As usual, a good chunk of the Saturday race population at Belmont Park on June 8, 2013, consisted of longtime racing enthusiasts, each toting a Daily Racing Form. On this day, though, many more were new to the racing game, folks who trekked out on a warm afternoon to see the Belmont Stakes be run.
My longtime friend and fellow racing enthusiast, Liz Young, and I were in the former category. She’d picked Orb for the Kentucky Derby and was eager to see the Belmont unfold. She ended up choosing the handsome gray colt Incognito. Me? I’d yet to pick a horse for the big race by the time we arrived, but my eventual choices, Freedom Child and Overanalyze, finished up the track.
To my surprise, there was a seemingly unending supply of twenty-somethings crowded on our train from Penn Station to Belmont. Why were all of these people, likely newbies to racing, heading out to Long Island?
I found myself a bit put off by many attendees’ elegant attire. I hadn't known that fancy dress was recommended, so I came in a three-quarter sleeve T-shirt (which I later exchanged for a simple tee), jeans, and sneakers, figuring that, if I was going to be on my feet all day, I might as well be comfortable. To my surprise, though, the Derby dress rules applied to nearly every other twenty-something I saw at the track. Fascinators and tall hats bedecked many a perfectly coiffed head, while sky-high heels--impractical for crowding around the paddock or climbing staircases to the grandstand, I thought--were scattered throughout the crowd.
Did the races always call for young people to dress to the nines? Not necessarily. I blended in, without even trying, as an average racegoer. Were they hoping to find a race that captured the glamor of the Triple Crown? If so, it’s sad to say that they missed out on that event after the first Saturday in May. Were they there with family to celebrate, or was their trip simply for the beautiful weather and time with friends? I attempted to track down my peers in an attempt to hear their opinions on the race, on Belmont fashion, and the Sport of Kings.
I found John McHale, 18, at a picnic table in the backyard of Belmont Park, sitting with his friends and family. He hails from Rockaway in New York. A longtime racegoer, he was at his first Belmont Stakes, though he visited Belmont Park often since age two. He had chosen Midnight Taboo to win the race.
Alexandra Dumite, 22, was kind enough to chat with me while we were waiting in line together. We exchanged stories about being relatively recent college graduates and trying to find apartment housing in New York. Just last month, Dumite graduated from the University of Richmond. A Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native, she is currently interviewing for jobs in entertainment production. Dumite was at the Belmont with her boyfriend and his family—his uncle is particularly into racing. When I spoke to her at 3 PM, she didn't yet have a Belmont pick. Though she has attended the Preakness before, she was at her third Belmont Stakes. Dumite found the event to have a good mix of people—rich and regular, paupers and the pampered.
As I made my way through the backyard in the afternoon, young people stretched out on blankets, snacked from picnic baskets, and rooted their picks on while watching the races on TV screens. They swarmed around food trucks, gathered in front of the ESPN truck for a sports trivia contest, and queued for overpriced lemonade. They were everywhere--which boded well for racing. In an era in which lesser-known sports have trouble gathering new fans, I was happy to see people my age at the track. They might have been blocking my view of the stretch or blowing what sounded like vuvuzelas far too loudly on the train, but it’s good that they were there. Racing needs new blood.
I found myself drawn to one group of friends clustered on the backstretch. Its members, mostly men, wore creative, horse-shaped balloon hats. A dapper Blake Jones, 22, impressed with his festive attire, looking like a ’20s businessman from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Marcus Klemmer, 24, wasn’t in it all for the race: he confessed that the two biggest draws for him were horses and food trucks, in that order. When asked what he found most appealing about the event, Adam Weinrib, 22, observed, “It’s the event. It’s the camaraderie.”
Everyone had their own pick for the big race later in the afternoon. Klemmer favored Orb for the Belmont for sentimental reasons. When he was a member of the Syracuse University lacrosse team, Klemmer’s nickname was “Orb” because of the way he ran. Weinrib didn’t have a specific horse he wanted to win—he just favored any runner but Goldencents, as he wasn't a fan of the horse’s part owner, Rick Pitino, the men’s basketball coach for the University of Louisville. It’s good, then, that Goldencents wasn't entered in the race.
As always, it appears that no single person came to the race for the same reason. Admittedly, I only spoke to a portion of the population at Belmont that day, but everyone experienced the Belmont differently. Some came with a group, while others ventured alone. Some came dressed to the nines, ready for their glamor shots, while some--like yours truly--looked like they were headed to the gym. Some came for the horses, some came for the food, and some came for the company. As Joe Palmer would say, This Was Racing.