Photo: Garnet Barnsdale
History. Tradition. Not many tracks or “racinos” have it any more. Too many of them feel like “plants” or factories. The biggest one of them all still has that feel, at least to me. I hadn’t been to Belmont since personally witnessing three straight unsuccessful Triple Crown tries – I watched Silver Charm, Charismatic and (the most painful of all), Real Quiet go down to defeat on the 12 furlongs of dirt on “Big Sandy”. That was back when I was single and basically went wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Then life happened and when you have a wife and a young son, well, family comes first. Still, I missed my trips south of the border to the Belmont Stakes and Saratoga and vowed to get here this year with my wife and 12 year old son, Nicholas (“Ace”) in tow. Both like the races, although Ace seems to already have “the bug” and is quite a decent handicapper.
I also wanted desperately to get to Belmont to meet up with SO many friends that I have made on social media that so far were only electronic entities to me, not the least of which is the Managing Editor of this website, Brian Zipse, who gave me the opportunity to write this blog and opened up a host of other opportunities I never dreamed of. I can tell you I wasn’t disappointed. He and his traveling partner, Scott Dick were a pleasure to meet and talk horse racing with, and Brian seemed even more excited than I when I nailed the 4th race exacta ($53) 5 times on Friday. These are genuinely nice people that are just as passionate about the sport as anyone you’ll meet. But back to my main point as I digress.
Walking through Belmont on a rainy Friday, I couldn’t help but snap picture after picture of the history on the walls. From Secretariat’s winner’s circle picture from what is unquestionably THE iconic moment of the sport – the ’73 Belmont, to the giant pictures of the all-time greats above each mutual window on the first floor, to the statue of Big Red in the middle of the paddock, I felt like a 10 year old at Disneyland. The place might be huge, but, to me, it feels like a racetrack, and believe me, I grew up at Greenwood Raceway and Woodbine Racetrack well before the advent of slots (and Greenwood’s closure), so I can feel the difference. That I had Horse Racing Nation press credentials and got to see the Press Box and get inside the paddock to shoot pictures makes the experience even that much more exciting!
No matter how hard and long it rained – mostly quite hard and mostly all day long – my spirit and passion weren’t dampened even the slightest. My horse racing soul was bone dry all day as I soaked up the experience like a sponge. The day was culminated by a performance by a 10y.o. horse that reminded me of one of my favorite races ever by my favorite horse of all time. When Calidoscopio made up what seemed like about a ¼ mile deficit in the final five furlongs of the Brooklyn and mowed the field down one by one down the centre of the track it reminded me of the ’92 Nassau County Handicap and Strike The Gold’s similar rally. I still proudly hang an 8 X 10 picture of that photo finish – a picture I managed to get by pure coincidence by striking up a conversation at the airport on my way home.
Saturday was “dress-up” day as we put on our finest for Belmont Stakes Day and set off to “Big Sandy” early enough to manage to still get a parking spot, albeit in “Green Field” which was around the start of a 5 ½ furlong race. We not only got to hang with all our pals from Drawing Away Stables, but, I also had the honor of meeting about a dozen of my Facebook friends (many of whom I met in the “Homeless Handicappers” group) that I had never spoken to before in person. All share the same passion for racing (and in most cases, wagering) and it was great to meet them all. We also had paddock access up to the Stakes races which was really cool – being able to get that close and shoot pictures of horses and connections was a blast.
The highlight of the day was not The Belmont Stakes for me – it was The Manhattan. I positioned myself on a good spot by the rail near the finish line and found myself yelling about as loud as you will ever hear me in a race in which I was going to cash $0. That’s because the turf monster Point of Entry found himself in a bit of a battle in the stretch and my imploring shouts of “C’MON WITH THE BIG HORSE”, may or may not have helped, but I guess it sure didn’t hurt. His win put me live to horses in the all-stakes pick 4 final leg – The Belmont Stakes – and I was pretty confident I’d be cashing. Alas, a horse that I’d overlooked, Palace Malice, ran the race of his life and won fairly easily after expert piloting by Mike Smith who stalked then pounced on a taxing early pace set by Frac Daddy, Freedom Child and Oxbow – who was likely the best horse compromised by pace and trip enough to be softened up for the drive.
After the race I felt somewhat foolish that I had failed to notice that Palace Malice – who set a ridiculously fast early pace in The Kentucky Derby – had removed the blinkers. This was a sure sign that he’d likely return to his former style of stalking the pace and had I seen it, I’d have surely included him on the ticket and cashed. Such is the “couldawouldashoulda” happenstance that occurs once in a while for all punters and the only way past it is to discard it like an empty soda cup and “turn the page” which I did rather easily as I looked forward to the evening’s after-Belmont dinner. Shortly following the final race we headed off to “Umberto’s”, where we enjoyed a fine Italian meal with all our friends – triumphant Pletcher barn employee Will Hooks even made an appearance. The group meal was the culmination of a memorable weekend, all of it centred around The Belmont Stakes and Belmont Park itself. Speaking of tradition: maybe we started a new one this past weekend!