You’ve waited in anticipation for months. Put on your finest silks. Shined your shoes. And now it’s finally here! You’re loaded up and in! You’ve worked yourself into a lather! Two minutes of ecstasy!
Get your mind out of the gutter. I am talking about the Belmont Stakes.
Usually held in the first or the second week of June the Belmont arrives five weeks after the Kentucky Derby and three weeks after the Preakness. The third and final leg of the Triple Crown it is the longest race of the three at 1 1⁄2 miles and goes for an entire lap at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. Nearly every major American champion in horse racing history has competed there. Secretariat demolished Sham in the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in what is likely the greatest performance by a horse in racing history.
Only this year it was run at 1 1/8 miles not 1 ½. The Kentucky Derby will not take place until September 5th and the Preakness until October 3rd. The Belmont was run without the usual 100,000 fans in the stands – but did have Sam “The Bugler” Grossman blowing the “Call to the Post. He was rightly deemed an essential worker. It’s hard to argue with that moniker. The exhilaration you feel as you hear that bugle call at Belmont is only exceeded by the actual race itself (including watching the reruns on YouTube of Secretariat pull away into another time zone in 1973). The majestic sight of pedigreed equine athletes pounding the dirt together and then apart and back together and then apart until only one breaks the finish line first is on the best days always exhilarating.
But now…during some of our worst days…I find the spectacle of the Belmont Stakes simultaneously ghostly yet magical. The NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL are nowhere to be found. NASCAR has a serious and egregious Confederate Flag problem. Set against this backdrop watching the horses go in vibrant color on NBC is thrilling and eerie.
Let me be clear. I am not a “real” horse racing fan. Oh sure when I was in college at Berkeley my best friend Luke and I used to go to Golden Gate Fields for the 8th and 9th races when we could get in for free and bet on Russell Baze to win and cheer for Fearless Bedeaux. I might go once a year to Santa Anita or the former Hollywood Park when I was a teenager in Los Angeles. But the grandeur of it all was lost on me. The sociological fascination was far greater than the racing as I catalogued the inveterate gamblers, high rollers, low rollers, and Bay Area rollers taking a chance and ripping up tickets on the wide spectrum of seekers on the ponies and their riders.
But now during a dystopian nightmare where a worldwide pandemic wreaks havoc on the human race I find myself strangely solaced by two minutes…of a horse race. For two minutes a respite from thieving thuggery and orange narcissistic sociopathology and criminal malfeasance. For two minutes no violent idiots smashing glass and rioting and undermining the searingly important civil protests of the BLM movement. For two minutes no talking heads warning of us the coming worldwide depression (I mean really? Come on…the depression is already here – financially and in our agitas of daily strife) and for two minutes no exhortation why it’s the best time to invest in the stock market.
Two minutes of ecstasy. A simple horse race.
Something as simple as the first New York-bred horse in the Empire State to win the Belmont Stakes since 1882 became thrilling set against the absence of all major sports during this pandemic. The clarity of the clarion call of Larry Collmus as Tiz the Law crossed the finish line victorious by 4 lengths.
Even though the Kentucky Derby is the undisputed “Run for the Roses” it is horse racing in New York state that captures my imagination for the “sport of kings”. In 1985 I was a grad student at SUNY Albany when I watched in disgust from the stands at Saratoga as Chief’s Crown (tuning up for a subsequent win in the Travers Stakes) drew clear along the rail in the stretch of the Tell Stakes only to be disqualified from winning because of interference. Chief’s Crown was placed 4th and my “perfect 5-3 exacta prediction” erased by a steward’s inquiry. Memories of that same race of a horse throwing it’s rider in deep stretch and the subsequent awful white curtain going up to hide the pain and ultimate destruction of another beautiful thoroughbred. Later that same year I watched Vanlandingham win the Suburban at Belmont to the roar of the racing crowd and the thrill of marveling at the statute of Secretariat.
And from the department of “the sublime to the ridiculous” (also at Saratoga on that same day in 1985) I was shut out in the 7th race by a “scab” during a pari-mutuel handler’s strike right before making a bet. After casing the paddock and looking at the entries, I was never more sure of an outcome of a horse race. As I walked up to the window to place my bet after the person ahead of me took their sweet f ing time the post went up and the window closed. I turned to the man next to me and said “if it goes 7-3 exacta you will watch a grown man become livid”.
Yep. OF COURSE! The race went 7-3. It paid a $201 exacta which would have been a fortune to a grad student. While it was hardly true that I was a grown man it was true that I was livid. I had nailed the exacta but there would be no payday. I had no clue the pari-mutuel handlers were on strike. Dumb bad luck on so many fronts.
So let’s just say my luck at the track (and the stock market and casino for that matter) isn’t the best. Let’s also just say that my fondness for the Belmont also has to do with being situated less than two miles from where my beloved Grandma Ethel Snyder and Uncle Mac, Grandpa Jay, and other family members are buried at Beth David Cemetery. Let’s also say that Belmont is hallowed ground for millions of fans who have gone through its gates to watch thoroughbreds gallop over sand, silt, and clay for their payday and their dejection.
But let us all now simply say that on June 20, 2020 there were at least two minutes of ecstasy. The Belmont was won live by New York bred Tiz the Law before less than 100 people at a track that holds 100,000. Let us simply say that the white supremacist racist rally of Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma designed to lather up his cult – the day after Juneteenth – was a dismal and delicious failure.
And let’s just say that on June 21, 2020…the summer solstice…the longest day of the year…there was just a little bit of hope. A minute crack between the worlds. A welcome warm ray of sunshine. A small imperceptible shift in the heat and light in the cosmos…. as Grandma Ethel smiles at me from somewhere unknown. watching a horse pull away at the Secretariat pole towards victory all summer long …with as convincing a win as we might hope to see… down the stretch…. into an early November of my dreams.