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Belmont Park: Faded lady needs crowds

By JOE BOB BRIGGS   |   June 7, 2002 at 1:51 PM   |   Comments

BELMONT, N.Y., June 7 (UPI) -- One summer I lived in a little cottage on the backstretch at Belmont Park --- a place so endlessly fascinating that it was like being Charlie in the chocolate factory.

I got up at dawn every day to watch the morning workouts, then hung around the jockey room till mid-morning, fascinated by the incredible tension and lurid drama of all these insanely competitive and highly profane athletes (most could cuss in both English and Spanish) who were all trying to lose weight at the same time.

The way they did this -- well, you don't wanna know the details, but it's a form of elective bulimia. And it tended to make them cranky, especially on days when they would go into the film room to scream at each other about fouls, bumps and dirty tricks in previous races.

At 11 o'clock I'd put on my only suit and go to the private horsemen's club on the fourth level at the finish line where various bluebloods from New York society -- Astors, Whitneys, Vanderbilts -- would tolerate me while they took a late breakfast or a formal lunch. I once embarrassed myself when Mrs. John Morris, then in her seventies, opened her diamond-encrusted cigarette case and stared at the ceiling for a full 30 seconds before I realized my mistake and DOVE across the table, extracted a cigarette, offered it to her, and lit it. I realized that she had never lit her own cigarette in her life.

That's the kind of place Belmont was, and occasionally still is. Down on the first level of the grandstand, a lot of old men in white shoes and faded brown fedoras, racing forms stuffed into the pockets of their tweed jackets, traded black-market information.

Moving up four stories, passing through various levels of society, you eventually reached the American aristocracy, people so insulated that they hired people to keep their names out of the newspapers, because there is nothing more vulgar -- they say the word with a sneer -- than "publicity."

Both Belmont worlds -- the railbirds and the royals -- have seen better days. Gone are the Damon Runyon characters, many of them pickpockets from Hell's Kitchen, whose patter was once omnipresent in the paddock. Gone, too, are the Harrimans and even the Belmonts. Track founder August Belmont II, best known for being the man who bred Man o' War but then sold him as a yearling for $5,000, died in 1924. His widow, Eleanor Robson Belmont, was more interested in the Metropolitan Opera than in the track. The Morris silks are seldom seen.

Come to think of it, the august Belmont stable was owned for years by George Herbert Walker, whose name was then bestowed upon a grandson who laser became president -- of the country, not the racing association. But when's the last time you saw a Bush at a racetrack? They're baseball men all the way around.

Still, I can't go to Belmont without feeling a little of the old magic, and I can't help but hope this weekend brings a record crowd for the Belmont Stakes so that perhaps a few more people will discover the old dame.

It's a dying sport, I know. As recently as the 1980s you would have had 60,000 people on any big weekend, but today they're lucky to do a third of that business. They only have four big weekends now -- the Wood Memorial in spring, the Belmont Stakes, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup in the fall. But it's the Triple Crown race that brings out the newbies, and that's what they desperately need.

Of course, the flip side of having sparse crowds is that now you can always get a good finish-line table in the Garden Terrace restaurant, one of the most pleasant places in the world to spend a day at the races, and where they still do require jackets on the men and tuxes on the waiters.

Anyway, am I the only person who thinks it's ironic that 80,000 to 90,000 people will be here this weekend to cheer loudly for a horse owned by a member of the Saudi royal family? War Emblem is the sentimental favorite, and if he wins on Saturday, Prince Ahmed bin Salman will get not only the purse, but an extra $5 million bonus for winning the Triple Crown.

Of course, in the racing world it's not that ironic to see a regal Arabian at the track. Even though the thoroughbred breed is English, all modern horses are descendants of three Arabian sires that were imported in the 17th century to breed with English mares and reinvigorate the bloodline. (Most stakes winners today descend from two of those horses -- the Darley Arabian, a Syrian horse considered "perfect" at the time, and the Godolphin Barb, reputed to have been found in Paris, pulling a water cart. The third horse, the Byerly Turk, was a military horse, but that bloodline is very very thin at this point. It's ironic that, of the three, the cavalry charger fathered the worst racers.)

Last week I wrote about Sunday Break, the Japanese-bred colt that's a favorite with Belmont handicappers, so this will be a truly international event. Sunday Break is a classic stalking horse, and War Emblem is a classic front-runner, so this could be one of those races that's talked about for generations.

And, yes, I do mean generations. Horse racing is one of the few sports whose legends outlast the lives of mere humans. Belmont is the track, after all, that opened in 1905 with the famous dead heat between Sysonby and Race King in the Metropolitan Handicap. It's the track that staged a previous international duel, in 1923, when a match race was set up between the American and English champions -- Zev, winner of the Kentucky Derby, against Papyrus, winner of the Epsom Derby. Zev won by five lengths in front of the biggest crowd for a match race in a hundred years.

I'm also reminded of the year they set up a Texas-Kentucky duel. In 1947, Belmont staged the first $100,000 winner-take-all match race between Assault, from the King Ranch in Texas, and Armed, from Calumet Farm in Kentucky. Armed won the race, but the big news that day was the riot that broke out when a 7-20 favorite named Bewitch was disqualified and placed last, causing angry bettors to burn down the fences on the steeplechase course.

I'm not sure that kind of racing passion exists anymore, but modern bettors have threatened to riot lately when sometimes the odds on their horse are changed AFTER the horses leave the starting gate. This strange phenomenon is caused by the dumping of out-of-state pari-mutuel money into the pool, sometimes turning a 4-to-1 horse into a 2-to-1 by the time the race is over.

Unfortunately, without all that off-track satellite money, Belmont would probably cease to exist. When Barry K. Schwartz took over two years ago as chairman and chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association, he was faced with a dying brand. Since he's chairman of Calvin Klein Inc., though, he had a few ideas about how to put some rouge back in the old lady's cheeks, and he hired some high-powered advertising and public relations people to make Belmont, if not fashionable, at least relevant.

Part of that campaign is an attempt to get much younger millionaires to attend the Friday-night Belmont Ball on the eve of the race. (In other words, let's load it up with supermodels and people who summer in the Hamptons.) That worked last year, along with a snazzy ad campaign and the introduction of Sunset Fridays, when racing doesn't begin until 3 p.m., so that people can leave work early and spend happy hour at the track.

Schwartz was also given a gift by the New York legislature last fall when they approved video display terminals, a type of lottery-based slot machine, for his sister track Aqueduct. Slot machines in other states have revived tracks that were all but dead, with most of the profits going to bigger purses, thereby ensuring that the track retains the best horses. The problem in New York is that the legislature set the state's cut of the action so high that Schwartz hasn't yet figured out a way to make money on the deal.

It's not too surprising, though. These days horse racing is the least sexy form of gambling. Indian casinos, lotteries, riverboats, all get more attention. It's hard to tell people that we need Belmont, because ... well ... I hate to say because it's part of our history, because I don't want to see it turned into a museum.

But in 1955, at Belmont, Eddie Arcaro rode Nashua to victory for Arcaro's sixth Belmont Stakes win. And in 1973 Secretariat ran a race that may never be equaled, winning the Stakes by 31 lengths in world record time. And in 1971 the big-hearted crooked-legged Canonero II lost the Triple Crown here. And in 1973 Ruffian died here. (She's buried on the infield.) And in 1977 Seattle Slew, and in 1978 Affirmed, and in 1995 Cigar -- and we all remember the horses, but I remember the horses winning at Belmont, which has always stood for the best and the fastest, the creme not just of New York, but of the whole nation, and indeed of the whole world.

No matter what happens to War Emblem on Saturday, I guarantee you he won't be sent to Arabia. If his owner is smart, he'll find a more or less permanent stall for him at Belmont.

(Email Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.)

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