Racetrack families and the Belmont Stakes

All photos by David Roth

Horse racing is an old, strange and frankly pretty great sport, and one eager to remake itself as something cool and young. But maybe this sport is better off being its own weird, enduring, familial self.

It's probably most useful to think of horse racing's Triple Crown as what it is: three high-value horse races held at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, Pimlico Race Course in Maryland and Belmont Park in New York, in that order and in the months of May and June. That's a useful way to think about it because that's what it is, although another way to think of it might be as a weather system very slowly moving up the Eastern part of the United States, saturating those racetracks in bourbon-based drinks and overstated haberdashery, leaving discarded betting slips, brutal icepick-in-the-eye brown liquor hangovers, suspiciously stained seersucker and other happy damage in its wake.

When it touches down in Louisville, it is one thing -- massive and native, strenuously genteel in presentation and also heroically shitfaced, a big culminating party attended by people who care about horses and horse racing a whole lot. By the time the system reaches Baltimore, it is something else -- a horse race that happens to take place around a dystopian infield scene in which the Mid-Atlantic region's bros and bro-ettes get harrowingly, Hobbesian-ly drunk. Pimlico's grandees are still trying to figure out how to deal with this. In 2009, Pimlico reversed the longstanding BYO policy in the infield to curtail the booze-carnage; then in 2011, they introduced an infield mascot named Kegasus, a beer-bonging party centaur who was very excited about that year's bikini contest.


A year later they sent Kegasus to live on a nice farm upstate and continued the process of turning the infield into a sort-of-organized frat-related festival that happens to take place on the same day as one of the three most important horse races in the nation. Macklemore performed this year. Proud bros still honor Preakness tradition by running across the tops of the infield's row of porta-potties, but they no longer do so amid a fusillade of full beers whipped at them by the people watching.

Anyway, the system is a good deal sunnier by the time it reaches Belmont, which is just on the Long Island side of the border with Queens, a few miles from New York City and something like 800 miles from Churchill Downs, and in most every respect quite distant from either.

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There's a wild, wide stratification of experience at the racetrack on days like the Belmont Stakes. There are a great many more people there in general -- 47,562 officially, which is down significantly from last year, when there was the possibility of a Triple Crown winner, but still a lot of people. Reinforcements are called up from the Saratoga Springs racetrack and the community. A security guard I spoke to had left her home in Albany at three that morning for her one day of work at the track; a Clubhouse-level usher had worked at the Belmont Stakes on race day for each of the last five years. "I can't hold a steady job," he told me matter-of-factly. "I'm educated, but things just haven't worked out for me in that regard. But I like it out here. And you should see what it's like in the Turf and Field Club."

This was a secure space off the robustly air-conditioned Garden Terrace level, past the man playing the piano and the long, swank buffet highlighted by something like 25 consecutive yards of shrimp pinkly arrayed in crystal bowls. The Clubhouse level, one floor down, smelled like sauerkraut and mustard. The Grandstand level, below that, smelled like people. Jackets are required on the upper levels and vast feathered headwear is ubiquitous; shoes and shirts are required ("at all times") in the Grandstand. These people were all there to watch and bet on the same races, but they didn't necessarily talk about it in the same way.

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There is a whole underground discourse surrounding horse racing, all dense with lore and acronym; it smells like cigars, and it's probably best to imagine it speaking in the voice of Walter Matthau. In the press box at Belmont Park -- down a long hallway of water-damaged carpeting, with similarly water-damaged photos of horses hung haphazardly on corrugated steel walls, then down a steep staircase into a room that smelled powerfully of broccoli thanks to the steam table spread -- there are the usual stapled information packets and dicey wireless and a fully operational betting window, and also a one-page, double-sided newsletter entitled "Indian Charlie." At upper left is a sketch of a Native American -- feather, headband, the whole retrograde deal -- and the legend "We Never Let The Truth Get In The Way Of A Good Story." And below that there is an earnest tribute to the late New York Racing Association chief Kenny Noe Jr., and some cartoons and satirical stories that are utterly, impenetrably opaque -- densely packed jokes about trainers and various scandals and the NYRA's recent rule prohibiting its employees from betting on races. On the back are ads for those looking to buy or sell horses, and xpressbet.com and a company offering "Reliable Private Jet Charter Service At A Fraction Of What You Would Pay With NetJets."

If it's not exactly clear who Indian Charlie is for -- members of the press who also rent jets and own horses, I guess -- it's clear that it's not for most of the people who filled Belmont Park on Saturday for the 145th Belmont Stakes, including the shrimp-stuffed swells on the Garden Terrace level. Go back this Saturday for the Bed O' Roses Handicap, and you'll find that ticket prices have come down some -- a Clubhouse ticket for the Belmont Stakes is $120, which is $115 more than it will cost this Saturday -- and the crowd will be smaller. You will also likely find a bunch of people who can explain the jokes in Indian Charlie to you, at least when they aren't making very informed bets on the races. These are the people who can make sense of the pages of dense, runic numbers and abbreviations in the Daily Racing Program, and who understand and favor the exotic wagers that are the best way to win serious money at the track. Many of the people who were at the Belmont Stakes won't be there this Saturday, but these people will.

These people will always go to the racetrack; they were there for the Belmont Stakes, but maybe mostly because they're always there.

"Underground discourse" isn't the right term for this, maybe, because this is mostly just how racing talks to itself. It's just that horse racing's passionate core -- the rich people who buy and sell horses; the generally less-rich people who watch and bet on horses -- is so steeped in the sport's lore and lingo and politics that it speaks in a sort of dialect. The people in the grandstand with the racing forms and tickets speak the same language as the college kids in pastel pants splayed out in the racetrack's backyard drilling beers, but they speak it with an accent that comes with having been raised a certain way -- at various racetracks, with relatives, watching and learning. "I'm from a racetrack family," is how the writer David Hill put it to me.

These people will always go to the racetrack; they were there for the Belmont Stakes, but maybe mostly because they're always there. This is a good thing for a sport to have, but horse racing wants more than that -- it wants the college kids to come back to Belmont Park over and over. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is working on this. A diverse, attractive and well-scrubbed group of college-age brand ambassadors are lined up outside the America's Best Racing RV, doing ambassadorial things. There are guerilla marketing initiatives, a social media push, and aggressive press outreach (that I might as well mention included the NTRA giving me a Clubhouse ticket for the Stakes.) Horse racing wants very much to be cool, which is always sort of a poignant thing to want.

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A great number of the people who were there for The Belmont Stakes were there because they shared the contemporary twentysomething's love for themed binge-drinking activities, although it should be noted that the backyard had a notably good-natured and positive vibe, which is saying something given the 40-minute wait for a nine-dollar falafel, and the similar waits for similarly marked-up food and drink from the food trucks in the area.

A great many people waiting in line for beers were already holding beers; two dudes in internet-approved plastic horse masks, full-length green bodysuits and red capes were going around getting their pictures taken with various people for posting on the photo website The Chive. They were friendly and drunk and a little dull: their answers to my questions were basically my questions rephrased in reverse order and without question marks. All these people were having fun and I'd bet many will be back next year, although it was easy to imagine them having fun elsewhere, in different costumes, next weekend. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is doing all the right things to bring these kids back, at least per the conventional wisdom, but this is a tough thing to do.

Further into the backyard, though, there was something different happening, and reason to believe that horse racing -- a fun and fascinating thing caught in a lousy and mostly inaccurate media narrative of wheezing perpetual decline -- has a future beyond the success of its various social media initiatives. The Belmont Park playground, which was near but not too near the stage from which a cover band strained through Journey's "Separate Ways," was packed, bustling and alive with your basic happy playground squawks. Around it were parents of varying ages who had positioned themselves such that they could watch their children with one eye and screens displaying the action on the track with the other.

These were the racetrack families, then, and so these were the kids who were really likeliest to come back to the track, and to horse racing. It was sedate and shady back there; the families seemed happy and very much at home. This was a steadier and more stable sort of excitement than the one in the stands, although that was big and thrumming and great in its own right -- fans of various ages and races and outlooks and attire craning and cheering and high-fiving with the bright giddiness unique to people who have 1) had several/many drinks and 2) just unexpectedly made some money.

What was on the track and in the seats works: it is fast and loud and unique. This was not the case back by the playground, although that steadier and quieter thing seemed cool to me, too. Or maybe cool isn't the word. Cool moves, cool is difficult to catch and dies as it's being commodified. The word I'm looking for when it comes to the Belmont Park playground and those racetrack families and racetrack kids is "enduring." It's also a good word.

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