Racing, reassuringly familiar, changes just enough to hold our interest and keep us coming back for more. At Belmont Park, final stop on the Triple Crown trail, we know the distance and difficulty, beginning and background. We wait to learn the end.
The race 'round the wide turns of "the big sandy" begs reflection on a season now coming to a close. Questions raised before Derby, asked again at Preakness, have been answered. In the Belmont, we look to a plucky little gelding from New Mexico and a down-to-earth jockey from Louisiana in the absence of a Triple Crown on the line. It's not the perfect story, but we follow it nonetheless.
Let me tell you why. The racetrack seduces, if you let it. Racing as promoted is no comparison to racing that has stolen your heart. It's like falling in love -- hard to resist, no matter how impractical. Once this game has you, you're hooked.
For the fringe players, petty fans into whose laps the perfect ending must fall, there may not be much of a draw this year. It could have been better, they say. There could have been a matchup. A Triple Crown contender. An overpowering favorite.
But to love this sport is to embrace imperfection, sticking with it in spite of long odds and longer hours. Sometimes, from unbelievable circumstances, we wind up with highly improbable results. We look at each other, and at our programs, in shock and awe. Sometimes, when we're lucky, we watch what we hoped and thought would happen as it actually does happen. And in that moment, we're completely satisfied. Therein lies the draw.
So here's how to feel what those of us who follow racing forever feel: embrace the Belmont for what it is alone. Tomorrow, take the train in from the city. Buy the day's Form and give it an hour or two. Don't rush your picks, but once they're made, stick by them. Walk to the rail for the first or second, listen to the thunder of hooves and the smack of whips and the shouts of riders coming down off the final turn. Breathe in. Embrace the atmosphere. Enjoy the day.
When it's time for the big dance, find a spot near the paddock. Glimpse the little horse that could, watch the hard-knocking 3-year-olds wheeling back from Derby and Preakness runs, eyeball the intriguing newcomers. Veterans and rookies will come together on even terms, and with the spring of the gates we'll be hurtling toward the finale.
And the best part about that? Down the road, in places like Saratoga and Del Mar, where the world feels very far away, we'll follow these runners again. Their stories will continue to develop, and maybe something written by one of us will catch your eye. And the game will pull you in.
Then it's all over, so don't resist. Welcome to racing. We're glad to have you with us.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union, and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.