ELMONT — Remember loud?
I think a pack mule ridden by a parakeet could’ve won the 153rd Belmont Stakes on Saturday, and the crowd would still have trumpeted its arrival at the finish line the way they did, not quite conjuring the stretch duel between the filly Rags to Riches and Curlin in 2007 or the Triple Crowns for American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018, but still … loud.
There was the 2020 Eclipse Award champ, Essential Quality, throwing down with the popular people’s horse, Hot Rod Charlie, through the stretch, and that’s just what you hope for in a big race like this.
This Belmont was as much about who wasn’t at Belmont Park as who was there, and by the standards of this track and this event, the announced paid admission of 11,238 was meager pickings compared to what they’re used to, even when a Triple Crown isn’t on the line and ticket demand is less fervent.
Tens of thousands of people who otherwise would have been there weren’t, as much by design and circumstance as anything else.
Ticketing was limited by COVID-19 public venue regulations and protocols that remained in flux even as the New York Racing Association was putting together its attendance and admission plan in the months leading up to the biggest racing day on the New York calendar.
On the other side of that, I know of at least one group of friends who traditionally meet up for Belmont Day, but took a pass when they saw the prices. Reserved seats started at $225 and some of the “premium hospitality” prices were well over $500 a pop.
But in the latest in a string of “firsts” as we continue to emerge from the pandemic, this was my first event with a crowd total in five digits, and it was a welcome one.
It started when I went down to the apron to watch Search Results in the Acorn, then Letruska in the Ogden Phipps, the people showing their appreciation of outstanding performances from two of the best fillies in the country.
It was a departure from last year, when the New York-bred Tiz the Law won the Belmont and all you heard was one guy letting out a whoop. One guy.
Also not at Belmont: trainer Bob Baffert.
Racing had a good day on Saturday, but the sport is not out of the woods on several fronts, not by Secretariat’s 31 lengths.
And on a hot, clear day with plenty of sunshine, the Baffert fog still hung over Belmont Park.
He might’ve had Charlatan favored in the Met Mile, and although the prospect of Medina Spirit running in the Belmont was low, after he finished third in the Preakness, the fact that Baffert and his horses aren’t allowed on the grounds of a NYRA track these days is inescapable.
Essential Quality’s victory gave Brad Cox, who has experienced a meteoric rise in the trainer ranks in recent years, his first win in a Triple Crown race. But he is still in position to “win” the Kentucky Derby, since Medina Spirit’s post-race drug test was confirmed by a second sample this week, which should result in a disqualification and hand the Cox-trained Mandaloun the Derby win.
In the meantime, Baffert has been banned from Churchill Downs for two years, and NYRA subsequently suspended Baffert from entering horses at its tracks, Belmont, Saratoga Race Course and Aqueduct.
Also not at Belmont: Irad Ortiz Jr., who has won the Eclipse Award as the most outstanding jockey in North America for the last three years.
And he might be the luckiest person at Belmont this week. On Thursday, his mount, Equal Pay, was on her way to a convincing win, but suddenly propped her front legs, throwing Ortiz tumbling to the turf. He was clipped by a trailing horse and will be too banged up to ride for a few weeks, but that could’ve been much worse.
So he was named to ride in all 13 races on Saturday, and his horses won five of the first seven races on the card with different riders, including his brother Jose, who won the Grade I Woody Stephens on Drain the Clock and the Ogden Phipps on Letruska.
NYRA has said they won’t get gougy when it comes to pricing for the Saratoga meet, which opens on July 15, and I’ll need that condition if there’s any hope of winning a bet with my friend Gene Kershner of the Buffalo News. He took the under on my 40,000 prediction for opening day. He usually wins these things.
But on Saturday, 11,238 seemed like plenty enough.
Some well-oiled bros chanted “Let’s go, Charlie” and “Hot Rod Charlie” as trainer Doug O’Neill’s horse left the paddock for the Belmont.
The crowd roared when the field left the starting gate in front of the grandstand, and cranked it up many notches when Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie dug in for the stretch drive.
The winning jockey, Luis Saez, dedicated the victory to his brother, Juan, who died of severe head injuries at the age of 17 in 2014 when he fell off a horse during a race at Indiana Grand.
The losing trainer, O’Neill, talked to reporters out in the middle of the track right after the race, then said, ‘Well, the bar’s open, right?’ as we ran out of questions.
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