Wednesday, June 17, 2009

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

The last two races on Friday were the Hill Prince Stakes and the Brooklyn Handicap, both graded races, where the former of the two was downgraded in status after being taken off the turf. I was looking forward to seeing Affirmatif live up to his hype, but I wasn't sure how well he would perform on not only a dirt track for the first time, but in the river of slop the Big Sandy had become by post time. All during the post parade and the race, rain pelted down and can be seen in my photos like some sort of hovering translucent snow. It made for some great photographs, don't get me wrong, but it was not a fun condition to shoot in.

Unfortunately for Affirmatif, he was destined for second place, putting in a good effort against a colt that had run previously on the dirt and had been targeted toward his first turf start. Maybe his connections better rethink their gameplan. Here's my photo of Despite The Odds roaring down the sloppy track of Belmont with the sparse grandstands in the background. I found it depressing so few people were at the track on Belmont Eve. It's nothing like Churchill Downs the entire week of the Kentucky Derby. And I'm not blaming it on the rain. It's possible fewer people were in town because there was no Triple Crown on the line, but I'd be willing to bet Derby week is just some other kind of animal you don't see anywhere else. (All the more reason, I keep telling myself, why I should just move to Louisville...)

The Brooklyn Handicap also produced an upset, in a horse that beat only one other in his last time out: Eldaafer. This is what happens in the slop sometimes; the additional distance of 1 1/2-miles probably contributed to this wild card factor, too. I was hoping to see Fierce Wind make a comeback, after showing promise as a three-year-old and having been laid off for ten months after the Florida Derby, but he hadn't won since March of this year and didn't show up again here at Belmont. The horse I actually thought might win was Barrier Reef, but he was scratched before the race. Unless I'm paying attention to the post parade, sometimes I don't notice a horse never made it into the race until it's all over and done with. You kind of lose track of things when you're shuttling behind the scenes.

Anyway, the excitement of the connections was contagious in the winner's circle. You can't help but get carried away by other people's enthusiasm when their horse wins a big stakes race like this. My favorite shot of the day came when one of the connections of Eldaafer, a lady who might've been an owner, grabbed jockey Jorge Chavez and kissed him on the cheek. Someone stepped right in my line of vision for the kiss, but the shot I got afterwards turned out pretty comical, like she was some over-exuberant aunt grabbing her nephew's face for a big smooch. All in all, it was a productive day at the races for me.

While I was off getting muddy and wet, with water soaking my jeans almost up to my knees (I wish I was exaggerating), my husband ventured up in the press elevator to pick up a couple of press party invitations Jenny was saving for us. He came back with the news that although the party invites said to dress "casual," he asked Jenny what would be appropriate to wear and she had replied, "Don't dress up or anything. Just don't wear jeans."

Hmm... I don't know what "casual" means in most circles, but jeans definitely is my idea of casual. And since we had not packed our bags to New York with the knowledge we'd be attending any sort of soiree, we decided a quick trip to the mall was in order to look appropriate. In record time, we dropped off our muddy clothes at the hotel, then found the mall (thanks to our Internet access on our BlackBerries), zoomed inside, tried on clothes, and walked out in spanking-new outfits suitable for "casual" fare.

The party was at the posh Garden City Hotel, probably the fanciest hotel in the area, in the trendy Ultra Lounge. We walked in looking like we actually belonged, for once, and didn't immediately recognize a soul. That ended up being just fine, because I was starving, and they had a spread fit for a king while I looked around for Bill or Jenny.

Did I mention I like party food? There was bruschetta, and toppings galore to stack your own hord'vors, and all kinds of meat, dips, fruit, and unidentifiable nibblings that tasted amazing. They also had this cheesy macaroni that was out of this world, plus lamb and roast beef. And there was an open bar. Since I had been delicately chastized for not drinking the night before in Bill's presence, I decided I'd better attempt to drink something. I decided to try an Old Fashioned, in honor of one my favorite three-year-olds of that year. Turns out, I prefer watching the horse to tasting the drink. Bourbon is definitely not for me. To save me from holding a drink I wouldn't touch the rest of the night, my husband went to the bar and asked for a "girly drink with little alcohol," and was presented with a coconut rum fruity concoction that was almost as good as the Lillies on Oaks day. At least I made the attempt.

One of the first people we recognized at the party was Mine That Bird's trainer, Chip Wooley. We were immediately crying "unfair," because he was dressed almost exactly as he does on race day, with a black cowboy hat, jeans, and a jacket. I guess his idea of casual is the same as ours. He looked as if he was having the time of his life, grinning from ear to ear, just seeming on top of the world. People were coming up to him and congratulating him left and right, and so we did the same. He was so friendly. Bob talked to him a little bit about New Mexico, and I hovered on the fringe of the conversation, though I couldn't hear most of it. They had a live singer (who thought he was Billy Joel) and very loud music blasting in the room, which made conversation pretty difficult.

We also saw D. Wayne Lukas at the party, as well as jockey Stewart Elliott (from Smarty Jones fame), who was sporting a white motorcycle jacket that was driving a harem of girls wild. Being the socially awkward artist that I am, I let Bob do most of the talking while I took everything in and stuffed my face with party food.

We finally found Bill Nack and Jenny about a half hour into the party. When I showed Bill my drink, he actually hugged me. Chalk it up as my good deed for the day. A lot of small talk and mingling ensued, as well as an incident where the chef serving the lamb gave Bill a dirty look for dipping his slice of meat into the gravy (in his defense, he hadn't bitten into it prior to the dipping); we also spent a good amount of time talking with a writer for the Daily Racing Form, and spying on the writer of the Indian Charlie rag. In the background, a widescreen TV played each Belmont Stakes ever recorded in history over the screen, from start to finish. When the conversations started to die down, I wished I could've heard the racing calls. Races just aren't the same without racing calls.

Overall, the night was definitely exciting, but I'm more into the intimate nights out where you can actually hear the person next to you talking. It was just another experience I never thought I'd have, crashing a press party with a slew of big-name trainers, owners, jockeys, and press. Just another moment of this crazy Belmont week where I kept feeling someone was going to turn to me and say, "Wait a minute, you don't belong here." It was strange; in a way, I felt like I didn't belong there, but in a very real way, it felt like I was around my people, that I had, in fact, become one of them.

The older I get, the more narrow my focus becomes on where I belong in this world. Something about the world of Thoroughbred racing is very familiar to me, a place where I can feel at home, no matter how extraordinary the circumstances. I didn't grow up around horses in the flesh, or even attend my first race until I was in the twilight years of my teens, but racing is something you don't have to experience in person for it to get under your skin. It's about appreciating that common love, and I've found that people from all ranks are grateful to you for being a part of it all, whether it's a horse owner, a bettor, or another photographer. It's one of the unsaid wonderful things about this sport, that love and camaraderie.

No comments:

Post a Comment