BALTIMORE — The Belmont Stakes won’t mean as much as it did last year. Exaggerator saw to that Saturday by knocking off Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. But Triple Crown winners don’t come along very often and the racing world will survive.
I heard about horse racing before I knew that horses raced. My maternal grandmother, Mary Fleming, lived with us when I was a kid, and whenever she caught me with a finger up my nose, she would laugh and say, “Pick a winner!”
I asked what she meant, and she told me about racetracks, win, place and show and the daily double. I asked Nana lots of questions, which worried my mother, Eleanor, the ultimate goody-goody. Nana was a serious bingo player, and Mom feared the gambling gene had skipped a generation.
“Mother, please,” she said, “don’t be telling him about that.”
“Oh, leave him be,” Nana said. “Don’t break his spirit.”
Nana’s older brother, Pete Fleming, ran a soda fountain near our apartment in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1958. Uncle Pete’s place was a front for his small-time bookmaking business, which is how 8-year-old me unknowingly became an NFL and horse tout.
One of Pete’s pals, a little bald guy named Tony Stupiello, heard me talking about the NFL with him. I’d followed it for maybe a month, so Tony figured he’d tap into beginner’s luck. He’d ask, “Eddie, who do you think will win this game?” When I offered my opinion, he’d say, “By a little or by a lot?” I couldn’t see why that mattered, but I’d answer.
I must have put him on a roll, because every Monday afternoon that fall Stupiello bought me a cheeseburger and a coke. One day he showed me a list of horses, and I said I liked one’s name. The next Monday, Tony walked into Pete’s and said, “Eddie, remember that horse you liked? He won like Citation!”
Citation? “One of the greatest horses who ever lived,’’ Stupiello said. “He won the Triple Crown.”
Sounded like a big deal, but I was focused on my burger. That night I told my mother I wasn’t hungry because I’d eaten at Pete’s. When she figured out what was going on, she freaked. “Oh, Eddie, that man is a gambler,’’ she wailed. “You’re helping him do something against the law.”
So I knuckled under, and Stupiello never got another tip from me. A few months later, Nana died suddenly, which broke my heart, and my interest in racing faded away.
In 1973, when Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948, it made no emotional impact on me. Neither did back-to-back sweeps by Seattle Slew and Affirmed in 1977 and 1978. When Spectacular Bid’s bid was denied in 1979, I was surprised. This Triple Crown thing didn’t seem that hard. Little did I know.
During the 1981 baseball strike, the racing bug bit me, and for some there is no cure. I began hanging out at Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands, then became a public handicapper and eventually a racing writer. Starting with Silver Charm in 1997, I covered nine consecutive Triple Crown attempts that fizzled at Belmont Park. After California Chrome went down in 2014, I felt certain it would never happen again.
Then the unicorn came along last spring, and American Pharoah made everyone believe. As he turned into Belmont’s stretch, the roar was deafening. Within seconds his trainer, Bob Baffert, and 90,000 fans knew the long wait was finally over. Hallelujah and amen.
“I could tell by the eighth pole that it was going to happen,” Baffert said, “and all I did was take in the crowd. It was thundering. It was a beautiful moment. I’ll never forget that sound.”
It was the ultimate feel-good vibe, the deliverance of millions from a 37-year wait. “It was a wonderful experience to get a horse like American Pharoah,’’ Baffert said Thursday. “He was so majestic, and he loved human contact.”
Could Nyquist have performed an encore? Could he have surpassed Pharoah by becoming the first undefeated immortal since Seattle Slew? And even if he had, could it possibly have felt as good? Pharoah’s feat was first love without the anguish for so many. Would Pharoahites have embraced Nyquist or rooted against him?
Too bad we’ll never get the chance to find out.