In the early morning hours, Belmont Park greeted the day with quiet majesty. The horses are tucked into their barns for their race day rituals. The stately Japanese White Pine towers over the paddock walking ring offering beauty, shade and comfort. The tree is believed to be almost 190 years old and is a stately remnant from the 650 acre estate of New York attorney William DeForest Manice. Two large white Pekin ducks have left the duck pond and are wandering around offering a humorous commentary that only they understand. The Belmont “Backyard” Area is ready for its guests. Soon the picnic tables will be covered with checkered tablecloths and as fans unpack their bags. Watermelon, chips, sandwiches, potato salad, cookies and treats spill out on the tables. Cigars are lit as Daily Racing Forms are unfolded and handicapping for the day begins. There are HD televisions and video display boards tucked around the backyard so the fans can see every race from the comfort of their lawn chairs.
The local hotels near JFK airport are sold out. There is a happy murmur in the lobby as fans get their morning coffee and breakfast. The hotel staff greet everyone with a “Happy Belmont Day!” and guests ask each other where they flew in from. The answers are joyful as fans and industry folks from Ireland compare their favorite horses with new found friends from New England and California.
Choices are made about what to wear for the day. Of course the decision is often weather driven but there seems to be two major groups: Casual and comfortable or fashionable and elegant. Longines is sponsoring the “Most Elegant Woman” fashion contest near the clubhouse to celebrate the style and glamour long associated with horse racing at Belmont. Women showed up in sleek and sophisticated monochromatic black and white ensembles complete with white gloves. They also wore crisp colorful dresses or jumpsuits for a comfortable day at the track. Each outfit was topped perfectly with either a statement fascinator or a smart hat perched to perfection.
As for the men, linen suits and jackets reigned supreme and were often jauntily topped with fedoras. Even the most casually dressed men seemed glamorous at Belmont in their shorts, open linen shirts, aviator sunglasses and cigars. There is always a fascinating aura around a confident New York man strolling around Belmont in the morning smoking a fine cigar. Bonus points if he smiles at you and asks “How you doing?”
In previous years, local fans flocked to the track for fun late in the afternoon, timing their arrival just before the Belmont Stakes. This was not the case this year with an amazing undercard that featured an array of superstar horses, jockeys and trainers. NYRA presented a full day of incredible racing including SIX Grade 1 races (The Acorn! The Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Mile! The Woodford Reserve Manhattan! The Ogden Phipps! The Longines Just a Game! The Belmont Stakes!) along with the Grade 2 Woody Stephens and Brooklyn Invitational and the Grade 3 Jaipur Invitational. No sleeping in as the fans streamed steadily into the grandstands all morning long!
During the day, the paddock filled with connections as trainers Todd Pletcher, Graham Motion, Kiaran McLaughlin, Bob Baffert, Nick Zito, Steve Asmussen, Dale Romans, Mark Casse, Bill Mott, Jerry Hollendorfer, Wesley Ward, Chad Brown, Christophe Clement, Dallas Stewart, John Shirreffs and Shug McGaughey among others saddled their challengers. The crowds jostled into position around the walking ring to see the equine superstars.
The luminary of the day did not disappoint. Songbird is an imposing filly that commands attention. Every cell phone and camera is raised instantly whenever she appears. She is grand. She is haughty. She is gorgeous in all her glory. It is a real thrill to see this Breeders Cup winner (2015 Juvenile Fillies) and Eclipse Award Champion (2016 3-year-old filly, 2015 2-year-old filly) as she glides by. Earlier in the week when she arrived from the airport, she walked off the van with swagger. When she was schooling, she was an alluring and attractive handful “on her toes.” Mike Smith had already won two races (on West Coast in the Easy Goer and Abel Tasman in the Acorn) when he came out of the tunnel on Songbird with his legs casually relaxed out of his stirrups. She gave the fans a historic race to remember as Paid Up Subscriber attempted to win with a bold bid at the three-eighths pole only to have Songbird edge forward under a stellar hand ride by Smith. Songbird was the queen for the day and the crowd loved it.
Moments later, the beautiful gray Disco Partner established an American record in a sizzling Jaipur Invitational turf race under the expert guidance of Irad Ortiz Jr. Then Bob Baffert and Mike Smith returned to the winner’s circle with American Anthem in the Woody Stephens and again in the Mohegan Sun Metropolitan with Mor Spirit completing their day with an incredible “four-for-four” partnership.
A large crowd gathered outside the walking ring to watch NBC’s Bob Costas interview Bobby Flay who had recently bought into Belmont contender J Boys Echo. Earlier in the week, Flay cut a dashing figure at the Belmont post-position draw which was held at Rockefeller Center. In addition, NYRA announced that Flay has been appointed as a member of the NYRA Board of Directors.
In between races the crowds were entertained with a precision jumping exhibition from the West Point Parachute Team known as the Black Knights and a rousing performance of patriotic music by the West Point Academy band. Walking around the backyard, there is a stunning array of options available from the food trucks. It’s the essence of a veritable feast with appealing choices tempting one’s appetite. It’s also a treat for the eyes as one contemplates gourmet Mediterranean, Korean BBQ, lobster rolls, pizza, empanadas, pastrami, Greek food, Philly Cheesesteaks or gourmet mac’ n cheese. Before the Woodford Reserve Manhattan, infectious drumming starts and the crowd rushes the stage on the apron to dance in place (and to sing along!) during the energetic performance by the Broadway cast of “On Your Feet.” It’s hands up in the air for everyone as they pulse to the music.
The most emotional moment of the day comes when Frank Sinatra belts out “New York, New York” as the Belmont Stakes contenders walk onto the track during the post parade. It’s a moment fans have been waiting for. Like the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” during the Kentucky Derby, singing “New York New York” is a heartfelt tradition as fans open their hearts and voices to sing along with “ol’ blue eyes.” The jockeys come out of the tunnel smiling as the crowd cheers the arrival of each of their favorites. Todd Pletcher’s one-eyed horse Patch gets a loud roar of approval as he walks onto the track. In no time at all, “They’re off in the Belmont Stakes!” It’s impossible to understand the track announcer but the sound of the crowd tells you what is happening every step of the way. It’s Irish War Cry in the lead! Tapwrit dug in with his bid to run down Irish Way Cry at the eighth pole. With the crowd urging him on, he prevailed and took the lead. Jockey Jose Ortiz is all smiles in the saddle at the finish line. During the gallop out, he exchanges a high five with his brother Irad Ortiz (who won last year’s Belmont Stakes on Creator) The connections fill the winners circle and happily step up to the NBC set to accept their trophies. Co-owner Robert LaPenta’s smile was as large as the gleaming August Belmont trophy.
As the crowd starts to disperse, there are still two races left on the card. The horses run under the soft glow of the setting sun. The sky is filled with an astonishing array of sherbet colors as pink light surrounds lavender clouds with orange highlights. As an outrider sits on his horse waiting for the last race of the day, the setting sun surrounds them with the spectacular beauty.
The next morning, Todd Pletcher met with the media outside his impeccable barn. He was gracious and reflective as Always Dreaming, Tapwrit and Keen Ice munched on their breakfasts and played with their jolly balls. Around the corner, Patch (who gamely came in third place) flirted with his visitors. Back at the hotel, the lobby filled with fans who were grabbing coffee on their way to the airport. I asked them about their Belmont experience. “It was incredible! We had a great time!” As they exchanged high fives one of them grinned and said “Hey, we will be back next year. Watch for us! You can count on it!” Like a happy group of playful puppies, they gathered their luggage and headed home. Whether a fan traveled by taxi, train or plane, they came to Elmont, New York for a unique horse racing experience. From sunrise to sunset, Belmont provided them with a memorable day of racing that included a stunning gray speedster setting an American record, a diva filly reminding everyone that she is at the top of her game, and a stubborn gray colt who refused to lose and returned a champion to his barn during a spectacular sunset. It’s easy to look forward to next year after a day like that!