Bwog Adventures: A Day at the Races
Written by Bwog Staff
Those stuck in New York over the summer, fear not: there’s plenty to do off the Island. In this installment of Bwog Adventures, Lydia DePillis takes you to the far reaches of Queens for some equine entertainment.
For someone who read as many Black Stallion books as I did as a kid, Belmont Park is a legend–land of endearing underdogs and grizzled grooms, somewhere off in horse heaven. It’s actually in Long Island, just over the border from Queens. But that’s far enough away to make an adventure, and I had some time during reading week on what just happened to be the opening day of the season.
I and two traveling companions, Rachel and CML, left at the leisurely time of 11:00 AM—races don’t start until 1:00 PM—tripping across Morningside Park to the B train, which we took down to 50th, where we transferred to the E to Jamaica station. After casting about for a half hour in the chaotic shopping zone of Jamaica (beware instructions from friendly busdrivers) we finally caught an M110 going in the right direction, which we knew only because of the guy reading the racing form with pencils in his cap.
After a half hour traveling deep into the vastness of Queens, the bus deposited us and a handful of other track-goers on a curb next to a huge parking lot. Mounting a skybridge that took us to the grandstand, I gasped at the first sight of the expanse of green laid out below—at 1.5 miles, Belmont’s dirt track is one of the longest in the country. On June 9, it will be ringed by screaming fans, possibly urging home the first Triple Crown winner in 29 years. OK, unlikely, but they’ll still be screaming.
Aside from a girlish horse obsession, my excitement stemmed from the sense that there’s probably no place like a racetrack anywhere else in America. It’s as good a cross section of society as you’ll find anywhere outside the US Census, playing host to every ethnicity and social stratum, from frilly-hatted Manhattan matrons to scruffy old men gambling away their paychecks. Of course, that doesn’t mean they have to associate with one another.
The track, also like America, breaks down into zones. On the outside, it’s more of a park, with fountains and picnic tables where big Italian families and labor unions lay out their coolers of beer and cold cuts. Horses seem forgotten–this is a place to socialize. Moving inside to the grandstand, people are more businesslike, getting their hot dogs and pretzels, placing their bets, watching the race re-run on banks of TV screens. The modern track doesn’t require that you see the races at all, and the grandstand takes care of all you need in between: food, drink, arcade games for the kids, even a barber. I’m not sure what amenities grace the private clubhouse area; that’s closed off to the plebs. I imagine a setting of sumptuous grace, with tuxedoed waiters serving canapés to Arab oil magnates, in contrast to the 60s drabness downstairs.
The scene next to the track is slightly more focused, the demographic more uniform. Outdoor benches support pairs of swearing, toothless men, about a third of whom are wearing some sort of Yankees paraphernalia, a few crunching on cigars the size of small trout. The whole scene seems pungently anachronistic. “If this were a Hemingway novel,” remarks CML, “I would’ve ordered five whiskey and sodas right now.” Overpriced plastic cups of beer are more the norm here, but the point is well taken.
All legitimate tracks have buglers to announce the procession of horses from the paddock to the course. Belmont Park’s bugler is named Sam. At one point, after we had stood watching him, the red-coated man came up to us to say hi and ask if we were having a good time, his impossibly long horn catching the weak sunlight. Sam is in his 15th year bugling at Belmont, having replaced a guy who quit after scoring $130,000 in the pick six. “In between races, I look for pretty girls, and I go and I schmooze,” he explained, before posing for a picture with two awed young men, and going back to work.
The action of a track is tidal, in a way. Races go off about every half hour, and crowds flow inside and out on the same rhythm, surging to the fence as the field nears the finish line and receding back into the grandstand afterwards to place bets for the next race. At several points, I gravitate to the tunnel through which the horses trot on their way from the saddling area to the track, their fractious youth contained less by
the tiny men on their backs than the stolid “ponies” that accompany them to the gate. During one visit, I’m joined by a lady with a walker on what looks like a supervised trip of disabled adults.
“Oh man oh man oh man!” she says delightedly. “They’re so beautiful! Hello, hello!”
I feel the same way, every time.
– Lydia DePillis