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.

Spring in Brooklyn

Spring was a long time coming this year, especially considering the epic snowfall and deep freeze we had to deal with. As a Floridian, naturally, I have not been amused.

It’s still cold somehow — how is it almost May and it’s still cold? — but the trees finally sighed and gave in, making for some beautiful bursts of color in an otherwise concrete-gray world.

Flowers bloom in Brooklyn

Pink, blue, and white: what seems like rare sunlight here.

The grass has barely started to grow back in after its winter under snowpack and ice, and the non-flowering trees, the sycamores and the London Planes and the pin-oaks and the like, are steadfastly refusing to turn green. But the cherry, pear, and another broad-petaled pink flower (apparently it’s a form of magnolia?) are exuberant, toasting this just-above-freezing weather we are expected to call spring.

Ft. Hamilton, Brooklyn

Ft. Hamilton High School’s majestic lines softened by cherry blossoms.

Empire State Building and pear tree

More typical gray skies, with a pear tree making an attempt at flowering.

The flowers were actually out well before the trees. First, of course, came the crocuses. These little fellows were springing from the tree-pit of a very uninterested linden tree above it. They were followed by the more ostentatious daffodils and tulips and hyacinths. When I was a little girl I loved all three of those flowers. Now I’m not so interested in them. But a snowdrop is always a delight.

Crocus, Brooklyn

The snowdrops were the first to give in to spring.

It can’t help but lift one’s spirits, even while one snuggles deeper into one’s winter coat. I think there is at least a possibility that we will have one or two warm days before September and the whole freezing process starts over again.

A chance, right?

I’ll be under the covers in the meantime. Someone alert The Weather Channel: let me know when it goes above 70 degrees in New York City, okay?

The Kelpies Take Manhattan

We had an amazing opportunity yesterday — to see the Mini Kelpies, which are two 1/10 size maquettes of the full-size Kelpies statues in Scotland. In case you’re not familiar with The Kelpies, they are these giant horse-heads:

The Kelpies, Scotland

The Kelpies of Scotland. Photo: TheKelpiesatHelix Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/TheKelpiesatTheHelix/info)

Having never seen the full-size Kelpies, I can’t say with absolute certainty that they were no less dramatic in miniature form… but there’s no doubt that the mini Kelpies, set before Bryant Park’s staircase beneath the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, were incredibly striking. Maybe even goosebump-inducing. They were utterly fantastic.

Portrait with a Mini Kelpie. They're big!

Portrait with a Mini Kelpie. They’re big!

Kelpie in NYC

A rather forbidding Kelpie

I wish the Kelpies always lived in NYC. I would visit them every week… even if that meant slogging into Manhattan! There is just something about them — something that conveys the fierce power of a horse — which is amazing considering the medium, strips of shiny metal. They still have every bit of the expression and character of the original horses who modeled for them — two Clydesdales, as a matter of fact.

The Kelpies will be at Bryant Park until mid-April, according to their website. Bryant Park is behind the New York City Public Library, at 6th Avenue and 42nd St. Very easy to get to, so if you are traveling to the city, be sure to hustle over there and see them. (Pro-tip: Bryant Park has gorgeous public restrooms, something that isn’t easy to find in Manhattan.)

Later that afternoon, wandering our home borough of Brooklyn and desperate to soak up every last drop of sunlight and every moment of semi-warm air before winter settled in again, we found ourselves in DUMBO, walking towards Brooklyn Bridge Park…

Manhattan Bridge Reflections

Manhattan Bridge Reflections

Cal against Brooklyn Bridge Park, Manhattan in the distancve

Cal against Brooklyn Bridge Park, Manhattan in the distance

In the distance behind Calvin you can see the glass structure around Jane’s Carousel. This beautiful historic carousel was inundated with water during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It’s since been fully restored. We stopped by to take a glance but since it was the first warm day of the year, every prancing steed was taken! Another time. When New Yorkers aren’t quite so excited about taking off their coats and feeling a little warm sun on their faces!

Although after this winter, it’s hard to imagine that we’d be able to take warmth for granted again. I know we will, but… it’s been pretty rough.

Of course, cold weather means writing weather. I’m working on the revisions of my upcoming novel, Ambition, and you can read snippets and teases of it at my Facebook page, Natalie Keller Reinert: Horse Books for Grown-Ups. I’ll be posting more and more, along with photos and inspiration for the people, places, and horses in the book, as I get closer to a publication date. I am really excited about this book, which has taken several years to get to this point, the actual “Let’s publish this thing!” stage.

I also posted about my days with the New York City Parks Department Mounted Unit at Equestrian Ink, so don’t miss that if you’d like a first-hand look at riding in Central Park.