Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Having grown up around an industry that feeds on excitement and passion, the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival was a breath of fresh air for my fellow young racing fans and me. Some current horsemen grumble about the lack of care with regard to the actual races among young people who attend the big racing days. They say that these kids instead go just to say that they were there and to have an Instagram picture to show for it; however, this past weekend discounted this assertion.
Walking around the back of Belmont Park there was a plethora of Instagram picture taking, yes, but the general buzz, by and large, revolved around the 13-race card at hand. Lines at the betting windows were long, people were giving educated opinions on horses, and smiles were endless. So the new philosophy of old school horsemen should be this: Take your pictures, but make sure to place a win bet or two – you are at the track after all. For college-age kids, coming to the track regularly will continue to fuel the excitement of racing.
It was a pleasant surprise to see many people I knew from all walks of life at Belmont Park this past weekend. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in years, cousins I lost touch with, and old horsemen from my childhood at Monmouth Park. The common denominator throughout was one thing: It was at Belmont Park. That, to me, illustrates more than anything that tracks have the potential for a renaissance, to be a forum for friends old and new to meet up for a day of sporting.
The notion that young people have no appreciation for the Triple Crown was quickly disproved as well. It was clear to many at the track that once upon a time this was a feat not attained for 37 years – a time period older than me, and much older than the average age in Belmont’s backyard. It was a revitalizing experience to see young people truly wrap their heads around the difficulty of winning a Triple Crown. The indescribable vibe of Belmont Park this past weekend cannot be paralleled to any other sporting event in our country. When Justify crossed the wire I was happily surprised to see a level of energy that could only be reached through a true understanding among the crowd of what had just taken place.
In the midst of my celebration I took a moment to look around and attempt to slow down the fleeting moment. It was only then that I realized the masses had inevitably fallen in love with this horse, Justify. Knowing that kids are passionate about the Triple Crown indicates a bright future for our sport, and this type of awareness conveys a bright future for our country as a whole. After all, it just takes one horse to hook someone in the sport of kings. I imagine that the reaction on these kids’ faces is not far off from mine as a young boy at Monmouth Park, watching “Jersey Joe” Bravo take Lion Heart to victory in the 2004 Haskell Invitational. It was during this Haskell that I started to do this; I started to look around after a race and just watch people’s expressions.
It will be a year next month that my grandfather will have passed away. Not only did he teach me everything I know about horses, but he taught me how to watch a race. This lesson is invaluable. He taught me to hone my senses, to feel the vibe, to hear the crescendo produced by the crowd as the race carries on, and most importantly, to see the excitement on people’s faces. In doing these three things I have been able to savor big moments like the Triple Crowns in 2015 and 2018, and my love of this sport has not and will not wane; enjoying a race in this manner is infectious and will keep one coming back for years to come.
While this lesson by my grandfather was taught at Monmouth, it applies to Belmont, Santa Anita, and everywhere in between. The 150thBelmont Stakes was simply another race to my friends and me, but it was just a taste, a first exposure to thousands of young men and women who now consider themselves racing fans. Knowing this fact is one of the things that will keep me coming back to the track, and will keep the sport of kings alive for the foreseeable future.