Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and educator who has written about horse racing for more than 20 years. She has been a media specialist with NYRA for the past four years.
So a little before 11 o’clock this morning, I’m standing outside the clubhouse entrance when this monstrous vehicle pulls up, a black stretch SUV about a furlong long. Oh my, here come the cowboys. It’s Mine That Bird’s crew, dressed all in black with their black cowboy hats and shades, and as they’re walking into the clubhouse, the giant Air Force cargo plane flies low over Belmont Park and I’m wondering if it’s some kind of sign.
Then I see Ed Fountaine of the New York Post walk up wearing a black cowboy hat, the one he bought as a souvenir at the Breeders’ Cup at Lone Star Park, and I think, “Nah.”
It’s a beautiful day here at Belmont, five hours and change until the Belmont Stakes, and the place is starting to fill up and the fans are smiling and the program looks gorgeous and already I’ve tabbed my King’s Bishop horse. Just Ben rockets to victory in the second race, hitting the wire in 1:21.18 for the seven furlongs over a miraculously good track. I hereby nominate NYRA Director of Racing Surfaces Glen Kozak for Man of the Year!
You think it’s easy picking a Belmont winner? When you’ve fed peppermints to Summer Bird, traded jokes with Eoin Harty, watched Kiaran McLaughlin spend time with the children of Anna House, marveled at the sight of Wayne Lukas in his cowboy hat and shades astride his pony on the track, and seen Chip Woolley maneuvering on the most famous crutches in Thoroughbred racing (he can hold two drinks in one hand while balancing on his crutches, take that, Elliott Walden), your objectivity is basically shot. Up close and personal is not the way to handicap horses.
So then I reach up and touch my ear and I remember this morning I wore my hummingbird earrings, and I realize that’s the sign I was looking for, and it’s going to be the Mine That Bird/Summer Bird exacta box.
Was I complaining about the weather yesterday? Belmont Stakes Day will dawn sunny and warm and turn even more glorious, but this morning it was wetter than Thursday. Take it from me -- you haven’t truly experienced the backstretch until you’ve stepped in a puddle next to a muck pit and sunk in up to your ankle.
Now, jockeys are smart. While the Belmont contenders were all splashing through the slop over the main track with their exercise riders aboard, inside the Belmont Café, next to the table laden with piping hot coffee and juice and fresh muffins and donuts, Alan Garcia, Rajiv Maragh, Edgar Prado, John Velazquez and a couple of other riders were milling about with their agents and various trainers and owners, swapping tales and generally being social.
Off to one side were a pair of retired Hall of Famers, Angel Cordero Jr. and Jorge Velasquez, who between them rode in 34 Belmont Stakes and virtually ruled Belmont Park. They’re in their sixties but they act like they’re kids, still, giggling and chasing each other around the tables with cups of water.
“They’re like children,” sighed Prado, himself a Hall of Famer.
Later, I walk to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn, trying vainly to avoid the puddles which have now swelled to the size of small lakes. Inside, trainer Eoin Harty has accepted full responsibility for the continuing downpours.
“Retribution for my past sins,” he says.
A chestnut colt struts by, and McLaughlin points him out to Harty.
“You wanna see something? There goes the Tapit colt who was the sales-topper at Timonium.”
Harty is suitably impressed.
Suddenly, McLaughlin looks up and sees a red minivan with handicap plates pulling up, and ducks outside. The window is rolled down and it’s Ron Turcotte, who had the greatest thrill in the history of jockeydom by being aboard Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. You remember, the one he won by 31 lengths?
“I had to stop by,” says Turcotte. “And wish you good luck tomorrow.”
Rain? What rain?
It was a miserable morning for anyone but ducks and farmers. There were mud puddles everywhere on the backstretch at Belmont Park and on the main track, the cones were up in case anyone was even thinking about training on the inside.
But down the stretch, just after 7 a.m., here comes a little bay gelding, ears pricked, eyes taking everything in, fairly skipping over the surface and trainer Chip Woolley has somehow hopped up with his crutches onto one of the benches on the apron and he’s smiling because Mine That Bird is a very happy camper, indeed.
“He just carries it with him wherever it goes,” he says.
Someone asks him if there’s a track out there that Mine That Bird doesn’t like.
“If there is,” says Woolley, “We haven’t found it.”
The “official” sign on Saturday’s Belmont Stakes went up exactly at 4 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, when Mine That Bird stepped off the horse van that carried him from John F. Kennedy International Airport. A few minutes earlier, Woolley, whose cast has to stay on for another three to eight months, hopped up the ramp to check everything out, and to welcome the Bird to New York.
“Welcome to New York,” he said.
Nothing seems to bother this horse. He comes down the ramp, stops and looks inquisitively at the phalanx of videographers, reporters and photographers, shutters snapping madly, and then calmly walks down the horse path toward his new digs in trainer Carl Domino’s barn.
The photographers remind me of sea monkeys. When Mine That Bird moves to his left, they follow. If he turns to his right, so do they. When he stops, they stop. If he does something cute, like look at them, the shutters click even more insanely.
“What’s it like, having him around?” I ask Domino.
“I kinda enjoying it,” he says. “The people are nice, and the horse is acting like he’s been here his whole life.”
“He gets into his stall, rolls, and gets up. Nothing bothers him.”
Just what I wanted to hear!
One of the best things about getting to hang around racehorses is getting to know the people who work with racehorses. Winston Churchill once said, “Something about the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man,” and by and large I have found he’s right – people who work with horses are nice people.
Two of the newer and more delightful denizens of Belmont’s backstretch (three if you count the horse) are trainer Tim Ice and exercise rider Chris Trosclair, who shipped in from Louisiana early last week with Summer Bird.
They haven’t seen much of New York outside of their hotel room, the barn, and the wretched challenging stretch of road in between known as Hempstead Turnpike, but instead of cranky and irritable, which is pretty much the mindset of anyone who drives on Long Island, especially in the rain, and especially in rush hour, they have been unfailingly pleasant and polite.
To wit: Even after 10 days of driving along Route 24, they still call me “Ma’am,” which I find extremely heartwarming, but not so heartwarming that I need to grab a bottle of Maalox.
When Tim, who has been training on his own for a little more than a year, and Chris, who is the son of retired jockey Angel Trosclair, are not experiencing the joys of Hempstead Turnpike (where drivers treat speed limits as mere suggestions) they get to hang around with Summer Bird. They spend of couple of hours each morning, and sometimes in the afternoon, bringing him outside to graze.
Summer Bird, who is a lot bigger than his sire, Birdstone, practically drags whoever is holding the lead shank from spot to spot as he searches for the perfect patch of green. If he doesn’t find one, he’ll walk over to the nearest tree and, giraffe-like, start eating the leaves. The only thing that will interrupt his laser-like focus is the rustle of cellophane that signals a peppermint is on its way. Then, he’ll drag Chris or Tim over to the person holding the peppermint, gobble it down, and wait expectantly until another is offered. And another. And another.
TIM: I go through a couple of really big bags of peppermints each week for him.
ME: Is there anything he doesn’t like?
TIM: We haven’t found it yet.
ME: Have you offered him veal?
TIM AND CHRIS: (Chuckle politely).
See? Even after a 35-minute drive that theoretically should take 15 minutes along Hempstead Turnpike (where drivers think it’s OK to go through a red light if they remember it was yellow, but only if they’re talking on their cell phones), they’re still pleasant.
There is something about the outside of a horse, after all.