For nearly four decades Ernie Munick has been giving his heart and mind to thoroughbred racing. He is a writer, a vlogger , a musician, but most devotedly a handicapper and horseplayer. He can be seen twice a week on the NYRA Network's RACEDAY, and his videos for the Breeders' Cup can be found by clicking here.
What can or cannot be brought within the beautiful confines of Belmont Park next Saturday has ignited somewhat of a firestorm in the social media. There are persuasive voices on all sides of the controversy, but, let's face it, the house rules must be obeyed. You can still have fun. Creative packing is key. Here is what I AM bringing, and what I am NOT bringing, to the 2013 Belmont Stakes.
AM: Antibacterial wipes. After a few hours at any racetrack in any season, you probably need to be hosed down. Small antibacterial wipes refresh the mind to peak alacrity, so you can bring down that $1 million guaranteed late Pick 4.
NOT: A mannequin. There is a deep, corrosive loneliness to handicapping that only the hardcore players can really understand. Dolls and mannequins are in the short run good company (I hear), but they are no replacement for human companionship or tomorrow's advance past performances. I am not bringing a mannequin.
AM: Portable charger. The charger is huge, figuratively speaking. In fact, it's the size of a lipstick. My iPhone, iPad and I will be there almost 12 hours. Wall sockets are scarce. I am definitely bringing a portable charger.
NOT: My own personal bugler. Some people suffer — I should speak for myself — I suffer from a rare disorder known as Nottatootaphobia, or fear of not hearing the Call to the Post. Having your own bugler would eliminate this unspeakable possibility. I love the bugle, the regal simplicity of the instrument, its longstanding tradition in our sport, and frankly, I'm tired of the jokes:
Q. What's the difference between a bugle and an onion?
A. No one cries when you chop up a bugle.
Belmont Park is the largest racetrack in these Unites States, and while there remain crannies, and even the occasional nook, in which you can't hear the bugler via speakers, I have learned where not to mill when there are 10 minutes till. I am not bringing my own personal bugler.
AM: Allergy ammo. Claritin pills, inhaler, tissues. Trees are the enemy. I will be mostly in the park. I am definitely bringing my allergy ammo.
NOT: Tap shoes. Sometimes you need to change the luck, and, from my years as a personal finger-snapper for Ben Vereen, I discovered that tap dancing within six feet of an IRS window brings incredibly good fortune. We must respect our fellow horseplayers, though, and some might get a wee bit irritated as they're communicating with mutuel clerks. I am not bringing tap shoes.
AM: Nature's Bounty B-12. These sublingual vitamins not only mellow my jangled nerves, but they're so yummy I can hardly limit myself to one. All day long I'm offering people B-12s, even strangers, try this, try this, etc. No one ever tries. In refusal they emanate stress. We need to chill. I am definitely bringing Nature's Bounty B-12s.
NOT: Amanda Bynes' trampoline. These Hollywood stars, pffft, too fancy schmancy for moi. What I look for in a trampoline are supersonic spring connectors, unbreakable rubber of the kind used by NASA and a bail-out safety net at least the size of Oklahoma (the training track, not the state, though either works for me). No matter how bored I am in that hour between Point of Entry's Woodford Reserve and the Belmont Stakes, I will not resort to eccentric celebrity behavior. I am not bringing Amanda Bynes' trampoline.
AM: Major cabbage. Moolah. On a banquet of a betting day, you don't want to be spotted without the Benjamins. And speaking of Benjamins, Franklin said, "He that goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing." He was right and wrong (grammatically). Who, Ben, not that. He who goes a-borrowing. I've been squirreling up the nuts for two weeks. I am bringing major cabbage.
NOT: A nail clipper. Have you ever found yourself in a quiet, blissful state of handicapping, only to have the near-silence ruined by that creep with the long fingernails, clipping away. If you're lucky, Freddy Kruger won't start on his toes. I'm sorry to report I've seen this. I am neither bringing nor using a nail clipper. Nor should anyone else.
AM: The Doctor's Brushpicks. I can't spend three hours tonguing between my molars. I might have eaten corn, or pork, and then I'm stuck. I am definitely bringing Grade I toothpicks, The Doctor's Brushpicks.
NOT: A garland of lilacs. Lilacs for centuries have been considered a bad omen, and, in garland form, forget it, even worse, nice knowing you. They have a very powerful scent, and the only reason you'd ever want to bring that garland to Belmont is to mask the aroma of that creep clipping his toenails. The Belmont Stakes Carnation Blanket is experience enough for yours truly. I am not bringing a garland of lilacs.
AM: Trip notes. Watching races is crucial. There is no true handicapping without replays. You watch, you jot trips. I often make a three-race betting commitment to a trip horse, unless he or she wins first. Guard your work; stolen trip notes can reveal a troubled, wounded psyche. I am definitely bringing my trip notes.
NOT: A pommel horse. This is a tough one. The temptation to bring a pommel horse will be overwhelming. I've been exercising lately, squats, cardio, planks (you're welcome), but nothing approaches the thrill of squat-jumping onto a pommel horse, hand-standing across the body, then dismounting into a full Tony Black split. But I need nothing to slow me from paddock to finish line between races. Unfortunately, I am not bringing a pommel horse.
AM: My Rags to Riches button. It's hard not to celebrate, yearly, the first Belmont Stakes-winning filly in 102 years. I am definitely bringing my Rags to Riches button.
NOT: Dr. Andrew Weil. One of the great pleasures of a day at the races is eating grease near a toteboard. Hot dogs, burgers, pizza, fried chicken. Now, do me a favor, try explaining this to Dr. Weil, Dr. "Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants." I'm not sure about this Weil. He's not all there. He's part Weil. I may have to lose that expression. Is Weil's the voice you want in your ear for such a monumental afternoon? I am certainly not bringing Dr. Andrew Weil.
AM: Clapton's Crossroads Collections, 1988, four discs to .mp4s in my iPhone. This is the desert island collection. Clapton's not my favorite artist but this collection encompasses most of the blues/rock styles I love. I am definitely bringing my 1988 Crossroads Collection.
NOT: A Western Screech Owl. Not on your shoulder, not in a cage, not in your Belmont Park cooler bag, nowhere. Like the lilacs, owls don't exactly exude good luck. If you see an owl, any owl, in the daytime, you might be cursed. But if you see a Western Screech Owl at a thoroughbred racetrack, you will go 13 years without making a withdrawal from your NYRA REWARDS account. I am totally not bringing a Western Screech Owl.
Twice, I've been chased by Mr. Peanut: first at the 1976 US Open Women's Singles Finals, and second, after the 1982 Preakness. You haven't quite lived until you've been hunted by an eight-foot peanut with white fisted gloves and top hat. This was in Forest Hills at the old stadium. I aged a year that day, my voice changed. But the Preakness was worse.
We need to start in Forest Hills, when I was 12, to understand the events six years later in Baltimore.
On Saturday, September 11, 1976, I attended the Open with my dad and my friend George. My father was a rabid Chris Evert fan (two years earlier, her equine namesake had won the Filly Triple Crown). I grew up just blocks from the coliseum-shaped stadium, which was homey yet so obviously inadequate, in retrospect, to the modern one in Flushing. I'd watch Borg go baseline on McEnroe on CBS and then hear the eruption from my 14th-floor apartment. Forest Hills Stadium in the off-season staged concerts for Hendrix, Dylan, The Who. I was born the year Woody Allen and the Beatles performed in that very space.
Anyway, my friend George and I got bored in set 1 while Chrissie and her epic ground game were razzle-dazzling poor Evonne Goolagong. Evonne, en route to her fourth straight second in the Finals, had become the Jacques Who of Women's Tennis. My dad took to calling her Evonne Goolagone. As George and I left the benches for the concession stands, he kept slapping the heads of younger strangers, saying, GoolaGONG! GoolaGONG! Almost two years my senior, George could be mean, but he never got beat up, at least never with me.
Down below in the limestone corridors worked Mr. Peanut. He moseyed among the tents of Wilson T-2000s and Fila apparel, near the food and beverages, handing out pamphlets containing literature about Planters, I guess, I don't remember. But those pamphlets were shiny and colorful and felt expensive. Whoever stood in as Mr. Peanut that day could barely see through his dark mesh grill, and if you really got close to him, you could fly beneath his mascot radar. The monocle was creepier in person. There's a line about a pirate from television's Odd Couple that I still associate with Mr. Peanut. "I've got my eye on you."
George, Grade I prankster, sensed Mr. Peanut's vision difficulties and peer-pressured me into an evil scheme that had the two of us swooping in for pamphlet after pamphlet, until all of Mr. Peanut's prized pamphlets were no more, Goolagone. This was the first and only time I ever felt bad for a peanut, yet I thieved away like a five-star punk apprentice. George was laughing and gloating. We escaped to the other side of the stadium, stowing dozens of pamphlets under the bleachers, when we were jolted by a voice evocative of Morgan Freeman, who at that time I remembered mostly for The Electric Company. "Children! Drop it! You stop it! You drop it right now!" We dropped the goods and bolted in terror and, when I looked over my shoulder, here came the giant, anthropomorphic peanut in full flight. Small and pliable, we escaped in the cracks, through the masses, unsure if Mr. Peanut had followed, and made our way back up to my father, who wouldn't be told this story until I was old enough to bet. (My dad loved Chris Evert but was grumpy by day's end because he'd bet $100 on future champion Late Bloomer, who got beat at 9-2 in a Belmont maiden race that would've paid for our Finals tickets.)
Cut to Baltimore, 1982. I'm a senior in the final lame-duck days of high school. I'd never been to the Preakness. I convinced three of my friends (not George, whom I gradually lost touch with in the months after we absconded with the pamphlets) to take a road trip to Pimlico. As always, I was, to the people I wanted to impress the most, the horse racing savant who gave out loser after loser. But I nailed Aloma's Ruler. Trainer Butch Lenzini, Jr. famously instructed 16-year-old Jack Kaenel, better known as Cowboy Jack, to "break good and find the wood," and the teenager drove Aloma's Ruler to victory over Linkage and his 50-year-old rider, Bill Shoemaker. The key was the scratch of the speedy Cupecoy's Joy, enabling the front-running Aloma's Ruler to get loosey goosey Landaluce (free on the lead). My friends and I had pooled our remaining funds, not even $50, and let'er rip on the 6-1 Aloma's Ruler. It was a long but happy trek back to our homefront parking space, more than a mile. When we got there, and with traffic barely penetrable, we decided to accept an invitation to a Nerf football game at a woodsy schoolyard across the street.
These guys, early to mid-twenties, were all in low-budget tuxes, from a trashy Preakness wedding in the infield. They too were just waiting for the traffic to ease. With crushed cans tossed about their coolers, they were obviously still Bud-lit.
I nicknamed my defender Mr. Peanut. He was at least 6'5" and 300 pounds, easy - no monocle but he wore a top hat. I can sometimes see the irony in top hats, but they've never amused me. This version of Mr. Peanut, even after a long day, never took off the top hat. He turned it slowly in huddles. He ran carefully. He respected his lid. He had a huge ruddy face and a deep grizzly baritone. He called out teammates for the wrong patterns, took this touch Nerf football very seriously. I feared for my pre-collegiate life when he lined up against me.
Touch football - admit it, guys - is really more shove-as-much-as-you-can-get-away-with football, especially on grass. Yet Mr. Peanut was gentle. His hands were like catchers' mitts but twice as supple. (The wind at my back felt stronger.) As a receiver, he was unguardable; lob after lob found the end zone above my reach. He kept calling me City. CIty out right! City out left! "I'm sorry, City," he said after a score, breathing heavily, mitts on knees. His small-town crew was from Mount Aetna, Maryland. I didn't recall anyone that large in Forest Hills, either. "My momma's big, too, City."
We weren't long before quitting when I fell in the sinkhole. It might not have been shallow enough to qualify as a sinkhole, but I was nearly six-feet under, literally, stunned in the leaves and sludge. City had been way out right. As he raced to get under the Hail Mary, looking over his shoulder, he could glimpse the giant in heavy pursuit, and he was back there immediately in the corridors of Forest Hills Stadium. This might've been karmic retribution, but City suffered only fractured dignity and a slight scratch to the cornea. Mr. Peanut lifted him out by the hands, never losing the top hat.
Here come the cheaters, one by one, clicking "Hint" or "Solve" until my puzzle is done. Call me paranoid but I anticipate a 93% cheating rate. Even I cheated on the puzzle, and I wrote the clues. Barry Manilow wrote the songs and, you know what, I don't trust him, either.