Belmont Stakes Shenanigans

As long as we have lived in NYC, we’ve made it a point to go the Belmont Stakes. Who wouldn’t? I mean — it’s the freaking Belmont Stakes, one of the great horse races of the world, and it’s just a short train ride away. Sounds so perfect, doesn’t it?

Eh. Here’s the thing.

I'm guessing this sign predates several Triple Crown wins.

I’m guessing this sign predates several Triple Crown wins.

When California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes rather handily, it started sounding a lot less perfect, and a lot more crowded. The ominous predictions of 105-125,000 people descending upon Belmont Park, many of them by the same train we’d be taking, was being retweeted with gleeful abandon by racing fans who were excited to see a racecourse being used for anything besides pigeon nesting grounds. But I was already missing the tumbleweeds that typically blow through the cavernous grandstand of Belmont Park, and we were still weeks away from the big race.

 Now, Belmont Park was built for crowds. And once upon a time, I hear, people used to go there for other reasons than the Belmont Stakes. But crowds just aren’t my thing.

If I have to wait a long time for something (whether it’s a restroom or a drink or a food truck or anything free at all) I probably won’t have anything to do with it. It’s a prejudice I developed as a Cast Member at Walt Disney World, where I became pretty accustomed to only visiting the parks on the least-crowded days and shunned any ride with a wait time over 20 minutes because I knew I could drop by next Tuesday or whenever and just ride it then.

It’s gotten to the point that if there was a truck parked outside offering free puppies, but the line was an hour long, I’d just go buy a puppy somewhere without the wait. (Unless it was free beagle puppies. Then I would go buy one and stand in line for a free one and then I’d have two beagle puppies and I’d be the happiest girl in the world.)

But although not puppies, it was the freaking Belmont Stakes, as stated before. And although the Triple Crown bid made it a less desirable event, in my mind anyway, that also made it completely impossible to skip. What if that pretty chestnut won the Triple Crown and we were sitting in our living room in Brooklyn? How lame would that be? The lamest, that’s how lame. The absolute lamest.

Cal at Belmont

A proper horse-player’s hat in a sea of straw.

So we put on our Goorhin Bros hats and we went. First: crowded trains are crowded. There aren’t many other ways to describe them. And, according to one Long Island Rail Road employee, the rails are so decrepit on the Belmont tracks that the trains are only allowed to go five miles per hour. And the air conditioning stops working. So it takes a very, very long time and it is also crowded and it is also hot and that’s just never what you want in your public transportation in June. The nose rebels. Luckily, a regular rider told us about his pal that uses the Queens Village stop and walks over. That came in handy later when we decided to get the heck out of Dodge.

And we did get the heck out, thankfully before the mayhem that was the trains being shut down (although the railroad has not publicly admitted they shut the trains down). Here’s the thing: A lot of college students went to Belmont Park for the very first time on Saturday. They dressed up in weird approximations of what they thought was racetrack attire (I don’t know what impression college students are trying to make when they wear Nautica shorts and blue blazers but it isn’t a good look, especially when they are downing a six-pack of cheap beer they just realized they won’t be able to smuggle in). They stood in hour-long lines for $10 Coors Light and they shouted and they laughed and they cursed and they sat in the stairwells and created traffic jams and they smoked. An astonishing amount of smoke.

And I guess they had a good time, and maybe they think that’s what a trip to the races is like. And maybe they’ll come back next year for the Belmont, and do it all again.

But it’s definitely not like my typical day at the races. Because, well, they were there. Yelling and being drunk and blocking stairs and wearing those ridiculous faux-horseplayer outfits. (Pro-tip: At least go to a vintage store if you’re going to dress up. Don’t go to Macy’s.)

If there was a happy medium between a regular racetrack day and Belmont day, somewhere between 10,000 people and 100,000 people, somewhere between ghost town and seething masses of humanity, where you could enjoy the presence of other humans having a good time and still actually see the horses, I’d take that.

Sweet Whiskey before her sweet exacta in the Acorn (she lost to Sweet Reason in the photo)

Sweet Whiskey before her sweet exacta in the Acorn (she lost to Sweet Reason in the photo)

But what it really comes down to with racing: I have to see horses, and there were so many humans (and so much smoke) in my way, that in the paddock the view was dicey and on the apron, all I could see were the tips of their ears as they galloped towards the wire. After catching a decent glimpse of the field for the Acorn Stakes, I missed the race. And I never saw Princess of Sylmar at all, and she was on my wish-list, right alongside Palace Malice (yup, missed out on him too).

So it wasn’t very horse-centric. And then there were the Breathe Right girls.

Let’s talk about Breathe Right for a moment. They were handing out free nasal strips all over the place, because California Chrome wears a Flair strip, yadda yadda yadda. Clever product placement, and funny — until a Breathe Right rep shoved a packet of strips down my shirt when I wouldn’t take them from her. Literally, right down my shirt. It bordered on assault. It was weird. It did not make me want to rush out and purchase Breathe Right strips to attach to my nose.

A Thoroughbred Incentive Program ribbon with the TAA logo in the rosette, hanging at the TAA booth.

A Thoroughbred Incentive Program ribbon with the TAA logo in the rosette, hanging at the TAA booth.

I did enjoy seeing the booth from the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Their booth was sponsored by the Daily Racing Form, which means every donation they received went straight into the charity. Serious props to the Form for this move. It’s exciting to see national racing publications picking up on the responsible retirement movement, especially one as die-hard horse-player as the Form.

I snagged an OTTB rubber bracelet, but for $10, I could have joined the giggling line of ladies and gents all ages who were posing in front a green screen. They’d walk away with photos of themselves galloping California Chrome past the wire. It was great to see so many people taking an interest in retired racehorses! Hopefully the TAA folks will be able to set up at more tracks this summer and keep educating the public (and reminding the powers-that-be) about how important comprehensive Thoroughbred retirement programs are.

Giddy-up, Cali Chrome!

Giddy-up, Cali Chrome!

The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance booth also made me happy because on a day when the horses were completely out of reach, I was able to stop and talk with people who were there for the horses. Not a lot of folks at the Belmont Stakes were there for the horses. They were there because Time Out New York suggested it would be a hip and fun vintage-type thing to do.

But for those of us who show because we love the horses more than reason itself, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance symbolizes the very best thing about modern racing: the movement towards care and compassion, towards responsibility in retirement. And on a day of excess like Belmont day, it was a refreshing breath of clean air in a smoky room.

So, the 2014 Belmont Stakes. We went. We sighed. We went home. But I noticed quite a few banners for the July 5th race card, which includes several nice-looking stakes races. Will I be schlepping back out on the Long Island Rail Road? It’s possible. After all, I doubt I’ll be one in a hundred thousand next time. And that sounds pretty nice.

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8 thoughts on “Belmont Stakes Shenanigans

  1. Thanks for the tip about Queens Village and a picture of what it’s like at Belmont on a big Triple Crown day. Kentuckians like to say, “You can go to the Derby and never see a horse,” which may be why Churchill set up that collossal-tron screen.

    I tend to have mixed feelings about the whole ABBR “the party’s at the track” pitch. Sure, more people are showing up at the races on weekends for the partying, especially. With any luck, there’s a potential horse lover in each pack of partiers, maybe a horse girl who went into denial to fit in. Someone who runs down to the ladies or to grab some beers by way of the paddock might turn into someone up at 5 to make morning works at 6.

    We can dream.

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    • Thanks for the great comment!

      I have to agree, obviously… also obvious: I’m not a party animal. I like loud music in its place (concerts, my living room if I am the one in control of it) but other than that, I’m into silence. I’m way into silence. If it’s silence punctuated by hoof-beats and whinnies, I’m okay with that. (I’ve been known to yell at a barn full of noisy racehorses though. Jeez racehorses are noisy.) I also love hearing the race-call, but I didn’t really hear any calls except for when we watched the race on the TV screen near the paddock.

      I imagine at the heart of ABR’s campaign they are hoping to snag people into true horse-fan-dom, not just partiers looking for a different place to drink beer. But man, I can’t wait to get to Saratoga, where the horse is truly the reason for everything and everyone there!

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      • Oh and I have to add – the Kentucky Derby is not now and never has been on my to-do list, for that very reason!

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  2. I went to the Derby twice in the ’80s because my hubs was on the TV crew. The best place to see the race is on a TV. Some friends want me to go with them to the Derby — it’s on their Bucket List — but I’m relieved the trip is prohibitively expensive.

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    • As a travel agent I have helped clients book an amazing Bluegrass tour package that includes tickets and transportation to the Oaks and the Derby. It has stable tours and everything. I’m considering doing that tour myself, but that’s the only way I would want to do the Derby!

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    • Nope that was all smoke – cigarette and cigar. If racetracks think they can be “family friendly” but have everything that doesn’t have four walls and a roof be considered a smoking area, they’re way off course.

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  3. I would have gone, too – like you said, how could you have been sitting in your family room if CC had won?? After my mom and I watched Secretariat win from the comfort of our NJ family room she said, “That’s it – if another horse wins the Derby and the Preakness, we’re going to Belmont.” And that’s how I got to see Seattle Slew win the Triple Crown! 🙂

    I remember how crowded it was in 1977, and I also have spent my fair share of time on extremely crowded/hot/stalled Metropolitan NYC trains, so I know what you had to contend with. My family and I (all the way in MO now) noticed all the smoke and wondered what the heck it was – we thought a BBQ of some kind. I will have to tell them that no, it was faux horseplayers trying to fit in. Bleck.

    My son will be attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and was quite excited when I told him he will be less than 10 miles away from Belmont Park in the future. I am sure he would not be one of the obnoxious college students (and he will have a nice uniform to wear, LOL) but if I tell him what a zoo it is on Belmont day he may want to try race-going on a more sedate weekend!

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