Horses and Schadenfreude on Long Island

The Belmont Stakes is unique among American sporting events because its significance can fluctuate so wildly from year to year and depends, to a large extent, on the outcome of the other two Triple Crown races. If the same horse wins both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont becomes the crowning jewel of the Triple Crown and, since there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, the most widely anticipated horse race of the year. If not, the race is largely unremarkable; while still an important race with great horses and a sizeable purse, it just doesn’t register on the cultural map. The numbers bear this out: attendance drops by almost 50% when no horse is vying for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes.

Since Orb and Oxbow have won the Derby and the Preakness, respectively, there will be no Triple Crown, which makes this year’s race (cue sad trombone) “just another Bummer Belmont.” And yet it’s this air of disappointment hanging over the Belmont that I find appealing, even though I feel like a stick in the mud for doing so. Fewer people, cheaper tickets: it’s a fortunate fall for the frugal agoraphobe.

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Unlike at the Derby or the Preakness, there’s no infield admission at the Belmont Stakes. The infield at these two races is the large, grassy oval in the center of the racetrack designated for general admission; attendance can approach 100,000. I attended the Derby three times in my early twenties and was in the infield each time. It’s a chaotic and debauched scene, filled tens of thousands of people looking for a wild party (the Preakness has a similar atmosphere from what I’ve read). I saw many people puke. I heard the chant “Show Your Tits” continuously, saw dozens of women consequently show their tits, and learned that nudity depends a lot upon context to be arousing.

None of that is present at the Belmont where the general admission section is just a large rectangular area alongside the track and directly below the grandstand. It isn’t teeming with hordes of drunks but with men wearing seersucker and madras and ladies wearing floral print dresses and bonnets more modest than the ostentatious kind you’d find at the Derby. They’re drinking but not aggressively or obnoxiously so. The whole scene is quite genteel in a way that’s difficult to determine how preppy these folks actually are: my inclination is to think that the wardrobes are aspirational, twenty-somethings playing aristocratic dress-up. Next to this area are some sections cordoned off by picket fences with Astroturf covering the ground so that they’re made to look like backyard patios, which gives the scene a rather surreal yet wholesome vibe as if horses just happened to speed through your backyard at 40 mph every 45 minutes or so.

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The overall mood at the Belmont is slightly more mature and civilized than its younger, more unruly siblings (the Belmont is the oldest of the Triple Crown races), a characterization that makes it sound lame, but I find the more relaxed atmosphere exhilarating.

That’s not to say that the Belmont is entirely well-behaved. There’s at least one fracas in the patio section that I watch. No punches are thrown, though, and it’s quickly broken up by the attendant, who asks one of the guys to leave. And during one of the races preceding the Belmont, a physically imposing, heavily-tattooed guy behind us strings together an angry curse-laded monologue deriding the horse he presumably bet on for running “like a fucking donkey.” When his invective finally ends, my traveling companion Jess, a native of these parts, remarks quietly, “It’s nice to be reminded that we’re still on Long Island.”

Rowdy neighbors aside, our seats are in the grandstand right at the 1/8-mile pole, and the view is pretty spectacular. From here the entire track is visible and watching each race is really enjoyable; as the horses come down the homestretch, each section from left to right rises successively and cheers in anticipation as the horses pass in front. It’s captivating stuff, and I find myself rising even for races I have no financial stake in; I’m not quite sure what I’m cheering for—some abstract idea of excitement, I guess—but it’s almost impossible to avoid.

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Before the running of the Belmont Stakes they play Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York” and many sing along. At the Kentucky Derby they have a marching band play “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the eyes of all the blue-blood Kentucky ladies in Derby bonnets begin to mist. Here the atmosphere more closely resembles a karaoke bar.

I wonder, though, if the difference in the tones and emotional registers of these songs helps explain some of the differences in atmosphere at these events. “My Old Kentucky Home” is really sentimental, as the speaker fondly recalls the titular home he left behind. At the Preakness, they play “Maryland, My Maryland” another nineteenth-century sentimental song. Both of these songs have questionable politics: some of the racial terminology (like “darkies,” for example) in “My Old Kentucky Home” has been swapped out for more palatable terms, and “Maryland, My Maryland” is a song about saving the speaker’s beloved state from the clutches of Union troops as they marched through Baltimore during the Civil War. While it’s highly unlikely, obviously, that the drunken masses in the infields at the Derby and Preakness care about the emotions that these songs are mean to evoke , the fact that the races are seen as occasions for nostalgic, sentimental songs probably charges these events with a different kind of energy. Whatever that energy is, I’m glad it isn’t present here.

The singing of “New York, New York” does provide a representative glimpse into the Belmont’s identity crisis, though. They’ve been singing “New York, New York” since 1997, having initially sung “The Sidewalks of New York” until then. Then in 2010, during a kind of midlife crisis, the song was changed to “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keyes, only to be quickly changed back to “New York, New York” for 2011. These changes in song seem to be an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic, but that’s kind of difficult to do when marketing a horse race, I think. Plus, the song “New York, New York” features an egomaniacal speaker (wanting to be “A #1,” “king of the hill,” “top of the heap”) that’s out of step with the feeling at the Belmont. Here the self-aggrandizing narrative that New York likes to tell itself about itself doesn’t fit. If the Belmont is more mature than the other two races, it’s also more insecure and uncertain of its identity (even as it tries to cover it up), which gives it a sense of humility—a nice change of pace for New York. In the end, as much as “New York, New York” tries to conjure the city, we’re a good fifteen miles from Manhattan, and I’m thankful to be away from there for an afternoon and in a more bucolic setting.

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What enthusiasm there is for the race centers on Orb, the winner of the Derby, squaring off against Oxbow, the winner of the Preakness, to determine who most likely will be named Horse of the Year. I’m not particularly confident placing money on either horse since they both seem strong, and reading about them only confuses me more. What I’ve gleaned from reading up on the race is that, while formidable horses, both Orb and Oxbow have weaknesses. Nevertheless, they’re the heavy favorites with Orb slightly favored over Oxbow.

Looking elsewhere for a horse to wager on, I opt for more research. While I know how to read a racing form, it’s still a cipher that I’ve never been able to crack. There’s so much information presented in such a compact format that it’s tempting to immerse yourself completely in it and convince yourself you can solve the race as you might an algebraic equation. But the racing form is actually kind of a cruel joke, a sinister entreaty to psych yourself out: the more you pore over and study the racing form, the more your conclusions—the horse (or horses) you plan to bet on—will begin to look like red herrings.

Frustrated with my attempts to make sense of the racing form, I’ve adopted a classic bettor’s fallacy of attaching significance to meaningless personal connections or resonances. Case in point: I’ve settled on a horse named Overanalyze for the decidedly unscientific reason that if I were a horse I might be named Overanalyze. But what I should have remembered is that I also tend to lose. Overanalyze finishes seventh behind Palace Malice a long shot at 13-1. Oxbow and Orb, the two favorites, finish second and third respectively.

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After the Belmont, we hang around to watch the last two races and avoid the crowd taking the first trains back to the city. Many have evacuated the grounds and the grandstand is sparsely populated. The horses now run to little fanfare. The sun is setting and there’s an orange glow just above the horizon that’s bright enough to hinder vision but not enough to be annoying. The PA announcer’s voice comes over the loudspeaker to announce the results of a race I didn’t wager on. You can get a sense of what it must be like for the trainers and jockeys and horse-racing professionals who travel from track to track, racing for crowds that number in the hundreds not the tens of thousands. Trash is scattered throughout the grounds yet it’s difficult to imagine a setting more serene.

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