Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 12, 2011

A Muddy Test Produces An Unlikely Champion

It is a cool and decidedly wet Saturday afternoon on Long Island. Rain, in volumes ranging from intermittent to pouring, has been my constant companion on the drive down from New Hampshire. One of the heaviest downpours occurred just in the final fifteen minutes. But as I at last make my way into one of the back stretch parking areas at Belmont Park, Mother Nature finally relents. The rest of the day will be overcast and gray, but at least umbrellas will no longer be mandatory.

Still, my first sight of the massive dirt track in Elmont, New York makes it clear that the damage has been done. The mile and one half oval appears glistening and gelatinous. It looks more like a freshly poured swath of concrete than a race track. Officially, the track is designated “sloppy.” The two turf ovals that sit concentrically inside the dirt track are termed “yielding.” Both are polite racing industry terms for muck.

I am here, part of a large but less than capacity crowd of 55,779 for the third and final race of the American Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. The race is known as the Test of the Champion, in part because of its position as the finish line of the three Triple Crown races, making it the place where every so often a thoroughbred’s name is added to the roster of racing legends. Mostly though, the nickname is a testament to the Belmont’s length. None of the twelve horses entered in today’s field has ever raced a mile and a half. Most will likely never do so again. That the distance is covered at this track with but a single circuit makes it unique in this country. No other American horse track is so long. The innermost turf course, the shortest of the three ovals, is itself a mile and a quarter. That makes it fully a quarter-mile longer than the dirt course at fabled Churchill Downs, where in order to run the classic mile and a quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby the field must race down the long home stretch twice.

A massive race course requires an equally massive clubhouse and grandstand, and Belmont Park has one. The front of the clubhouse is faced in ivy-covered brick. At track side, four levels of open air seating are protected from the elements by a single flat roof that cantilevers out from the building. But like the superspeedways of NASCAR, a track this large is almost too big for spectators. As the entrants race around the far turns and along the back stretch, they are reduced to little more than miniatures for anyone without binoculars.

Eleven times a horse has crossed the finish line to win the Belmont after earlier triumphing in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. But as horse racing fans know all too well, the last of those was Affirmed, more than three decades ago. For a sport that teeters constantly on the edge of viability, the drought is painful. Yet it continues, with Animal Kingdom and Shackleford splitting the first two races this year. The lack of a Triple Crown opportunity and the insipid weather doubtless account for the smattering of empty seats.

Still there are many more fans in the stands than would be present here or at any other race track on any given Saturday, drawn by the smart marketing of this year’s Belmont as a decisive grudge match between the Derby and Preakness winners. The betting public likes Animal Kingdom, making him the favorite as race time approaches. But there are doubts about the ability of the front-running Shackleford to go the Belmont’s distance. He is only the fourth choice, with the punters favoring both Nehro and the European horse Master of Hounds over the Preakness winner.

The paddock at Belmont Park sits in front of the track’s clubhouse. Once saddled, the horses walk through a long tunnel underneath the stands to reach the track. Two jumbotrons in the infield show the riders mounting and beginning the lengthy walk. In the stands, there are the first shouts; “they’re coming!” Then there is a mighty roar and the crowd comes to its feet as the call to post blares from the loudspeakers and the lead pony appears, followed by the entrants themselves.

The post parade at each of the Triple Crown races is accompanied by a signature song. For the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Maryland, My Maryland” are permanent symbols. Over the years the New York Racing Association has been more fickle with their musical selection. For years it was “Sidewalks of New York.” That song now belongs to the Manhattan Handicap, a turf race run just before the Belmont. Frank Sinatra’s well-known rendition of “New York, New York” replaced “Sidewalks” beginning in 1997. But last year the NYRA decided to go hip-hop, favoring “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. While the Jay-Z hit evokes all the energy and variety that makes modern Gotham great, it was apparently deemed a little too much for the stately sport of kings. Old Blue Eyes is back this year, and so we all sing along, happily claiming to be “king of the hill, top of the heap” as the twelve entrants take to the muddy racing surface.

As the horses jog along in their warm-ups, the starting gate is wheeled into position at the start/finish line. The massive cheer that greeted the post parade is replaced by an even greater one as the entrants begin to load. Moments later, the sound is redoubled as the gates open, and twelve horses take their first bounds toward history.

The marketing has been about a match race. The bettors and the experts have seeded the field, assigning relative expectations of victory to each horse. But the unique distance of the Belmont, the miserable racing conditions of the day, and the eternal presence of racing luck will have the final word.

The match between Animal Kingdom and Shackleford never materializes. In the first few strides out of the gate, the Derby winner is cut off by Mucho Macho Man and becomes entangled with Monzon. Jockey John Velazquez loses contact with his left stirrup and is very nearly thrown as Animal Kingdom drops nearly to his knees. By the time horse and jockey recover their fate for this race is sealed. Meanwhile Shackleford as expected goes to the front. But the doubts of the betting public are confirmed when the field turns for home. A tired Preakness winner fades down the stretch, finishing out of the money.

In the end this Saturday is a day for long shots. Ruler On Ice, sent off at nearly 25-1, holds off two equally unlikely competitors, Stay Thirsty and Brilliant Speed. The unexpected result takes nothing away from the excitement in the stands as the horses flash by. When a few minutes after the race Ruler On Ice is paraded in front of the crowd before going to the winner’s circle, the gelding is met with cheers and applause. As in every other sport, marketing and prognostication can only go so far. In the end, only the actual competition matters.

With the 143rd Belmont in the books, horse racing’s real problem is now starkly revealed. There are two more races on today’s card at Belmont Park. But by the hundreds and then the thousands spectators are heading to the exits. By the time those final races are run, most will be sitting in Long Island Railroad cars or trapped in traffic jams. The few remaining fans will reflect a more typical Saturday turnout at the giant Long Island oval. For all but those most devoted adherents, another year without a Triple Crown winner to marvel at means that horse racing once again quickly fades away, as if lost in the gathering gloam of a soggy Saturday evening.

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