GOLDEN GATE FIELDS — The aroma of barbecue chicken, ribs and cigar smoke drifted from the main gate all the way into the grandstands and paddock.
Men and women equally engaged in the festivities, some disguising — or advertising — their social class with divergent attire.
Couples, hands linked together, sauntered behind a steel bar which separates onlookers from half-ton anomalies of nature.
The Belmont Stakes, just hours away, lingered in the minds of those in the Bay Area who were unable to make the trip to New York.
At Golden Gate Fields in Albany, just a hair north of Berkeley, thousands of excited guests piped in hoping to witness history.
There hadn’t been a triple crown winner in horse racing since 1978. It appeared as that might change.
California Chrome — a three-year-old with distinct Bay Area ties — won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes races, two of the three necessary victories to achieve what a mere 11 thoroughbreds have since 1919.
Photos by Godofredo Vasquez/SFBay
Golden Gate Fields was rocked by a sweep of guests, evidenced by food vendors running out of hot wings more than three hours before the big race was even set to begin.
With live horse racing hosted by the track — and the national horse racing event of the year on tap — there was ample reason to be there.
Booths wide open for bettors to turn in their slips, along with whatever cash they wished to wager, stretched like fog over the San Francisco Bay.
Lines packed all three tiers of the building with the nervous and eager alike. Even those satisfied just sitting in the warm sun were able to enjoy the aesthetics.
Well above the track and grandstand hung a massive steel awning, painted green but given character by its rust, having held up without much issue during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Fountains near the center gave plenty of things to gawk at.
As the day went on and the hour hand inched close to 4 p.m., the crowd doubled in size, at least.
By 3:35 p.m. there was a break in the live racing and more than 10,000 in attendance turned their attention to the goings on in New York.
With the seconds passing, some with itchy palms moved from their seats to the halls and towards lines hoping to place a final wager.
Others, some families, first dates and pairs with long term affinities, found any screen they could. It didn’t matter where one came from, there was no separation in age groups. Everyone wanted to see one thing: California Chrome becoming the 12th-ever Triple Crown horse.
Even other owners and jockeys wanted it to happen. Jockey Dennis Carr, who has been racing for 25 years, wanted it to happen.
Carr, of the mind that if this many people are coming together to watch, told SFBay he hadn’t seen anything like it since a racehorse named Cigar took the U.S. by storm in the mid 90’s:
“This is the kind of exposure the game needs right now. I’m sure everyone involved in the game wants to see a Triple Crown winner. It’s been 36 years since we’ve had one, and there’s been plenty of close calls but still it’s been 36 years. This is the kind of media attention this game needs.”
Beyond the myriad of activities that detract from horse racing, perhaps it’s biggest opponents come from animal rights groups, who’ve been protesting against the industry for the better part of the three decades.
Carr countered the activism, agreeing with an analogy that the horses are to owners and jockeys, what Peyton Manning is to the Denver Broncos:
“(The horses) are the most valuable athletes in the game. They take care of everyone participating in this sport, from the riders to the trainers to the owners.”
And of course, there were the bettors.
The Al Marshall Quartet had been playing old school love-making music throughout the afternoon, sounds of Motown coming from a stage on the north side of the grandstands.
At about 3:45 p.m., vocalist Will Russ Jr. gave way to the NBC broadcast, coming through the speakers with visuals sprinkled everywhere.
Near the center of the track, the visual elements could be viewed by anyone still facing that direction. A slightly distorted image of a horse being led into the gates came on.
One onlooker wondered out loud, “is that California Chrome?”
Five minutes later, they were off.
24 seconds passed, and the horses completed their first half mile. ‘Commissioner’ has the lead, with California Chrome trailing near the middle of 10 other horses. After they’d raced for a half-mile, California Chrome was gaining, and had inched his way into third.
The front of the pack, five horses squeezed into a 20-square-foot area and moving at speeds as fast as 60 miles per hour, advanced.
But California Chrome was losing ground. Swapping position with another horse, Medal Count, the early favorite was falling behind.
Many in the crowd were observed with their hand over their mouths in disbelief, or clutching the hands of their significant others.
California Chrome, can’t lose. He can’t, right?
A momentary sigh of relief came about, though California Chrome had just took the fourth position back, and the race was at least halfway over.
In the top three spots, Commissioner, General A Rod and Tonalist jockeyed to improve their respective positions.
As the race entered its final three furlongs, a horse was gaining ground. Coming from behind, one horse was going to make it happen. Third place, go. Second place, can it be?
First place, for all the marbles.
But it wasn’t California Chrome, who’d maintained solid position the whole way through before falling back over the last quarter mile of the race.
It was Tonalist, who’d won the last time he raced at Belmont Park. The dreams of everyone hoping to see California Chrome win the first Triple Crown in 36 years were crushed.
Silence came over the crowd at Golden Gate Fields. In unison, silence, shock and somber faces fleeced the grandstands.
Historic crowds gathered at at tracks around the country large numbers. It wasn’t isolated to Golden Gate Fields, who nearly reached their maximum capacity of almost 15,000. Belmont Park had 100,000 visitors.
And a number of tracks across the nation filled, along with pubs and households throwing barbecues, to watch one race. One three-minute race.
Long live, California Chrome.