Photos by Mike de Leon
At a distance of a mile and a half, the Belmont is the most grueling of the three Triple Crown races. This race has brought glory and tragedy to men and horses alike for the last 144 years, even as fewer and fewer people care about the glory and tragedy. Back in the heyday of the Sport of Kings, no one was concerned that the jockeys were bulimic drunks, the horses were on steroids and routinely euthanized if they got injured, or that the tracks were run by corrupt state officials who stole money like crazy. Now that stuff is generally looked down upon, and people like me, who actually care about racing, are fringe characters like model-train enthusiasts or jazz record collectors. But I can’t help it—watching 115-pound athletes thundering down the stretch aboard 1200-pound organic running machines, with the outcome potentially turning poor men into rich men (or slightly poorer men)—is one of the greatest thrills on Earth.
So on Friday, the day before the 144th Belmont Stakes, when my phone, email, and instant messenger exploded all at once to tell me I’ll Have Another, the horse who had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, had been scratched from the Belmont, I took it personal. “FUCK!” I yelled as I slammed my fist against my desk. But it didn’t matter—I had already finagled my way into a press pass for the race. So I gathered my things and made my way down to Belmont Park to get my credentials for the next day, console my sorrows with whiskey, and lose $20 on the Brooklyn Handicap. The mood at the track was dismal. It was hard to tell if this was from the news that I’ll Have Another had had his last, or if it was just another day at the track. There’s a big gap between the have and the have-nots in racing. The haves are the horse owners, who will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a hobby and luck their way into more millions. The have-nots are the degenerate gamblers who blow their social security checks on a 6-horse superfecta box. On the day before the big race, Belmont was overrun with the latter.
Saturday, race day, was another story. By the time I arrived, at 9 AM, throngs of spectators were already pouring in to the grandstand area on a mission to lock down the perfect spot. This crowd was different from the sad old men I witnessed here the day before: Long Island trophy wives in floppy hats and sun dresses, bro-dogs in matching pink shirts and bowties sporting suit shorts. During the first race, you could already tell that the track was coming alive as it only does once a year.
The seventh race of the day was marred by a catastrophic breakdown. Giant Ryan, a six-year-old champion sprinter, was battling for the lead when he broke his left front ankle and tumbled to ground in front of the 85,000 spectators. The horse stood back up immediately, but was unable to support himself with his damaged leg. Track officials brought out the infamous “tarp” to shield the ugly scene from view of the crowd. Anyone who knows racing is aware of what the tarp means. I turned to my photographer and told him if the injury was bad enough they’d euthanize the horse right on the track—one-day-a-year crowds or no. To the relief of everyone, Giant Ryan was able make his way on to the equine ambulance and driven off the track. He was sent to the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for Surgery in an effort to save the his life.
Giant Ryan’s jockey (in red and yellow) attempts to pull up the horse seconds after his ankle breaks. A moment later, the horse would collapse.
(A sidenote in defense of horse racing: Most people think that racehorses are killed when they break legs because they are now “worthless.” This is simply untrue. When a horse has a bad leg, they will compensate with the opposite leg to support themselves and eventually the good legs turn foul. When a horse can no longer stand, it will get pneumonia and die miserably over a period of a few weeks. If the bone pierces the skin on the track, this almost always ends in an incurable infection that will turn the blood septic, killing the horse. Euthanasia is often the only humane response. And no, they don’t shoot horses—it’s a lethal injection, not all that different from what human death row inmates receive.)
There was a band playing in the paddock area that clearly catered to the crowd’s douchier impulses; this guy was the lead singer.
After an hour (and who knows how many drinks), the crowd had pretty much shaken off the grim sight of the tarp and the horses who would be running in the main event, the Belmont Stakes, made their way out of the paddock tunnel while the audience sang Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” (This is a tradition, so it’s not weird.) I secured my spot in the photo trench directly on the finish line. The gates swung open to the roar of the crowd. Jockey Mike Smith sent Paynter to the lead, as he did in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness only to get passed in the stretch both times. Street Life, my favorite horse—of course I have a favorite horse, don’t you?—was trailing the field in dead last. Union Rags stalked the pace in fourth position. As the horses turned for home, It looked as if Mike Smith and Paynter could go gate to wire when a fearless John Velazquez, aboard Union Rags, made a bold move on the rail, putting his neck out in front to win the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes.
John Velazquez aboard Union Rags being led into the winner’s circle.
That would be it, except this is 2012, so there had to be a protest. As Union Rags was brought into the winner’s circle and his owners and friends crowded in, a woman camouflaged in her best floppy hat brandished a sign that read “Ban Horse Dopers-PETA” in front of the TV cameras. Immediately everyone lost their shit—a patron ripped the sign from her hand as police grabbed her and rushed her out. And just like that, you guys can go back to ignoring horse racing for another year. If you need me, I’ll be at Bloodhorse.com