For the first time, I actually went ahead and physically attended the 2014 Belmont Stakes. I’m going to walk you through what it’s like to go to the Belmont Stakes, because unless you’re one of the 102,000 people who did so this weekend, you were probably watching from the comfort of your own home (or a Vegas sports bar. Or a prison TV lounge. Both of which may seem like they have their charms, after you read this piece).
Getting to the Belmont Stakes is of course to the first step of going to the Belmont Stakes. It is the second-hardest part of going to the Belmont Stakes. The hardest part, of course, is leaving the Belmont Stakes (we’ll get to that). Besides by car or horseback, there is exactly one way to get from Manhattan to Belmont Park, in the town of Elmont, and that is via the Long Island Railroad, or LIRR. The bad news about the LIRR is that anyone other than the very first people who shoved their way to seats have to stand for the entire forty-minute ride. The good news is that everyone on the train was in a good mood.
The crowd is largely Frat Bros and Bro-ettes ranging from drunk to very drunk to “I’m impressed you’ve managed to not fall on anyone during this train ride,” to “You fell on someone during this train ride,” and it takes a lot to make these people upset on Belmont Stakes day. An announcement over the intercom saying “Mumford & Sons broke up, Burn Notice got cancelled and Obama made plastic sunglasses and bro-tanks illegal” probably wouldn’t even do the trick on this day.
After a forty minute ride, in which you are most likely standing the whole time, you arrive at the track and are shuttled through the kind of long, chain-link-bordered, concrete hallway you see in dystopian futuristic films where we’ve lost all our freedom and with it, the ability to even think as individuals so everyone just mindlessly marches forward.
And then you’re inside the facility!
It is also crowded in there. I’m not really sure why they are allowed to sell as many tickets as they are. Clearly the Elmont fire marshal is beholden to some powerful interests. And so as we (and by we I mean my four friends and I–no I didn’t go to the Belmont Stakes alone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just means you’re a degenerate gambler, which is cool I guess.) trying to figure out where to sit, we just kept walking until we were able to sneak into the “clubhouse,” avoiding the $20 ticket you’re supposed to pay to go in there. It’s unclear how the clubhouse was in any way different from the rest of the track, but it did seem marginally less crowded. And this is important: it was shaded. It was 90 degrees out in the track, and people were packed to the gills. If we had all had to stand in the sun together, it would’ve been hotter than Some Like It Hot and more miserable than Les Miserables.
But the Belmont’s biggest weakness (there are people everywhere) is its biggest strength (there are people everywhere). It’s fun! Everyone is dressed up like they’re going to a funeral with the intention of wearing an outfit designed to openly disrespect the person being buried. Hell, I even wore a Tommy Bahama shirt for the first (and quite possibly last) time in my life.
So there are crowds everywhere, but you can turn it to your advantage. In the long-ass line to place a bet, I made some small talk with people partly because I was interested, and partly as part of my elaborate plan to borrow people’s programs so as figure out the numbers of the horses I wanted to bet on. I was able to get some intel from a guy who looked like he’d seen a race or two in his day and had a mustache that, had it appeared on a character in an ‘80s movie would be viewed today as a cartoonishly stereotypical image of a Middle Eastern oil baron. He recommended some horse that didn’t win. I was able to talk to another woman who was there with her daughter. I overheard the mom trying to educate her daughter on the finer points of horse racing and shared the logic behind her pick. Then we had the following exchange:
Me: You seem like you come here often.
Mom: No, I haven’t been to a racetrack in years.
Me: Come on.
Mom: No, really.
Me (to daughter) “What horse are you betting on?”
Daughter points to a horse in the program.
Daughter: “This one. I like the color.”
Mom: Oooh, good choice, Gary Baker’s riding that one.
We arrived in time to watch one race prior to the big one, though we were so far away that it was all kinda a horsey blur. And then as the Stakes approached, and LL Cool J performed a medley of his greatest hits (this did not seem like a perfect choice for this crowd), and Frank Sinatra, Jr., who at this point looks older than his dead father ever was, belted out “New York, New York,” the crowd grew bigger and bigger and we found ourselves pushed up against the wall, with what ended up being an obstructed view of the scoreboard, which is to say, best seats in the house. Also, we didn’t have seats. After standing on the train, the next two hours are also just a bunch of standing. The only thing that kept me from needing to be taken to the glue factory was the blood-sugar boost provided by a chicken sandwich I had smuggled in to the derisive mockery of my companions.
The main attraction of the actual race was clear to the 102,199 people in attendance: will California Chrome complete the first Triple Crown since 1978? But more importantly, I was invested in whether my $5 bet on Commissioner would make me a bunch of money.
I bet on Commissioner under the logic and at 20/1 it was a longshot, but not an impossibly long shot. More importantly, with a boring name like “Commissioner,” it was probably going to be undervalued by the general betting public. The only thing that would have been better is a horse named “Middle Manager” or “Bureaucracy” or “Doug.” Whether because of my boring name theory or other factors, public action was not with Commissioner whose odds lengthened to 28/1 by race time. So my $5 stood to win $140.
As the race started with no sightline of the race whatsoever, I was really hopeful that the track’s announcer would be able to make sense of what was happening. As anyone who’s been to a horse race can tell you, that was a stupid thing to hope. Beyond “And they’re off…” it was pretty much an unintelligible mess. But wait! He was saying “Commissioner” a lot. And checking the video scoreboard thing, #8, my guy, was in the lead. He was leading the whole way. I had arbitrarily picked the one that was setting the pace. But as anyone who watches horse racing can tell you, that is not guarantee for victory. Still, Commissioner continued to lead around the final turn.
This is where the 28/1 horses are supposed to fade, and indeed, Commissioner fell out of the lead. But then reclaimed it. And lost it again. And reclaimed it and lost it what seemed like a dozen times in a quarter mile. As they came down the home stretch it was clear Commissioner was in the mix, but it seemed like the announcer guy was shouting something else. What also was clear was that California Chrome had not won and that at the very least, I had gotten $5 of excitement from watching my horse be the best horse for 85% of the Belmont Stakes. In the end some stupid horse named Tonalist won, who, with a name that sounds like a combination of “tonsils” and “anal” perhaps might have been a better pick under the terrible name logic, and irritatingly had been picked by my friend Cameron, who had this to say about winning $90: “…” He didn’t say anything. No jumping up and down, no celebrating, no rendition of “Tell Me How My Ass Taste,” not even mild bemusement, just nothing. He later defended this total non-excitement by saying he had hoped to see a Triple Crown, so he was disappointed. Critical consensus was that this reaction was the WASPiest thing that had ever happened.
In an effort to avoid traffic on the LIRR on the way back, we decided we’d stick around for the two races they run after the Belmont Stakes. These races were horse races like any other horse race, except that we were able to move into the seats vacated by people who had bothered to buy (more expensive) tickets in advance. Several members of our party then took pictures of the race track, in an effort to fool people into believing the clean view of the finish line in some way represented what watching the Belmont Stakes was like. This, like all Instagram pictures was a distorted representation of reality designed to trick people into feeling jealous of an experience they are not having.
After those two races finished over the course of an hour or so, and feeling pretty good about our savvy decision to let the traffic clear, and having aborted our plan to find something to eat as there is nothing within two miles’ walking distance of the track, we went to go catch the train. Without exaggerating, the line for the train was probably a quarter mile line and 25 people wide. The escalators coming from downstairs had to be stopped so the people wouldn’t be crushed. Honestly, the biggest achievement of the day was that nobody was crushed by a mob. If I had heard afterward that twelve people had been trampled to death, my reaction would’ve been “That seems about right.” In any case, this line was so long that we decided we’d walk the two miles to a restaurant, and if necessary, walk back, and nobody raised any objections to this idea. There was an immediate consensus on “walk two miles now, and if need be, two more at around 10:30 after just having stood for three hours straight.”
On the plus side, Floral Park seems like a lovely little suburban place.
As to finding a place to eat, I had this exchange with an officer of the law.
Me: Do you know a place we could get a bite to eat and maybe watch the hockey game?
Police Officer One: You could walk to Tulip Avenue.
Knowing Citizen: That’s pretty far.
Police Officer: Well, you could walk down this street and find someone with a TV who’s barbecuing and get invited in.
Me: So your advice—as a police officer—is to go up to strangers and ask them to let me into their house?
Police Officer: It works for me.
We didn’t take his advice. Instead, we went to Tulip Avenue and by the grace of Tonalist were able to find a table at a restaurant and sit and eat at around 9:30, six hours after leaving Manhattan, leaving me feeling pretty vindicated about my chicken sandwich from earlier. Even more serendipitously, there was evidently a LIRR station within a block of this restaurant, and so after our meal, we were able to catch the 10:33 train to Penn Station with relative ease. (The “relative” part being in the form of being part of a mob that was caught on the wrong platform and had to sprint down and then up an enormous flight of stairs to catch that train or risk waiting another half hour or more for the next one).
But that’s pretty much the Belmont Stakes. Even if everything goes right, as it did for me. If you catch the train out of Manhattan, you smuggle yourself into a superior section, you outsmart the traffic, you get a table at the restaurant instantly, and end up right next to the train station, you’ve spend three straight hours standing, four hours at a racetrack, most of which with 100,000 people in a pretty tight space, and then walked two miles to get something to eat, only getting home after another hour and a quarter of train riding. It was a great time and I’m never doing it again.