Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2004, but lost the Belmont. The year before that it was Funny Cide. The year before that, War Emblem. And before that came Charismatic and Real Quiet, Silver Charm and Sunday Silence, Alysheba, Pleasant Colony and Spectacular Bid. All won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. All fell short. All reached but could not grasp.

Without the promise of a Triple Crown, the Belmont is a beauty pageant. Only the participants and their families really care how things turn. Attendance plummets and the color goes out of the day. The sky threatens and the rain falls and the track is slow, or the rain never comes and the track is fast. There is thunder, there is no thunder. The day ticks on into evening. The take at the gate suffers and the ratings suffer, and without the goad of a Triple Crown the event slips the grasp of every casual sports fan. The winner will be honored and forgotten in a single day, as the NBA and NHL and baseball and boxing and even soccer all overwhelm memory.

The original plan to let I'll Have Another lead his own "ceremonial retirement" post parade was scrapped at the last minute in favor of common sense and a paddock walk that looked a great deal less like a horse leading his own funeral cortege. But the day was clearly meant for the one horse not running.

Race broadcasts are pomp and filler, three hours of throat-clearing for two and a half minutes of gallop. Saturday, doubly so. "New York, New York" and Frank Sinatra came and went and the broadcast commemorated Secretariat and Ron Turcotte, Steve Cauthen and Affirmed, the song and the heroes and the horses more than a generation gone. Horse racing is a curio now, a keepsake from another time. Three weeks ago I wrote this, and it remains so today. Horse racing is a zombie, a sport that doesn't know it's dead. Aqueduct and Saratoga notwithstanding, even Off Track Betting has gone the way of the dodo here, and to most New Yorkers horses are beautiful antiques ridden by mounted cops or driven around Central Park for the benefit of romantic tourists.

New York makes you big or New York makes you small, but the genius of New York City, its magic, has always been transformative. What will New York make of you? Or you of it? New York absorbs, magnifies, ignores, distorts, nullifies, saves, electrifies, transfigures whatever you or history throw at it, so your ambition is just as likely to come back at you as heartbreak as it is a lighted marquee on Broadway or a blanket stitched of white carnations.

Was this the dullest great race in history? What did it mean? And to whom? The gates fly open and your winner by a nose is Union Rags, John Velazquez up, paying $7.50, $4.20 and $3.40.