Monday, June 9, 2014

Thrilling Race. Deplorable Hospitality

by Carly Silver

            “TRIPLE CHROME!” proclaimed purple-and-green signs strewn across the grass. The green strands had long since been tramped down by coolers, 100,000 pairs of feet, and canvas chairs. Heineken cans lay on the ground, tossed carelessly a yard short of the nearest garbage can, alongside crumpled betting tickets, discarded in post-race rages. No one bothered to discard the refuse, so focused were they on the “Big Race” at Belmont Park that humid Saturday.
            June 7, 2014 saw the 146th Belmont Stakes. That evening, California Chrome would seek racing immortality as the twelfth Triple Crown winner. He ultimately failed, falling short to Tonalist and two others in the Test of the Champion. But, for this racegoer, the thrilling race was far overshadowed by the deplorable hospitality on race day.
            The day itself dawned bright and hot. Perfect conditions for a great race, I figured as I navigated my way through a Long Island Railroad (LIRR) train. The train itself was packed beyond belief, primarily with racegoers who wanted to see history made. Decked out for the day in jaunty attire, including sundresses, fascinators, suspenders, suits and button-down shirts, bowties, and Great Gatsby-style straw hats, these newbies raised an earsplitting ruckus wherever they went. Unfortunately for me, that was pretty much everywhere at the track.

          Now, I am in full support of bringing new fans into our sport. The more, the merrier! And I will readily admit that NYRA and Belmont Park had nothing to do with the kinds of folks who attended the race. I don’t mind that the new fans didn’t know much about the sport. Even the ridiculously long lines at the betting booths barely fazed me.

What did make an impression, however, was the rudeness these individuals often exhibited. They bellowed so loudly to each other that I could barely hear myself think, chugged beers and didn’t bother to properly throw out their own trash, and giddily sprawled all over the limited green space available to all. They lit cigars in primarily non-smoking areas and were some of the instigators behind the near-riot that resulted after the race. While their poor behavior isn’t NYRA’s fault, the organization should be held accountable for not policing their actions. If you smoke in the non-smoking section, you should be asked to leave that section. Period. It’s not fair to those who dislike having smoke blown in their faces to be forced to endure puffs of cancer-causing substances floating around their heads. Similarly, is it that hard to throw your cans in the trash? NYRA didn’t have enough trash cans, sure. Even as we walked into the track, garbage was overflowing. They should have had more disposals, yes, but is it their fault that people just dropped their garbage on the ground like slobs? No.

It is safe to say NYRA was woefully unprepared, especially for the crowd that resulted. It’s no excuse that more people came out to the race than the organization might have expected. In fact, thousands more attended ten years ago to witness Smarty Jones’s near-Triple Crown than came out in 2014. Meanwhile, the only food available was terribly overpriced - $5 for a soft pretzel? $5 for cold water on a hot day? Not even the vendors of New York City would dare to charge such an exorbitant amount.  If you wanted gluten-free or healthy food, you were out of luck. I was lucky I didn’t get separated from the person I was attending with. The promised wireless and cell phone service at Belmont barely functioned. If we had gotten caught up into the crowd or lost, there’s no way we would have been able to find each other again.

When we entered the clubhouse, trash overflowed from the too-few garbage cans like a rancid waterfall. Mysterious liquids—Bbeer? Urine? Who knows?—cascaded down the clubhouse’s floor, pooling around benches crowded with programs placed in futile attempts to “save a seat.” Fans were stuffed into the track apron as tightly as an overweight jockey in his silks. Sweet sunshine poured down from the heavens on the lucky few who garnered positions near the rail meanwhile, the unlucky many who needed to use the bathrooms waited on lines nearly as long as the Belmont’s mile-and-a-half distance.

When the time came for the Belmont itself, a great sound thundered from outside, near the rail. My friend and I had positioned ourselves in the best possible spot we could find to view the race--that being a smudged window in front of the apron, crowded by children. We did our best to hoist ourselves up onto the skinny windowsills to see the track, but that required us to hang on to the window pane for dear life. We clung to the panes and gazed out at the tops of heads.

Was this a Belmont for the ages? I have no idea, since I couldn’t see the actual race. I got a glimpse or two of bay bodies thundering down the stretch near the wire, but I couldn’t see or hear anything else. There were no TVs in the clubhouse for those who couldn’t see the track. After it was announced that Tonalist came in first, my friend and I sighed. Our Chrome had been denied the crown, but at least we could head on home. Or so we thought.

We headed to the exit, where a massive crowd milled. We were shoved about into a mosh pit dozens deep as the NYPD tried valiantly to create order on the way to the LIRR, which we only later found out broke down. Where were the extra (and reliable) trains the MTRA promised? Where were the necessary additional security officers NYRA should have hired, in anticipation of many visitors wanting to see a popular horse try for the Triple Crown? Nowhere to be found. I asked one NYPD officer what had happened, and he claimed NYRA had failed to hire enough people to keep order.

Eventually, since the only means of public transportation remotely close by had shut down, the racegoers nearly began to riot. They hollered insults at the police officers and those that did get on the first train, decided to light cigarettes in a packed crowd (dangerously passing a lit cigarette right over my head), and chanted an incessant “Let’s Go, Rangers!” It got to the point that we were being jostled around, yelled at, and sweated on to such a degree that we turned around and left the park entirely. No one, outside of the few people visibly trying to rectify the people, seemed to care that many of the 100,000 patrons of a racetrack were receiving abominable treatment; either.

We assumed it would be possible to get a town car back to Manhattan, since the LIRR wasn’t working. Again, we were wrong. Every local car service was completely booked, so people milled in gas stations, packed themselves into a Wendy’s, and tried to hail any cab within sight. Eventually, by ducking into a closing laundromat to charge our phones, my friend and I managed to call a New York cab service that sent a car from Manhattan to Elmont, just to take us back to the city. If we hadn’t been able to get that cab, we might have been waiting outside closed stores, sitting on the street, for hours more.

As we sweated out the wait for the car, it was already 10:15 PM. We’d been on our feet for ten hours and had undergone a singularly unpleasant experience at a track we loved. I can only imagine what casual racing fans might say about their time at Belmont. I was answered by the comments of someone I met waiting in line for a bus to Queens (which was, of course, packed and unable to take more passengers): “We’re never coming back.”

NYRA did a great job of attracting racegoers, but a terrible job of making their experience enjoyable. Why was hospitality not the number one concern for race day? Why were such inadequate arrangements made? Thanks to the 146th Belmont, NYRA has probably lost thousands of revenue sources and fans. I myself am extremely disappointed in the New York Racing Association. As a lifelong proponent of the local racing circuit, I feel ignored by the group I so avidly support. Where were the most basic of safety concerns and customer service? Nowhere to be found.

Looking forward, there will be a Belmont 147 next year. Will I be back? I don’t know. NYRA, you’d better step your game up. Big time.

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