soundtrack to a Triple Crown

when you’re thinkin’ you’re a joke and nobody’s gonna listen
to the one small point i know they’ve been missing around here

Yesterday, I was more excited about seeing a horse race in person than I was about seeing the Goo Goo Dolls in person for the first time. I was more excited about catching a glimpse of Keen Ice or American Pharoah than I was of seeing Johnny Rzeznik.

Fifteen-year-old me would have been appalled.

I lived for music then, not horse racing. I followed the sport only peripherally then, and watched three races a year. My emotions did not get wrapped up in horses performing feats of speed and stamina, or even horses making funny faces while they ate carrots. I watched Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic make their bids. A Triple Crown would have been nice to see, but the result of the Real Quiet/Victory Gallop photo was something I got over in no time flat.

What was in my CD player interested me far more than any photo finish. Rock music filled my life then. I wrote song quotes on everything: my class notes, the chalkboards, even my pants. Though the Goo Goo Dolls did not quite occupy the place my musical pantheon saved for that band who made Tale of Verve a fun name play (no, not the other one, stop singing “Bittersweet Symphony” now!), they mattered in nineties musical history. After all, it was a quote from “Slide” that I wrote in a birthday card to my High School Crush, as a hamfisted attempt to flirt. I never made it out to see a Goo Goo Dolls concert in my high school days, though.

In the minutes leading up to the Belmont Stakes, the Goo Goo Dolls took the stage to play a two-song set before the Call to Post. It was news to me; I knew they were playing after the show, but didn’t realise they were playing during the races at well.

They started with a newer song. I didn’t recognise it. That hardly surprised me, since I follow new music about as peripherally as I followed horse racing the first few times that Bob Baffert had a Triple Crown on the line. Still, they followed it up with “Slide”. Familiar words and embarrassing memories were enough to take the edge off, to make me a little less nervous before the Belmont.

About twenty minutes later, the gates opened. The nerves rushed back. In a blur, I saw the field pass the wire for the first time and race toward the far turn. I craned my neck to see who was leading. The track was out of my range of fine-grained vision, but I finally caught on the screen that it was American Pharoah atop, with Materiality at his flank.

By the time the field hit the far turn, I could see nothing but the crowd. The horses were too far away to see over the sea of people in the apron. The one screen I had been able to see dropped out of view as soon as someone in front of me put a girl up on his shoulders. I looked frantically around: who was ahead? Was American Pharoah holding on? Was Keen Ice running on? Had Materiality stricken the front?

I had nothing visual, only the sound of the crowd to guide me. I knew, by just judging from time, that they had to be coming down the stretch. The crowd cheered…and then fell silent. Had someone run down American Pharoah, as Birdstone had done to Smarty Jones eleven years ago? Had worse happened? I had seem some blurs past the wire while this was going on, but I could not discern the saddle towels, or even how close together the horses were. There were too many people, too much motion.

you’re monochrome delirious
you’re nothing that you seem

Then, the crowd began to cheer. The people closest to me in the crowd were just as blind as I was. No one could tell me why they were cheering. After a lifetime of the Triple Crown being this unattainable goal, I figured it was just an expression of nervous energy: they cheered for the winner because the hive mind could not find any other way to react.

However, it looked a little too happy to be that. Too many people raised their arms…in triumph? Too many people hugged. There was just enough enthusiasm in the second round of cheering to suggest that American Pharoah might have actually done it.

I just screamed, over and over: “Did he do it? Did he do it? Did he do it?”

Word got around. The screen flashed. 5-6, and a photo for third. The mayhem, the confusion, the wait made me think that the finish was close, but American Pharoah had done it.

when everything feels like the movies
yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive

Some cried. Some cheered. I had thought so many times this year, even last year with California Chrome, about how it would feel to see a Triple Crown happen. Once it finally happened, it was nothing like I thought it would be. I felt stunned. Paralysed. Like I was in the midst of a play or a movie, and the next scene was beginning, but I had forgotten my lines. I yelled something; I forget what, just something to fill the space.

Over the next hour or two, I just tried to soak it all in. I caught the replay on the big screen, and tried to reconcile what I heard from the crowd with American Pharoah’s ease in winning. I watched American Pharoah parade up and down the stretch, and caught a better glimpse of him then than I did during the race. I saw Victor Espinoza, the familiar green and yellow silks of Zayat Stables, American Pharoah’s glistening bay coat, his pricked ears.

Unlike for the track, I had an unobstructed view of the trophy table. I watched them award the Triple Crown trophy, something I had fully expected to see taken out of view by a nameless person in white gloves, boxed up, and relegated to the display case at the Kentucky Derby Museum once more.

I watched Belmont try to revert to normal, with two more races on the card. Depeche Chat and Green Gratto had good days. Life in Shambles, Coltimus Prime, and Big Looie less so. Even with that forging on, I noticed some things still different than normal, like the unheralded installation of the American Pharoah Triple Crown sign in the Belmont infield. The races ended, and the band took the stage again.

On the way out of the racetrack, I walked by the paddock one last time. A blue light lingered on the paddock rail, and the speakers piped in the concert still going on the apron. The Goo Goo Dolls were playing “Name”.

we grew up way too fast, now there’s nothing to believe
and reruns all become our history
a tired song keeps playing on a tired radio
and i won’t tell no one your name

When I was fifteen, seeing live shows from bands I liked was the closest thing I had to a religious experience. I hung on every word, every sound, every little thing I saw. Rarely did I get through a concert without crying. I had assumed that a Triple Crown as a devoted horse racing fan would be akin to being a teenager and seeing a band I really liked for the first time: breathless excitement, probably followed by a teary catharsis.

I did not break down in tears, start screaming, or feel anything well-defined. The Triple Crown brings a mix of awe, relief, excitement, and confusion. Something in which I had lost faith had finally happened. But, it was not a personal appeal to my emotions in the way that a song was. I could not compartmentalize it as such. It was bigger and more complicated than that: it was history.

But, at least it happened to a 1990s soundtrack.

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