A Super Saturday: From Belmont to Breeders' Cup

Events / Travel
Ariel Cooper photo

I was reminded of what I love most about racing the moment I walked into Belmont Park on Saturday.

I arrived in time for the Grade 1 Frizette, but was quickly distracted by the giveaway sale NYRA was having for charity and missed the race. When I heard Yellow Agate won, I quickly rushed to the winner’s circle to see Christophe Clement. As I stood by the winner’s circle fiddling with my new purchases, I suddenly heard an excited squeal. I looked up to see none other than Valerie Clement standing in front of me, pointing at my hat. It was the Tonalist hat that her husband, Christophe, had given me a year ago when I visited Tonalist at Belmont. I told her that Tonalist is my favorite as she insisted on taking a picture not just of me, but with me!

In most sports, the closest you’ll get to the players is the front row of the stadium. Racing is different. As a horse lover, I’m drawn to the talented horses and their “connections,” the people who are responsible for getting the horses from the training track to the winner’s circle. After I posted a photo of Tonalist from last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup on Twitter, the Clements took notice and before I knew it I was standing in his stall. This year, Valerie reminded me what makes racing so special. In no other sport can a fan have such intimate interactions with the players and their coaches.

Lady Eli's Flower Bowl game face. (Ariel Cooper photo)
I wanted to catch Christophe himself, but with horses getting ready for the Kelso there was no time to waste. I often say that “I have a thing for gray Tapits,” meaning that I love the gray offspring of top sire Tapit, even though my first favorite Tapits – Tonalist and Untapable – were bays. So naturally I had my eye on Anchor Down. I watched him win by the rail while a mother and her boys screamed for him as he flew by.

Following my usual pattern, I rushed out to see Lady Eli before the Flower Bowl. The first time I saw Lady Eli she won the 2015 Belmont Oaks. Shortly after that race, she stepped on a nail and contracted laminitis, a disease that is often career-ending for a racehorse or even deadly. Not for Lady Eli. With grit and determination, she returned to the track almost as if nothing had happened. The Flower Bowl was only her second start since her return, and when she came around the far turn I saw a look on her face unlike anything I’d seen from a racehorse before. She had ground to make up in the stretch, but Lady Eli dug her hooves in and refused to let anyone take away the victory she knew was hers. The crowd roared as she returned to the winner’s circle for the first time since her battle with laminitis. American Pharoah may have won the Triple Crown (and I love him for it), but I have yet to encounter a horse with more guts and heart than Lady Eli.

The Champagne is one of my favorite races, as it’s a chance to see the 2-year-olds in action before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The presence of Syndergaard, both human and equine, made this year’s Champagne particularly interesting. Fans heckled the human Syndergaard – a New York Mets pitcher – while the equine Syndergaard pranced and tossed his head in disapproval as he circled the paddock. On the track, Syndergaard and Practical Joke got into an exciting stretch duel, with Practical Joke just edging Syndergaard at the wire.

The showdown between Syndergaard and winner Practical Joke (left) in the Champagne. (Ariel Cooper photo)
As the Jockey Club Gold Cup approached, I faced a dilemma. Tepin, current “Queen of the Turf,” was running at Keeneland just before post time for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. A power outage at Keeneland had delayed her race. I sat anxiously in front of the simulcasts as Tepin loaded into the gate on one screen and the Gold Cup horses begin to leave the paddock on the other. I’d been looking forward to seeing Effinex, a goofy bay who had often found himself facing Tonalist, Hoppertunity and Mubtaahij before the race. Do I stay and watch Tepin, or run out and snap photos of the other horses while I still could? I opted for the latter, getting outside just in time to catch Effinex with his tongue sticking out. When I returned, Photo Call had won. I found out later that she ran away with the race, with Tepin settling for second.

The day culminated with a win by Hoppertunity, who looked very content in the winner’s circle. It helped that he was ridden by John Velazquez, a favorite at NYRA’s tracks. I first noticed “Johnny V.” when he took over some of Rosie Napravnik’s mounts after her retirement. I’ve never seen fans cheer for a jockey more than they cheer for him.

As my day at Belmont drew to a close, I knew one thing for certain: the next stop, for both me and these horses, is the Breeders’ Cup!

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