ELMONT, NY — Jockey Club Gold Cup day began slowly but for Mark and me it was a day like a thousand others that preceded it. Back in the day, it would have been early for a work day but late for a big event race day.
And it was an orderly line of cars that proceeded through Gate 5 into the portion of the Belmont Park parking lot not piled high with Islanders’ Arena dirt.
The big takeaway at that juncture was that there were more Long Island people there to celebrate the public opening of their arena, five days after the “official” luminary ground breaking had taken place.
There were far more people in that section of the grounds than there were waiting to get into the Race Course itself. We exited the clubhouse elevator on the 4th floor Garden Terrace, the big restaurant overlooking Big Sandy.
I attend the Belmont Stakes every year when possible but have not been in the Garden Terrace for years. Couldn’t remember if it were an official policy regarding a dress code requiring suits, sports jackets and the like.
That concern was baseless after one jean-clad customer literally backed into us as we waited to check in at the Captain’s Desk. When our turn came, we were asked if we had a table preference; high, mid-level, on the glass.
From mid-level, I looked down the entire row the length of the room and down the entire row of empty grandstand seats, all the way from Nassau to Queens. It was noon on Jockey Club Gold Cup day; the new normal.
I have been to all recent Belmont Stakes and there were many people in the building, returning yesterday disguised as empty seats. The HRI Faithful has been on this topic for weeks; yesterday I saw it for myself.
The $45 per person buffet was solid, worth the cost. Quality was very good and the kind of fare one one might expect to find in a brunch/luncheon experience with generous portions and accommodating service to match.
The overall scene was about what one expects to see at the racetrack these days when there’s not a spring classic or fall championship on the line. JCGC Day was the Fall racing day in New York. Now it the prep day of Fall.
However, this image is not the New York Racing Association’s fault. Rather, it is the fault of a country that has lost interest, turned their backs on racing in part because racing has turned its back on them. All have reasons why.
As for the racing, the short fields provided entertainment for fans than betting fodder for horseplayers and on that score, racing delivered:
An array of stunning finishes; Imperial Hint coming back on the inside to out-nod Belmont-loving Firenze Fire right on the line.
And it appeared there would be a reprise of that drama when Midnight Bisou was seriously challenged by Wow Cat soon after entering the straight. But graded-record-making Johnny Velazquez was being coy but needing to bring his mount out to meet the challenger.
The fillies came together, bumping in mid-stretch–seemingly to no one’s advantage or disadvantage–but the equine body language was one of a clearly superior equine shooing away her only rival.
“I’m running here, I’m running over here,” Midnight Bisou playing the equine role of Ratso Rizzo.
But the Jockey Club Gold Cup was different, a much more physically challenging battle. It made for a difficult, tough call, however the decision turned out. In our view, no one was robbed here. But…
A review of the head-on shows what every reasonable observer needs to know. First, this wasn’t a case of two rivals coming together, it was one in which a single horse, encouraged by his rider, was the perpetrator–Vino Rosso.
Under left handed encouragement from Irad Ortiz jr., the older came out two paths and bumped his rival. A few strides later, still under a left hand, Vino Rosso came out again, and made contact again.
Correcting to the right hand, Vino Rosso was still drifting as he made contact for a third time, then the two set sail to the wire in the final sixteenth as a team, and here is where the wicket gets sticky.
Three year old Code of Honor had the forward momentum and was set to go by. He was outside, getting four pounds in weight, enjoyed the easier trip, reached even terms, and, by the strictest definition, failed the eyeball test.
Yes, he was being herded and yes it was his first time with older but, in our view, should have gone by.
Mark and I watched the head on together on the NYRA-Now feed in the parking lot. And I watched several more times this morning.
As we drove home, we agreed it was a very tough call, extra pressure given to the enormity of a prestigious Grade 1 title. “If you were to err on the side of caution in a controversial circumstance like this, what would you do?”
“I would have left it as it,” Mark said. “I agree,” I shot back. Having said that, however, nobody was robbed, just extremely unlucky.
Post race there were comments from Ortiz, trainer Shug McGaughey and owner Will Farish. They were as illuminating as they were predictable. But none from Todd Pletcher.
The thing about this is that Pletcher is one of the best communicators the game has known, maybe even surpassing his mentor, “Coach” Wayne Lukas. I’ve heard him respectfully disagree with decisions; always measured, always reasonable.
I can’t imagine how livid Pletcher must have been about yesterday’s decision. But he’s not unaware of the intense scrutiny the industry is undergoing at this time.
And he would not want to be too vociferous with respect to how a “Jockey Club” extravaganza was awarded to the “right connections.” Decisions, like the one made in Kentucky last spring, are no longer made in a vacuum.
Finally, Pletcher had this to say to NYRA press staffers Sunday morning:
|“To me, it was a classic horse race from the top of the stretch to the finish line. Two horses hooked up and they brushed, but to me, no horse was ever knocked off stride and neither horse lost momentum because of it,” said Pletcher.|
“It was a piece of race riding; Irad drifted out a little bit, Johnny drifted in a little bit. I’ve watched a lot of races and I felt pretty comfortable watching the head on there would not be a disqualification and I was surprised when there was.”
Regarding an appeal: “I spoke to both owners last night and they were sort of split. “They agreed they would not appeal but I plan to meet with thestewards today as well to get an explanation of what they saw.
“I didn’t feel like I saw the same thing, but seldom in these appeal situations does anything ever come out of it.”
Any consternation with respect to yesterday’s call started in Louisville on the first Saturday May, the fallout from which is unsatisfying to this day, whatever side of the argument you take.
The unintended consequences of any difficult decision, like the 32nd Santa Anita breakdown this week on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s midweek criticism of the sport in the New York Times, one month from Breeders’ Cup, was not the look anyone was seeking.