Updated on 09/17/2011 11:41AM

Rains came, but so did the masses


ELMONT, N.Y. - Frankie Joseph, 55, arrived at Belmont at 10 a.m. with a Racing Form and a case of Budweiser cans, which he was guarding from a spot just inside the grandstand doors. He said he has been coming to the Belmont Stakes for 20 years, and goes to the track regularly, at least four days a week, while putting in hours as a construction worker.

"I had to be here today," Joseph said. "I've seen every Triple Crown try in the last 20 years and I haven't seen one win one yet."

Joseph said he was rooting for Funny Cide.

Joseph's friend, Anthony Ramcharitar, 32, said he comes to the track only for "every big event." But Ramcharitar said he handicaps studiously.

"I sit at my home and do all the stuff on the computer," he said. "I do all the stats and look at all the races."

Ramcharitar said he was leaning toward betting Empire Maker in the Belmont, but he said he felt conflicted about the decision. "This is a really special thing with a New York gelding going for the Triple Crown," said Ramcharitar, a unit clerk at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. "So I'm rooting for Funny Cide."

Fans certainly did not get ideal conditions for Belmont Day. Rain began falling at 9:30 a.m., and its force increased steadily all day. The temperature topped out at about 60 degrees. Groups of people huddled under umbrellas or hooded slickers on the grandstand and clubhouse apron and in Belmont's expansive backyard, trying to escape the wet weather while slugging beers and sodas. For the most part, lids on Tupperware containers had to be kept in place to keep food from getting wet.

Inside Belmont's massive facility, people shuffled over the slick floors made wet by people coming and going, and lines to the women's bathroom stretched 25-deep at some places. But the rain did little to dampen people's spirits. A cheer went up any time the gates opened for a race, and the beer helped to keep smiles on faces.

Support for Funny Cide was strong throughout the crowd. Susan Tressy, 30, came to Belmont with a homemade T-shirt that said "Go Funny Cide" on the front and "Kick Butt Santos" on the back. Tressy lives in Avon, Conn., but she traveled to Pimlico for the Preakness and to Belmont on Saturday.

"I've been rooting for him since the beginning," Tressy said. "I'm only here to root for Santos and Funny Cide."

Mary Grassfield, 79, a retired teacher, and Nancy Sagendorf, 46, a teacher, drove down from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and not surprisingly, both were Funny Cide fans. Both regularly go to Saratoga during that track's summer meet, but Grassfield had been to Belmont only once, and Sagendorf was making her first visit to the track.

"Funny Cide was born in Saratoga!" Grassfield said, showing off a Funny Cide button pinned to her jacket. "He's from New York and the whole town is crazy about him."

Grassfield enthusiastically described how city officials have installed a thermometer in front of city hall measuring the town's "Funny Cide fever." And she said a street has been temporarily named after the horse.

Gordon Melville, 60, and Sue Sabo, 45, also drove down from upstate New York to see Funny Cide. Melville, a retired department of corrections officer, lives in Elmira, N.Y., and Sabo, a quality-assurance supervisor, lives in Shirley, N.Y., and both regularly attend the races at Saratoga. They had plans to come to the Belmont "rain or shine."

"I'd love to see a New York horse take the crown," Melville said, smoking a cigar and with 10 more in his shirt pocket.

"I love the excitement of it," Sabo said. "I like Funny Cide. He just has a good feel about him."

The urge to see the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years was strong throughout the grandstand. Bob Craven, a 49-year-old retired steamfitter who goes to Belmont every weekend, has been coming to the Belmont Stakes since 1982, he said, with no luck seeing a Triple Crown winner, although he was at Belmont in 1973 to see Secretariat win. ("I bet Sham in every race," Craven said. "I'm a sucker for the underdog.")

Craven, who came to the track on Saturday with 10 friends who "are all regulars," said he is a son of a bookmaker, and that he cashed his first bet when he was 12. He said he would probably bet on Dynever in the Belmont Stakes, but that in his heart he was hoping Funny Cide would win.

"For the racing side," Craven said, "I'd say I like Funny Cide. But for the finance side, I'd say Dynever. I'll get a souvenir ticket on Funny Cide, sure."

Some in the crowd, however, were happily oblivious to the action on the track. A 45-strong group from Connecticut that had camped out on the grandstand rail with a kiddie pool filled with beer cans were standing in the rain drinking beers and eating finger food from portable tables they had set up to surround their space. Those in the group were making their second consecutive trip to the Belmont Stakes, the one day they go to the races all year.

"We're rooting for the longshot in every race," said Ian Stover, 30, a bartender.

Jen Russo, 23, was making her first trip to the track. "I don't even know who's in the race," Russo said with a smile. "Actually, I didn't even know there was more than one race today."

"No, no, no," said her friend, Jennifer Greene, 35, correcting her. "We're rooting for the horse going for the Triple Crown. Funny Cide. Am I right?"

Despite the rain, Belmont's backyard began to fill up by 10 a.m. People were laying out blankets on the grass and setting up their picnics. Umbrellas of all sizes and colors were visible and the smell of hotdogs was wafting in the air. Some people pitched tents and donned garbage bags to keep dry.

A security guard stationed at one of the grandstand entrances said the number of people coming through the turnstiles Saturday at 9:30 a.m. was down from last year.

"Last year, it was nonstop at this time," said the guard, who did not wish to be identified, as he gestured toward the admission gates, where no one was waiting in line. "It's only half of what it was last year."

Sandy Jaffe made the trek from New Orleans to see Funny Cide. Jaffe, 65, was in Maryland and witnessed Funny Cide's romp in the Preakness.

"It was just the most exciting thing I had ever seen," said Jaffe, who was sporting a Funny Cide button on her raincoat. "Whenever I want to smile I think of that. Me and my friends were waving handkerchiefs at Jose Santos as he crossed the wire."

Jaffe, a musician in a jazz band, said Funny Cide reminds her of the legendary jazz performer Louie Armstrong.

"Watching Funny Cide is like watching Louie Armstrong come on stage," Jaffe said. "It's that charisma. I'll be so sad if Funny Cide doesn't win."

Linda Cohn and Peter Brown made the Belmont Stakes the scene of their first date.

Cohn, 26, met Brown, 30, two weeks ago at a friend's party in Manhattan, where they both live.

"There's been so much hype about [Funny Cide], we thought it would be cool to be here, although the weather sucks," Brown said.