Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"I shouldn't be here": A Belmont Story. Part II

It took me a few hours to upload all of my shots back at the hotel, and to dry off from the morning rain and mud. Once I returned to Belmont, I put my press credentials to use for the first time during racing hours.
The last time I'd been to Belmont Park, I was seventeen or eighteen years old. It was the first time I'd ever stepped foot on a Thoroughbred racetrack, and when you could say I broke my maiden by watching my first live race. I distinctly remember the first time I took in the immensity of Belmont's 1 1/2-mile oval, which was nothing short of the same breathtaking awe one experiences upon seeing the Grand Canyon. This was the site of the most famous race in history, where the mighty Secretariat blew away his competition by a jaw-dropping 31 lengths to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. I envisioned his ghost jogging around the final turn, Chic Anderson's timeless words echoing in my head, "Secretariat is widening now, he is moving like a tremendous machine!"

I didn't get to see much but turf races that first day, but I was there long enough to get into trouble. Gawking at the paddock, nobody stopped me as I meandered up to the Secretariat statue and snapped away with my Canon automatic, and only when I began to walk through the tunnel next to the parading horses and got a dirty look from a groom did I realize I was probably not supposed to be there. I still can't believe nobody ever kicked me out.

I had very much the same feeling as I walked past the security and into the paddock with my press credentials, only this time, I had a renewed respect for it all. It amazes me how only five or six years can make you forget. Yes, I remembered the enormity of the track, but I had forgotten how gorgeous Belmont is. I see it on TV every year, but to be there, among the archways of ivy, and in the presence of the historic paddock, is to be transported to another time. It may be 2009, but it may as well have been 1969 (in 1968, the first grandstand was demolished and rebuilt into what stands today). Maybe I was too young to appreciate it all, or possibly it was too much to take in at once, but the sheer green of Belmont is overwhelming and even nurturing to the soul.

I took pictures inside the paddock of horses being saddled and taken down the tunnel to race, and for the first time, stepped into the winner's circle and into what I call "the gutter" to take a finish line photo. Honestly, I had no idea where I was going, or if what I was doing was against the rules. I pretty muched looked at what other people were doing and followed their lead. There weren't many photographers present on the Thursday before the Belmont Stakes, and not many people at the track, in general. It was still raining in a steady mist, just enough to make you soggy and annoyed (But really, it was hard to be in anything but bliss and awe in the position I was in--I hardly noticed how wet I really got). Standing in front of the fence separating the fans from the track was pretty amazing, even though it was just a maiden claiming race. It was like easing into a lifestyle you had in a former life, simple and practiced without having to think much about it.

After the race was over, and I'd gotten my feet wet both figuratively and literally, I decided to finally give Bill Nack a call. I had no idea what I was calling him for, exactly, but since he'd given me his cell phone number and had been so friendly, why not try to meet up with the living turf legend? Maybe I could at least offer to buy him a drink, now that we were finally in the same town.

He answered my call almost suspiciously at first, "Who is this?" and when I told him who I was, he actually chuckled! Maybe he didn't even know what he was going to do with me exactly, but he said he was working and I should call him back in an hour. I got some food in me in the meantime (ahh lovely reheated Sbarro pizza, how you save me), and after the hour was up, I called him and he said he'd meet me downstairs where I was, in the paddock.

That's pretty much when my trip shot off into the stratosphere of "what the hell is going on, and how did I get into this situation?"

Bill came down and greeted me like an old friend, and walked down into the heart of the paddock with me to check out the Secretariat statue. The statue had been involved in a freak accident only a week before when a horse got loose and somehow ran into it. Reportedly, only the base had been damaged, and Bill began inspecting it for any hints of trauma, as if checking over a precious Mercedes after an accident. The traditional blanket of carnations in honor of the Belmont Stakes was covering the base of the statue, so there was really no telling if any damage was visible. And then, almost comically, Bill asked if I'd take his picture in front of it. I'd been secretly trying to figure out how to take this shot without him realizing it all during his inspection, and gladly obliged.

I don't really remember what we chatted about during that time, I was and always am so humbled to be around him, I'm sure whatever I said was little more than small talk. I'm pretty much worthless in conversation with most people, I admit. I have no knack for sociability; I'm your patented mumbling writer/artist-type.

Anyhow, inexplicably, Bill decided I was worthy of a tour of his stomping grounds, and swept me up into the elevator marked "PRESS ONLY." He proceeded to take me up to the press box, which is located at the topmost part of the grandstand, where I was blown away by the posh view of the sprawling track. He then began introducing me to every other person in the room, from Dan Liebman, the editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine, to Tim Layden, the Sports Illustrated writer who penned the recent cover story of Mine That Bird's Kentucky Derby victory, "Did that really happen?" What made me really feel humbled is that he introduced me to Liebman as "An up-and-coming equine photographer" and had him give me his business card to submit my pictures to. While I didn't know the first thing to say to Liebman, except for "Thank you, I love your magazine" (LAME, I know), I found some sort of words to put together to gush to Layden over his article.

Bill showed me what he called his favorite thing in the press box, a complete collection of American Racing Manuals. Inside each is a complete racing record of all the noteworthy horses, Eclipse winners, you have it. I told him that's what I needed to answer The Blood-Horse's And They're Off! trivia question about Carry Back (which I guessed right, but didn't win the drawing of, thankyouverymuch). Bill is fascinated with statistics and numbers, a regular fiend of trivia. Go figure, if you've read his Bible on Secretariat, that's a given.

I asked him when would be a good time to cross the track to see Ruffian's grave in the infield, and he directed me to go before the races started tomorrow. I could tell he respected the fact I wanted to see it up close, but this day, he didn't seem like he wanted to revisit her story much. He did reveal to me the press box was where he watched Secretariat's Belmont, and how after the race was over, he was running down the stairs, shouting to one of Big Red's naysayers, "I told you he could go over a mile and a quarter!" What a view that must've been of those long 31-lengths; the best view in the house, really.

We were up in the press box for hours, watching races proceed beneath us and talking, among other things, about the historical fiction Civil War book he wanted to write, Barack Obama's mark on Washington D.C., and how he wished the person who instigated torture to P.O.W's would be revealed. This is the sort of conversation that crops up once you run out of horse racing anecdotes. Bill Nack has a lot of convictions about politics, and a good head on his shoulders when speaking about it. He also admitted he was often yelled at by his wife for throwing things at the TV, like when Bush and Co. said they probably made a mistake for invading Iraq.

On our way out of the press box, Bill introduced me to Jenny Kellner, an award-winning journalist and media specialist for NYRA. Though they never said how many years they've been friends, it's clear Bill and Jenny are very close. Bill said if we're not busy, we should join them for drinks at Waterzooi, a restaurant famous for mussels. How could I refuse?

After a hug and a kiss from Bill, I left Belmont Park that day feeling like I'd walked into some strange alien body, and it was all a dream. It was about to get a lot more surreal that night, when "some people getting together" ended up being an intimate dinner with Bill, Jenny, her husband, my husband, and I, sharing mussels, mozzerella, and a mousse over talk about the business, Cormac McCarthy, the AP, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hunter S. Thompson.

The highlight of the night was Bill's precise recitation of the last page of The Great Gatsby while we sat around the half moon-shaped table and ogled in reverie. You see moments like this in the movies and say to yourself, "Nobody does that. That never happens in real life." By God, it does when you're surrounded by award-winning authors who knew legends of literature. Hunter S. Thompson actually typed out Gatsby's novel to learn how to form beautiful sentences. Bill told us a story about Hunter's sense of humor, how he found ridiculousness, black comedy in moments that were supposed to be serious and foundation-shaking; he also told us about the mounds of drugs he would take and barely seem affected by them. Of course, Hunter opperated on drugs, so it's possible nobody ever knew what he was like when he was off them.

I found out that Jenny was the person who was looking to buy my picture of Curlin I took in last year's Stephen Foster. Strange how things come full circle. At the time, I had been credentialed by nobody and had no idea what to tell the intern who asked me how much I wanted for the photo to run in an ad in the Daily Racing Form. In desperation, I had contacted Charles Pravata, a photographer I have deep respect for I knew through Flickr. He told me he would charge no less than $200 for three-day usage in print, so that's what I asked for. Obviously, that price was too high for NYRA. Jenny said their going rate for one photo is $100. Damn. The sad thing is, I'd told the intern I'd negotiate, but being an intern, the kid obviously didn't know what that meant and the deal never happened. Jenny and Bill exchanged a glance at this. In this moment, I suddenly felt like in a way, I belonged.

The night ended late for me, who was barely getting by on my measely four hours sleep, but I could've stayed for hours more with that great conversation. I discovered Bill likes wine, and one of his rules for drinking is to never drink alone, or while he's working. He was disapproving of my un-alcoholic beverage that night, but he was gentlemanly about it and didn't pressure me about it. They gave me a second chance to redeem my faux pas the next night: Jenny invited us to the press party on Belmont eve.

I found myself once more asking myself the phrase that would become the mantra of the trip, "How did I get here?"

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