Belmont Stakes Weekend, 2012: The Highs, Lows, and Everything In Between
I had the wonderful opportunity to spend Friday afternoon and Saturday celebrating the Belmont Stakes on Long Island at Belmont Park and in New York City Friday night. There are significant highs and lows to any racing trip, usually reserved for the handicapping, but this entry will focus on the experiences, of which there are many.
Friday morning I was on a high, expectations were grand. I’ll Have Another was working out well, or so the public thought. The Triple Crown was on the line for the 11th time since the last one was won 34 years ago by Affirmed. Belmont Park, built to hold big crowds was going to be tested because everyone wanted to see this horse, an “everyman’s” horse sold only for $35,000, win the Triple Crown.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
As I was boarding my plane, I received a text message alert: I’ll Have Another is scratched, press conference at 1:00 PM. Well, I’m on Jet Blue, I’ll be able to watch the press conference live. Unfortunately, that did not transpire as the satellite on my flight down to NYC did a great job picking up music but the Direct TV was out the entire flight. I surmised from reports and messages I received when I landed that the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness was knocked out of the Belmont because of tendonitis. My immediate reaction was disappointment for the connections who worked so hard to reach this goal only to have the Racing Gods snatch it away without even being able to race. Then, after that immediate reaction, I realized how grateful I was that the connections determined to act in the best interest of the horse in making this decision . . .or did they?
After arriving at JFK, I called my friend who I was hanging with the next couple of days, who was stuck in traffic coming to Long Island. I grabbed a cab and headed to Belmont…if only the cab driver knew where Belmont Park was….(sigh). This is Belmont Stakes weekend, right? I arrive just in time to catch up with some old friends in the paddock and gain some information. While the connections for I’ll Have Another did scratch because of injury, they wanted to saddle him up, put jockey Mario Guiterriez in the saddle and have this racehorse lead the post parade, with tendonitis. That is like telling an over-eater to go to the buffet and not eat. It could have very bad results.
My friend showed up about an hour later, and after watching a couple of races, we were off to two cocktail parties. The first was at Anna House for Belmont Child Care, where Michael Dubb was being honored for the work he undertook to build this child care facility for the children of the backstretch. The center is open very odd hours to accommodate the strange hours of the backstretch. I walked away from this party amazed by the work that Donna and Stuart Chenkin do in order to make sure these kids get what they need. I am proud to support Anna House and will continue to do so.
Following that party, we were guided by a local dignitary to the Garden City Hotel, where the Belmont media party is held. This party is held every year to celebrate the media and those horsemen who can come. The booze and food were both flowing in high volume. The singular topic of discussion was whether I’ll Have Another should be let on the track with a jockey and full tack on him leading the post parade. Each horseman I asked said that this was the craziest thing that any track could have done. Whereas, the media people said that the vet deemed nothing wrong with this and as long as the vet said it was ok, there could be mileage from it. Candidly I was in the camp that thought it was crazy because the only thing that could happen was that the horse injure himself worse than he already did. Fortunately, that did not occur.
Following mingling and socializing with old friends, we made our way into the City where I checked in and we headed off to Siro’s. After all, for the horse racing crowd everyone would stop in at Siro’s the night before the Belmont Stakes, right? We walked in after walking over and you could count the people there on your hands and would have room left over. I’m not sure if it was the $14.50 mixed drink or the fact that in New York, Siro’s is just another place, but I was not encouraged by what I saw. My prediction is that either this will either become a teletheater or it will be closed after the Saratoga Season.
We were off to Belmont Park at 6:15 the next morning. Vintage Saratoga move, out early, up early…the only thing is, I’m now the thing that is vintage. Starting off slowly.
We watched a horse, trained by Carlos Martin, work out. He is a bright prospect; a New York Bred with closing ability bred to run all day long. Would be a nice horse if early looks are right. We saw some other trainers and horsemen. We kibitzed with jockeys’ agents and exercise riders; it felt like old times.
Then over to the main track we went. Being at the track at 9:30 for an 11:30 first post leaves lots of time to sit and think. I had a horse running in the first race and a lot of handicapping to do so we sought refuge in the air conditioned racing secretary’s office marking our picks for the day. I get a nudge from my friend, did you know your horse was scratched? Sure enough I looked on the screen and there was the saddle cloth number as clear as day. I later found out the horse was coughing and probably choked on something. Irrespective, the horse wasn’t right it was much smarter to wait another day.
I received a call from an old friend. She used to be a groom for a trainer by the name of Joe Cantey, and we met in the paddock before the first race and went to find a drink. We played catch up for a little bit. After that, we parted ways and I headed to meet the guests for lunch.
I was with my friend, Dr. Tom, his practice manager, her sister and daughter. We were placed in the Belmont Café, which for 364 days is where the simulcasting center is. Our table was placed between the buffet and the carving station and steps from the private access to the apron to watch each race. While ordinarily it is nothing special, for Belmont Day it was the perfect spot, private betting windows, well ventilated, waitress service. Who could ask for more?
At one point throughout the day, I was brought up to the Trustee’s Room, where I saw an old friend of my father’s, Billy Turner. Billy won the 1977 Triple Crown with Seattle Slew. He was entertaining my friends, along with others in the industry and it was good to see him again after several years. I know based on our talk, that I will see much more of Billy in the future, which is a wonderful thing.
While in the Trustee’s room, I witnessed something surreal. D. Wayne Lukas, a Hall of Fame Trainer, summoned Bob Baffert over. The next thing I see is Wayne take Bob’s silk pocket square out of his pocket march over to a round table and refold it placing it squarely in Bob’s pocket without a word being uttered by either of them. Walking away, shaking my head I muttered (a little too loudly I think), “You don’t see that every day.”
While in the paddock visiting friends, I saw a group gathering around the statue of Secretariat. I couldn’t tell what was going on until there was a break in the people. Then, in front of me was Ron Turcotte, the jockey who rode Secretariat to the 1973 Triple Crown. He is now a paraplegic and everyone wanted to shake his hand or have a picture with him. I got an opportunity to talk to him. I explained that watching him ride Secretariat to a 31 length victory in the Belmont I immediately became a racing fan and it was in large measure to him. Ron corrected me and said no it was the horse, and I reminded him that he was the one who got him there. He told me that it was meaningful to hear that and he appreciated it; I’m sure I’m not the only racing fan Big Red brought to the game, but it felt good to let Ron know.
Over the winter, I watched Luck, a show on HBO about racing starring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina and John Ortiz. John Ortiz happened to be at Belmont for the weekend. We had an opportunity to get to know each other; he will be in Saratoga this summer as well. Contrary to his character on Luck, John is soft spoken and of good humor. I look forward to seeing him again.
The paddock immediately before the Belmont Stakes is run is always a crazy scene. People crammed in. While walking back to the boxes; I watched as Bob Baffert, trainer of Paynter, searched to make sure his wife and son were by his side. I saw the normal panic of not being able to have direct sight of your 8 year old son and the relief when that son pops around the corner and grabs a hold of his father’s hand. I now have something in common with Bob Baffert – the commonality of a father and his concern for his kids.
There were races run all day, but you wouldn’t know it by my recollections. They are about the people and connections. The stories and the fun. Every time spent at the track brings new and different stories. These are just a smattering.