Betting the Ponies: Scenes from Belmont Park

Ryan Bort

Belmont Park racetrack

A day after California Chrome completed the second leg of horse racing’s elusive Triple Crown by winning the Preakness, we visited New York’s Belmont Park, where the thoroughbred will try to make history at the Belmont Stakes on June 7. I’d like to say our trip was inspired by the Preakness, that we battled our hangovers on the Long Island Railroad on Sunday because we wanted to scout out the location of California Chrome's potential destiny as the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978, but really we had no idea the about the Preakness or any kind of history being made. The weekend previous we’d been struck with the idea while out drunk and, for some reason, talking about horse racing. It’d been an excuse to drink outside during the day somewhere other than a bar in our neighborhood. Miraculously, we followed through.

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Belmont Park is an enormous, labyrinthine complex that doesn’t appear to have been renovated or updated in any way since the ‘70s. Walking around the hauntingly spacious concourse gives one the feeling that the entire place might have been abandoned for 30 years until Saturday, when they quickly fixed it up and hired staff to accommodate Sunday's races. At ground level—from the backyard area where overpriced concessions are sold and the horses are staged pre-race, to across the concourse's slick concrete, to the paddock and track-side viewing area—the crowd is diverse. There are families, there are groups of cigar-smoking men, there are track suits, there are exposed, hirsute guts, there are packs of 20-somethings dressed in seersucker and floppy hats trying as hard as they can to pretend they’re at the Kentucky Derby. The closest thing to mint juleps they’ll find are 10 oz. cans of Coors Light “Summer Brew,” which tastes more like Sprite than anything containing alcohol.

The constant base of the crowd at Belmont Park, though, are the gamblers—those perpetually hunched over a racing program that serve as almost statuesque components of the track experience. The people that came out to enjoy the sun and green grass pay them no mind, and they, of course, couldn't care less about anything other than the next race. The higher you climb and farther away from the actual race you get, the more degenerate the gambler. They sit alone or with a partner or circled by sugared-up kids trying to stave off boredom, eyes trained on a wall of TV screens showing a number of different races and statistics. A betting window is never more than a few steps away. They derive no thrill from watching the race live. A TV screen and hard plastic chair will do. All that matters is satisfying their fix for action. Combine these recluses with the more colorful cast of pony bettors that mill around the ground level expressing displeasure in varying degrees of vociferation, and you have a wide swath of Belmont patrons looking for that life-affirming trifecta to come in. California Chrome might have a better chance at winning the Triple Crown next month than most of them do of cashing in big, but horses come and go. Action will always be there for those who need it.

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