For the 90,000 in attendance at Belmont Park Saturday evening, there was the instant realization that they'd witnessed a historic event -- the end of a 37-year Triple Crown drought.

Some rushed to buy an extra program or two, or snatch up other race memorabilia.

Manny Fernandes, 41, of Boston, had no intention of cashing in his winning ticket. He's going to frame it instead.

StoryBelmont exit goes more smoothly than last year

"Just to be a part of this . . . it was amazing," he said. "It was crazy. People we've never met were hugging and screaming, touching, high-fiving. It was amazing. Win or lose today, you feel like a winner."

Spectators screamed in ecstasy or shed tears of delight when American Pharoah crossed the finish line, many embracing total strangers. Others leaped into the air, hats and sunglasses flying off.

When Pharoah won, Erin Daly, 49, of Lindenhurst ripped off the black top hat she had repurposed as part of an Egyptian pharaoh costume and shrieked.

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Daly, who's been to the Belmont Stakes every year since she was 7, saw Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed win the Triple Crown. But she feared she might never see the feat repeated.

"I am so thrilled!" said Daly, flushed and out of breath. "This horse is magnificent. I knew he was magnificent."

Her fiance, Carlo Spano, 49, merely shook his head in disbelief. "This is awesome," he said.

Hours before the race, the atmosphere was festive. Women in big floppy hats and bright sundresses strutted around with men in fedoras and suspenders.

Erin Merkle, 20, came from York, Pennsylvania, to satisfy her curiosity about the world of horse racing and perhaps bear witness to something special.

The Villanova student's first visit to Belmont Park was also a great excuse to put on a pink skirt, wide-brimmed straw hat and wedge sandals.

"It was fun to dress up and have an excuse to wear a hat," Merkle said. "It's something cool and new to experience."

Former college roommates Paul Ordman, 67, and Bob Gebroe, 68, arrived hoping to witness their second Triple Crown win.

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Gebroe and Ordman were at Belmont in 1973 when Secretariat blew the field away, winning by 31 lengths. They've returned several times since hoping to witness more magic.

On Saturday, Ordman got up at 5 a.m. and drove down from Andover, Massachusetts, with his 32-year-old son Justin. They were met by Gebroe, who came from Livingston, New Jersey.

"We're all here to see American Pharoah -- and he will win," Gebroe predicted before the race.

The sheer size of the Belmont crowd created a few problems. Cellphone service became spotty and women complained about long bathroom lines.

"It was a good half-hour to reach a stall," said Sherry Weinstein of Farmingdale, a proofreader.

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But that frustration paled in comparison to what friends Ben Yon and Darren Keys experienced.

Yon, 40, and Keys, 52, traveled from Philadelphia to see the epic race only to be turned away. They hadn't seen the advisories about tickets not being sold at the venue.

" 'Difficult' would be an understatement," Keys said. " 'Ultimate frustration' would be the word."

With Valerie Bauman

and Matthew Chayes