Belmont Unplugged: Without Fans, The Essence Of The Sport Was Absent

I am proud to say I have covered every Belmont Stakes since 1998.

I watched in awe as American Pharoah emphatically ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought and the roar of a Belmont Park crowd capped at 90,000 all but carried him to a gate-to-wire 5 ½-length triumph in 2015.

I watched in dismay as Birdstone ran down wildly popular 2004 Triple Crown threat Smarty Jones and a record throng of 120,139 spectators at Belmont Park instantly fell silent, realizing there would be no Smarty party. Triumphant owner Marylou Whitney was so disturbed by the outcome that she apologized to Roy and Pat Chapman, who bred and owned Smarty.

I watched in disbelief as Big Brown not only was unable to finish the historic sweep in 2008 but did not finish at all. He was inexplicably pulled up by jockey Kent Desormeaux in upper stretch.

In my fifth decade as a sportswriter, never have I covered anything remotely similar to the 152nd Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y., on Saturday. And I never hope to again.

The first major sports event in New York since the Big East men’s basketball tournament was halted on March 12 without reaching the championship game merely served as a grim reminder of the tension and anxiety this and every other New Yorker has experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even as business slowly resumes in a state that became the epicenter for the virus, with 387,272 confirmed cases and 24,686 deaths, I found everything surrounding the oddity of the Belmont being run as a one-turn mile-and-an-eighth opening leg of the Triple Crown as discomforting.

Start with the signage.

“Germs are all around you. Stay healthy. Wash your hands.”

Hand sanitizing station in an empty box seat area for owners and trainers

And another: “Face mask required at all times.”

Then there was the relative silence. When Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” blared over the loudspeaker system, not one voice rose in salute.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” track announcer John Imbriale began, “here is the field for the 10th race.”

Ladies and gentlemen? Exactly who was he addressing? Few hard-boot racetrackers would identify with that. Other onlookers involved photographers, reporters and security guards. Even owners of the starters in the 10-horse field were denied the opportunity to attend, hardly sensible since the vastness of Belmont Park would have allowed them to be spaced 600 feet apart, never mind the recommended six feet for social distancing.

There was not a peep when the starting gate sprang open and Tap It to Win shot to an early lead. There was no wall of sound when Tiz the Law, the only Grade 1 winner in a lackluster field hardly befitting a Triple Crown race, spun out of the turn for home and wrested command.

There was a smattering of applause when jockey Manny Franco approached the winner’s circle with the popular New York-bred that is owned by Sackatoga Stable, a partnership based in upstate New York that also sent out 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. The clicking of cameras was heard when Franco reached into the traditional blanket of carnations and threw petals into the air in the finest moment of his career.

Perhaps only winning trainer Barclay Tagg was comfortable with the setting. He said of racing without spectators: “Actually, it was very nice. I’m not trying to be a jerk about it, but I thought the quietude was very nice.”

Tagg has not changed since he conditioned Funny Cide. He much prefers to be out of the spotlight. There is reason to believe he prefers the company of his horses to most human beings. And they might indeed pose less of a health threat these days.

Steve Asmussen, whose Pneumatic took fourth while impossible longshot Jungle Runner ran last, described the New York atmosphere as “surprising.”

“There ain’t a deli open anywhere,” Asmussen said.

Small-business owners are fighting for survival in a city that paid a steep price for population density, a mass transit system allowed to remain filthy throughout the early stages of the pandemic and controversial decisions by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that included ordering nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients, a directive later reversed.

When asked if the Belmont Stakes felt like the Belmont Stakes, Asmussen responded: “It felt like this year’s Belmont Stakes. This year since March 1 is unprecedented. Everything is kind of surprising, if it happens at all. I’m very thankful to the New York Racing Association and the state for putting it on at all. Tiz the Law deserves the opportunity, and he wouldn’t get it next year. He’s only 3 now. I think that’s how important it is.”

In contemplating the signs and the silence, it was impossible not to reflect on the electricity that surrounded American Pharoah’s coronation in a mile-and-a-half Belmont that lived up to its moniker that year as the “Test of the Champion.”

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, to protect Pharoah from the deafening noise he rightly anticipated,  had stuffed the youngster’s ears with cotton. Good thing he did. When jockey Victor Espinoza tapped his hard-charging mount twice right-handed, the colt stormed home. A two-length margin turned to three. Then four. Then five.

Fans leapt into the air in jubilation with every stride. Cellphones rose as one to capture the historic finish. “And here it is, the 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” announcer Larry Collmus exclaimed.

That is the essence of racing. That is the essence of sports. As a Belmont Stakes like no other reminded us, the fan in the stands means everything.

Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America’s Best Racing and other publications.

The post Belmont Unplugged: Without Fans, The Essence Of The Sport Was Absent appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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