And, so, we begin our 2020 Belmont Stakes sojourn with an apology to the good people of Augusta and our friends at CBS–so long as they keep their social distance.
Since my first Belmont, which was held in Queens, not Nassau County, and I was a senior at St. John’s, I watched it from section 3P at Aqueduct with Paris and a couple of his brothers from Alpha Phi Delta.
I was a free agent, never pledged for anything except as a member of the Thoroughbred Racing Fraternity, Corona Chapter.
“There goes Quadrangle,” shouted Doug to Paris peering through his binoculars.
Legendary Manny Ycaza was so great at stealing marathons with middle-moves back then. And we all cashed, knowing that Northern Dancer’s foot issues compromised his training during that week in 1964, and didn’t think Hill Rise was all that.
I only missed four live Belmonts until yesterday, which makes it five. But aside from Secretariat, Slew and Affirmed and Alydar, the Belmont also was about being gutted when Desormeaux pulled up Big Brown.
But then came the building-shaking roar of 100,000 when American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought, and yesterday’s images from the 152nd renewal of the Belmont Stakes, that will live in the mind’s eye forever.
As the horses were leaving the paddock, NBC host Mike Tirico was referencing past Belmont days, and how yesterday’s was starkly different.
The camera work was superb, leading the horses as they entered the tunnel, following them into the enclosure, the pan view of Tiz the Law and the glass background with its view of the first floor clubhouse, a walk I’ve made–I don’t know–30 times?
Now I’m 76 and I cry anytime they open a new Publix in my South Florida neighborhood, where there’s talk of changing the name of the town in live in: Plantation. And the whole world knows why.
So here was Tirico, and the New York-bred, and Sinatra, and the wide pan of the iconic Manhattan skyline, and a car-less Times Square, and the watch parties from Manhattan and Saratoga and a suburb of Atlanta, horses parading over the sand and loam of Elmont.
Then, along with a big-finish crescendo from Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, the wide pan shot of an empty grandstand from an infield camera, an overview that circled the Statue of Liberty, dissolving into an overhead of the Belmont grounds looking south.
Now it was capturing young Reylu Gutierrez, lowering his mask to say hey, just so damned happy and privileged for an opportunity to ride a no-hoper in the Belmont Stakes because it’s not just about winning a race. It’s about being there.
But nobody was, except for the immediately family of equine athletes, those essentially devoted 24/7/365 thankful for the privilege of tending to one of God’s most wondrous creations, whose outsides are so good for our insides, as Churchill said.
But before all those wonderful scenes came Andrew Cuomo, America’s Governor, who grew up in the shadow of two New York racetracks, taking pride in his brave and loyal citizens who are surviving yet another Ground Zero moment.
Maybe he’ll actually present a Belmont trophy one day, in the manner of how the Governors of Maryland and Kentucky celebrate their biggest horse racing events.
But thank you Governor, for praising NYRA for the work it’s done since resuming racing and being proud that New York hosted the first major sporting event held in the U.S. during pandemics past, present and future. Talk about a marathon.
Now it’s HRI’s turn to thank every-man syndicate manager Jack Knowlton and his merry band of New York-breds, who opened up his family to America on national television, thankful for his blessed 17-year journey that won him a personal Triple Crown.
And to thank to old-school Barclay Tagg, who for decades has quietly applied hall-of-fame skills without portfolio because he never was into self-promoting, never owned an otherwordly win percentage.
And I was thankful for Tagg’s thankfulness for his long time assistant and partner, Robin Smullen, saying she can tell you things about Tiz the Law’s training that others can only imagine.
Tagg, who once once said of their relationship, “we went to dinner and she never left,” which says as much about him as it does her. And he thanked himself, for staying alive long enough to get another one like Funny Cide; the same, only different.
And for the things the trainer said about Manny Franco, a young talent who arrived on the national scene on a sunny Saturday in June taking one-minute, forty-six and fifty-three-hundredths of a second to do so, trailing only the arrival of the summer equinox by a few minutes.
In the language of the day, Tiz the Law was awesome. Yes, I know, you could not have designed a trip any more perfectly, but would be to miss the bigger point: It’s about the horse and the rider knew where the credit was due.
We’ll get to the X’s and O’s of a day that was highlighted by many brilliant performances and attracted more than $67 million worth of interest. But now there’s a Father’s Day to celebrate and an Empire Jackpot to conquer.
For those who did not enjoy the 2020 Belmont Stakes experience, it doesn’t matter how much money you bet on any given day: You don’t get it about Thoroughbred racing and, sadly, you likely never will.