ELMONT — You shouldn’t be able to hear the sound of your own footsteps.
Trainer Todd Pletcher sat in an owner’s box seat by himself, not a wrinkle on his gray suit. He aimed binoculars at his filly Sweet Melania as she ho-hummed her way to a flawless win in the Grade III Wonder Again stakes race at Belmont Park on Saturday, Belmont Stakes Day.
A TV camera guy and a producer crouched at his side, their backs to the action, and aimed their lens at Pletcher, watching him watch, searching for reaction.
As the filly crossed the finish line, the only sound was the pop of a riding crop, then the quiet scrape of Pletcher’s shoes as he stoically walked to the winner’s circle. Barn swallows went about their day, chirping and swooping through the rafters.
It was the Twilight Zone, or a Star Trek episode in which the landing party is transported to the surface of a planet and a bustling city, only to find it deserted.
This couldn’t possibly be Belmont Park, on Belmont Stakes Day.
But it was.
There’s spectacle to big-time sporting events, but in the time of COVID-19, the grand Belmont can have all the trappings of a claiming race at a low-level track that barely bothers to staff a couple beer taps.
I’ve covered this race many times, when 100,000 showed up for Funny Cide in 2003, when 90,000 suffered but endured 90 degrees and no running water for Big Brown in 2008 … Saturday was one of the strangest assignments ever, and a reflection of how different everything is now, as we account for and accommodate for the coronavirus in the interest of public health and safety.
So when the New York-bred Tiz the Law crossed the finish line to win the 152nd Belmont Stakes, his dozens of owners were back in Saratoga Springs, celebrating at Pennell’s restaurant, while one joyful whoop from a groom was all that broke the quiet at the track.
Following state guidelines, the New York Racing Association kept the doors closed to spectators, including owners, so about 200 employees, trainers, barn workers and media milled about the apron and winner’s circle of a track that has total seating (including picnic tables and benches) of 32,941, for a race that was first run in 1867 and has produced 13 Triple Crown winners.
In the case of the Belmont, even when there’s no Triple Crown on the line, the tens of thousands who have jammed the grounds all day gradually find an extra gear as the main event approaches, then another gear as the horses walk onto the track for the post parade, then another as the gates open.
The sound that rolls down that immense grandstand as the Belmont field approaches the wire is one of the cool experiences of my job.
Belmont Day 2020 was utterly devoid of that, a vacuum of pageant.
Miles and miles of hollow-eyed mutuel bays, with no one to take bets because there was no one to make bets.
The sweet, smoky smell of grilled sausage and spilled beer were replaced by a faint whiff of hand sanitizer.
The horses played their part, offering visually stunning performances, like Gamine striding out in near-track record time to win the Acorn.
Tiz the Law commanded attention by how authoritatively he put away his rivals.
In the saddle, jockey Manny Franco grabbed petals from the blanket of carnations and flung them in the air, and when a photographer asked him to do it again for the cameras, you shouldn’t be able to hear him say it.
We knew we had reached peak Bizarro World when Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement congratulating Tiz the Law: “Congrats to New York’s own Tiz the Law and Jockey Manuel Franco on winning the Belmont Stakes — the first New York-bred horse to win Belmont since 1882! Tiz the Law ran for all of us and won, embodying what it means to be New York Tough. It was a different Belmont this year but thanks to all for making this iconic racing event happen.”
Let’s just say that Cuomo’s interest in the sport has been crystal clear in its … disinterest. He was social distancing from horse racing long before social distancing was even a thing.
When I mentioned the statement to one of the other writers in the press box, he laughed and said, “And he’s looking forward to Tiz the Law’s next race at Watkins Glen.”
So Belmont Park was a ghost town on Saturday.
The ghosts here have names like Secretariat, Woody Stephens, Seattle Slew, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Citation, Sir Barton … Ruffian.
There’s a skeleton here now, too, and it has a name, unofficially “Belmont Park Arena,” that will get a shiny, new, expensive official name, once construction of the New York Islanders’ $1.3 billion palace, which is taking up half the track’s backyard, is completed.
The huge, hulking reddish iron frame jumps right in your face as you complete the circle exit off the Cross Island Parkway onto Hempstead Turnpike.
So in a sign of the times, I went to the Belmont Stakes, and a hockey rink broke out.
Leave it to Tiz the Law’s no-nonsense 82-year-old trainer Barclay Tagg to sum things up.
Somebody asked him if he had ever experienced a Belmont Saturday like this before.
He chuckled and said, “Today wasn’t like any other Saturday at the track that I’ve ever been to,” emphasis on “any.”