Torrential rain hammered New York on Thursday morning and continued unabated through Friday night. Taxi queues snaked so long the idea of sloshing on foot appealed more than the wait. If only I brought my galoshes. I kept thinking that racetrack conditions on Saturday would be mud-bowl miserable.
However, sunshine blessed Saturday morning and the Big Apple awakened with delicious looking dry skies. A limo scooted us out to the Belmont Stakes grounds, not far from LaGuardia Airport. We arrived early to get the lay of the land and watch the event come to life. As we strolled in, we discovered booths of festival food, craft beer in an outdoor bar, tents selling horse racing memorabilia and the paddock area where horses were being saddled.
My pass permitted me into the Belmont Club where I found impressive sterling silver trophies shining with aged patina. Who would win the title this year and add their name to the prestigious list? No Triple Crown possibility; Orb captured the Kentucky Derby and Oxbow the Preakness, but both would compete in the race later in the day.
In addition, there was a talented field of twelve others and plenty of possibilities to consider like the jockeys such as Rosie Napravnik riding the filly Unlimited Budget. At Belmont, the question of endurance is paramount as the course is the longest race of the three.
As a historical back note: Twenty-six horses have been eligible to win the Triple Crown coming into the Belmont Stakes and eleven have succeeded. In the last three runnings, horses that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic) were denied racing immortality in the Belmont Stakes. Racing has not seen a Triple Crown champion since 1978, when Affirmed swept the three-race series.
Back in the clubhouse, gentlemen arrived in coat and tie and women gussied up in fine dresses, many with hats. They helped themselves to a sumptuous buffet and dined over horsey conversations at linen-clothed tables. Tuxedoed waiters scurried to bring champagne, refill drinks and open doors.
Patron boxes sat directly in front of the finish line outside the Club’s glass fronted room. These were the best seats in the house and one was mine for the day!
Races run a half hour apart and the big race was scheduled as number 11. The minutes between pass as bets are placed at a slew of teller windows. White ticket stubs record bets and offer the chance at big payoffs or end up as trash. Up to the moment odds are reflected on the official board. All this frenzied hubbub drew me in; it’s rather addictive.
As a newbie, I attempted to learn how to read the program and race records as well as interpret the complicated lingo used to handicap the horses. While the stats appear to lend an edge, to me, it all seemed like pure chance. I could bet on my favorite number or the color of jockey’s silks with about the same chance. I didn’t follow the rules or wasn’t very lucky because all day long I never picked a winner.
But, I was captivated by my surroundings and had fun listening to the bugler call everyone to attention. Then, the announcer would report that the horses were entering the track. Best of all, I admired the pageantry of the gorgeous parading thoroughbreds in front of the stands. Before the official Stakes, “New York, New York” blasted through the speakers and many in the stands joined in song.
The escort horses eventually trotted off and the racehorses and jockeys entered the starting gate. “And they’re off,’ shouted the caller. The cheering voices in the grandstands rose as the competitors completed the final turn and the volume accelerated as they neared the finish line. Folks jumped up and down, clapped their hands or pulled their fists through their hair. Many of the races were won by a nose- a photo finish displayed on the jumbotron and frequently followed by jubilation or harsh words.
This time Oxbow finished second, three and a quarter lengths back, and Orb was third. Palace Malice surprised the crowd and completed the mile and a half distance in 2 minutes 30.70 seconds on a track that was upgraded to fast. The winner paid $29.60 on a $2 bet to win. As a comparison, Secretariat’s amazing 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes established the world record for a mile and a half at 2:24.
No doubt about it, horse racing is a thrill. On this day, Belmont was the place to be and this time I was indeed lucky; I was there.
Here’s a short 15 second video of the start of the Race:
Disclosure: Attendance at this event was made possible by the generosity of a good friend.