Of the many images that kept resurfacing in the mind's eye in the wake of Saturday's Belmont Stakes, none was more vividly or repeatedly recalled than the two scenes played out in and around Penny Chenery's set of box seats near the finish line. Actor/comedian Bill Murray, who should have won an Oscar this year for his performance in Lost in Translation, perhaps should earn consideration as recipient of a special Eclipse Award in 2004 for Best Dramatic Interpretation of a crowd reaction in a Triple Crown event. Murray dropped into Chenery's box as the horses were parading to the post for the Belmont--like just about everyone else around the nation, he was there to witness Smarty Jones' ascent into the pantheon of Triple Crown winners--and as Birdstone slogged past Smarty in the drive to the wire, there was Murray standing in complete silence, utterly motionless, his mouth literally hanging open as he stared for a long time across the finish line, his eyes fixed and unblinking toward the outer boundaries of disbelief. But Murray's wonderful expression soon yielded to the strangest and the saddest sight of all. As jockey Edgar Prado eased Birdstone up around the clubhouse turn, in the middle of a packed clubhouse and grandstand that had fallen eerily quiet, here came poor Nick Zito, Birdie's trainer, walking up the aisle behind Murray and looking like a pickpocket who had just lifted Rudy Giuliani's wallet and was trying to slip away and hide in the crowd. He was walking with his head down, his expression very grim, his face almost ashen, suggesting a man too embarrassed to lift his head, surely the sorriest-looking trainer of a Belmont Stakes winner in all the 35 years I've been attending the event. There have been some disappointing Triple Crown near-misses at Belmont Park in recent years but none was as crushing to witness as that of Smarty Jones. In 1969 and again in 1971, we knew going in that Majestic Prince and Canonero II were unsound and not expected to get the trip. The pain of seeing the four near-misses between 1979 and 1989--Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, and Sunday Silence--was ameliorated by the fact the '70s had sated the Triple Crown hunger and the craving did not become acute again until all those near-misses of the 1990s. But unlike some of those latter-day pretenders to the throne of Count Fleet and Citation--from Real Quiet to Funny Cide--Smarty had been generally anointed as a legitimate heir to this greatest of racing traditions, a horse whose presence in the pantheon would serve only to honor it. And, of course, it had been 26 years since Affirmed, the longest drought in the history of the Triple Crown. No wonder, then, that the people flocked in such numbers that they had to close the parking lots for the first time in the race's history. And it was no wonder, too, that this turned out to be the gayest, most festive crowd I'd seen at a Triple Crown event since Canonero's Belmont. From the quarter-pole to the finish line, people were waving Smarty signs. When Giuliani showed up in the box seats, hundreds began chanting to their 9/11 hero: "RuuDEE! RuuuDEE!" "What drawing power this horse has!" said D.G.Van Clief Jr. "Everybody here thinks history will be made." Looking at the crowd, former New York Racing Association racing secretary Leonard Hale said, "This is something out of ancient memory. Like the old days in New York." The stretch drive turned out to be as poignant as any in memory. Smarty Jones had done everything he needed to do to win the Triple Crown. He had run the speedy Purge into defeat. He had chewed up Eddington and Rock Hard Ten and turned for home all by himself. We waited for him to stroll by us into immortality. Alas, he had almost nothing left for the duel. Wounded by his own pace, he fell easy prey to a plodder who came sweeping up after him. That left those two most graphic Belmont dioramas: Bill Murray frozen like a statue, nothing lost in translation, and the clearly ambivalent Nick Zito, winning the Belmont at last, heading as though reluctantly to that charmed circle. "It's funny," Bobby Frankel said. "These horses tell us how hard it really is." Over and over and over again.
WILLIAM NACK, who lives in Washington D.C., is a multiple Eclipse Award-winning writer retired from Sports Illustrated. E-mail Editor