Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Memorial Day at Belmont Park: Land of Hopes and Dreams
ELMONT, NY, May 29, 2012—Fittingly, it seemed and felt a lot like the old days, when Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day and not, like what every American holiday has become, a day for commerce.
Indeed, the crowd at Belmont Park had a holiday vibe, more like the old Saturday vibe-- not a real holiday vibe when Aqueduct, yes, Aqueduct, drew about 60,000 New York sports fans to what in this town was a large patch in the middle of a red, white and blue Memorial Day quilt.
Sixty-thousand fans, a number that the NYRA would gladly sign for on a Belmont Stakes day in seasons when different horses win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
The only thing that truly was the same was the excitement and quality generated by another running of the Metropolitan Handicap, a.k.a. the Met Mile, and the race finish, typically always in doubt until the horses reach that final gut-wrenching furlong.
Inside the final furlong, a reference to my first ever visit to a Thoroughbred track in 1961, when the mighty Kelso erased a five length disadvantage inside the eighth pole with ground-gobbling, 130-pound toting strides.
Only yesterday, when Caleb’s Posse came flying with his usual, heart-stopping alacrity, and appeared on his way to victory, Shackleford wouldn’t let him by. Caleb’s Posse had him, only he didn’t.
These days I’m nostalgic for racetrack crowds. So, knowing that I can watch a replay in online detail, I enjoy watching a race live from the apron whenever possible; wanting to feel the energy that gets only from a dramatic stretch run.
Like on Monday, when Donnie Von Hamel’s horse came flying after Dale Romans’.
With temperatures in the 80s, the air hung heavy in the Elmont paddock and the big four players; To Honor An Serve, Shackleford, Caleb’s Posse and Jackson Bend, were circled by their handles in front of the saddling enclosures.
It appeared that either the heat had tempered their energy or that good horses are smart horses, knowing what they needed to do: Conserve energy until called upon. The big four were relaxed, almost somnambulant. A baby could have been on the other end of the shank to lead them.
Their demeanors remained virtually unchanged after they were tacked up, except for the 2011 Preakness winner. Horseplayers recall that before his races last year Shackleford was wildly exuberant, getting more rambunctious as post time drew near.
At 4 it’s the same, only different. Shackleford was the only one visibly up on his toes; not too high, but just high enough. And he puffs himself up, looking more like prize fighter than equine athlete, a horsey loaded gun. In a word; great.
And so it was that at the end of a mile raced in a worthy 1.33.30--compared to the 1:34.34 it took the rapid Buffum to get the same classified-allowance trip, or the 1:34.61 needed by Bob Baffert’s speedy Contested to take the Acorn—it was the boundlessly energetic Shackleford that would not be denied.
The best part was seeing it from the apron, right in front of you: Shackleford, with new rider Johnny Velazquez, through racing Saturday was stuck in a 3-for-50 slump, got his horse to lengthen and stick his nose out one inch, the precise difference in Met 116.
Or, as the official result chart fashioned by chart caller Danny Kulchisky and call taker Brian Affrunti:
“…Around the bend and under some coaxing at this stage, [Shackleford] led a tightly bunched group into the stretch and got cut loose, drew out to his biggest advantage in the ensuing furlong, but with Caleb’s Posse full of run and bearing down hard.
“[Shackleford] was given six hard shots from the left side and steadily drifted out towards the middle of the strip after each one, had the runnerup draw alongside in midstretch, but showed all heart to stave off that one’s stiff challenge and preserve the decision.”
Precisely: all heart…stiff challenge…Preserve the decision. Parenthetically, there might have been better chart callers throughout Thoroughbred history but none as thoroughly poetic as this team.
The prelude to the Met wasn’t too shabby, either. Contested, owned by the Baffert family, made a shambles of the Acorn over the speed kind surface. Playing catch me if you dare, not only did she take an aggressive lead beneath Javier Castellano but increased her lead to five lengths at the line.
Prior to that, It’s Tricky showed her affinity for Belmont Park with an equally Met-gutsy three-quarter length victory over a controlled pacesetter, Cash for Clunkers while heavily favored Awesome Maria, the defending Ogden Phipps champion, apparently showed her affinity for Gulfstream Park.
Uncharacteristically four lengths behind in the first eighth of a mile, it appeared that her best effort would not be forthcoming on this day, an observation that played itself out down the long Elmont straight.
There were over 10,000 in attendance on a sultry Memorial Day and it felt good to be among them, an afternoon where memories were, once and again, up close and personal.