06/11/2014 1:02PM

Hovdey: Echoes of defeat reach the cheap seats

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To the dispassionate outsider gazing down upon Thoroughbred racing from a perch of sports neutrality, the Belmont Stakes with a shot at a Triple Crown has all the trappings of a cynical bait-and-switch, with customers lured by the promise of witnessing a historic event. Then, when the event goes bust – as it has now 13 times since 1978 – fans are subjected to a dreary lecture about sandy racetracks, rough trips, and the inherent fragility of the modern-day Thoroughbred.

By contrast, the fans themselves have become a tough, seasoned bunch. How else would you describe the tens of thousands, most of them without a place to sit, committing to a marathon day spent being gouged on the price of everything from water to souvenir swizzle sticks, standing on hard concrete in long lines while waiting for a climactic, 2 1/2-minute horse race? Without reliable WiFi.

The horror.

Last Saturday, it was the same as it ever was. As the race drew nigh, the bulk of the 102,199 fans were either nose to noggin on the apron or pressed against the back of the grandstand seats, dozens deep on tiptoes, straining to catch even the slightest glimpse of the live action. The rest gathered beneath banks of TV monitors, resigned to watching on a video screen what they had hoped to savor in the flesh.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

I wandered, curious to discover who could see what, and at the far end of the building, I found a guy with a gray beard, a fisherman’s sweater, and a windbreaker hunkered down by the glass wall with his portable radio tuned to what he hoped was a broadcast of the race. He was wearing a hat that read “Empire Maker.”

“I don’t even know if I got the right station,” he said.

He didn’t.

I ended up watching the 146th Belmont Stakes in the Upper Tier Section CC of the fourth floor, squatting with other lost souls on the stairway landing, courtesy of a compassionate usher. Beneath us, when the Belmont field rounded the final turn, we saw Victor Espinoza riding California Chrome for dear life in a game attempt to keep the dream alive. Then they were gone, into the distance, and as the sound of the crowd rose and then fell, none of us in Upper Tier Section CC was sure who won. But we knew who didn’t.

An hour or so later, as thousands were cramming into trains for home, Belmont champ Tonalist was back in his yard, enjoying a lazy graze under the supervision of a security guard. Winning trainer Christophe Clement appeared, greeted his wife, Valerie, then turned to a couple of straggling reporters and patted himself down with theatrical flair, as if worried he had become invisible.

“I’m still here,” Clement beamed, delivering a sly dig at the lack of pre-Belmont attention afforded entrants not named California Chrome.

He was right, of course, but there is no changing the trajectory of the media or the focus of the publicity machine when a 3-year-old arrives at the brink of a Triple Crown. There was one story this spring, and it was told to death. Only a few reporters, exhausted by covering all things Chrome, wandered across the road to the Clement stable during Belmont week, where Tonalist lived a monk-like existence.

Now, late in the day of Clement’s greatest victory since his U.S. career began in 1991, his dry Gallic sense of humor was still in full flow, having just told the gathered media that he would try to get some sleep that night despite the disappointment of California Chrome’s failure to win the Triple Crown.

“I didn’t do anything special with him,” Clement said of Tonalist. “He’s just a very nice horse. Every day since he won the Peter Pan, he was training very well.”

Like his great-grandsire, A.P. Indy, Tonalist missed the Derby and the Preakness and prepped for a score in the Belmont by taking the Peter Pan Stakes. As to Tonalist’s future, Clement took a poke at his reputation for winning most of his races on grass.

“Unfortunately, the Virginia Derby does not exist anymore,” he said, which was also funny because at the moment, Virginia racing doesn’t even exist anymore. “So, he’s going to keep racing on dirt for a while.”

No one who watched Clement usher Gio Ponti through two championship seasons could be surprised at his work with Tonalist. But just as Clement slipped through the cracks of the Belmont Stakes coverage, Art Sherman was so thoroughly exposed he could hardly brush his teeth without looking over his shoulder.

“They’ll forget about me on Monday,” Sherman said as he awaited Belmont’s post time. “Unless, I guess, he wins.”

Success in the first two legs of the Triple Crown tends to reveal a lot about both horse and man. In the case of California Chrome, racing has a bright young athlete on its hands who was glorious in victory at Churchill Downs and Pimlico and honorable in defeat in New York. In Art Sherman, the game has been presented a gift-wrapped, 77-year-old blast from racing’s sepia-toned past, when the son of a barber could hustle his way into a decent living at the racetrack and stick around long enough to train a horse of a lifetime.

As Clement melted into the gathering at his barn, Sherman was across the road in Jimmy Toner’s stable office, watching yet another replay of the Belmont.

“I can’t watch anymore. It’s killing me,” Sherman said with a brave grin. “I need some air.”

Heading into the grassy courtyard, Sherman stopped to sign one more autograph for a young woman lingering late with family and friends. Her name was Taylor Parrish.

“What’s this?” Sherman asked as she handed him what looked to be a square of something covered in white satin.

“It’s my graduation cap,” Parrish replied. “Today was my high school graduation ceremony, but I came here instead.”

Sherman looked at her, pen poised.

“You missed your graduation day for this?” he said.

“I thought I could either go there and walk down an aisle and get handed a diploma I already earned,” Parrish replied, “or I could be here to see California Chrome win the Triple Crown.”

Sherman shook his head.

“Well, I’ll be.”

As he signed the cap, his careful “Art Sherman” in black against the white satin, someone asked him if, given his adventurous youth, he managed to graduate from high school. Sherman didn’t miss a beat.

“I just did,” he said.