New America Media, Feature, Published: June 12, 2009
Belmont, New York — It is the morning of the Belmont Stakes and young souls are preparing for a day of self-indulgence, honoring decades of tradition and rejecting American society’s recent calls for modesty and reason.
The landing above Track 18 at Penn Station is a giddy, drunken sea of madras, seersucker and floppy hats: hundreds of young, smiling pink faces, puckering every few seconds to draw a sip from ornately decorated bottles of imported beer. Some of the ladies have opted for iced coffee at this early hour, but the men are committed to the drunken afternoon haze that awaits them. At their penny-loafered feet, Whole Food shopping bags overflow with organic cheddar popcorn and golden foils of Alaskan smoked salmon.
Several posted signs inform passengers that there will be no alcohol permitted on trains traveling to Belmont Park, but this group seems to know better, tilting their beers to police officers, offering a silent, sly toast to entitlement as they shuffle down the platform.
Each seat on the train is taken and the aisles packed with standees. It makes limited stops though, zipping past each station, confounding those on the platform, who see only a blinding explosion of pastel as the up-collared polo shirts of the standees combine to form a dizzying rainbow, gone in an instant.
Onboard, hundreds of simultaneous conversations form a nasally hum. There is an open New York Times, which allows for a scan of the day’s news: the unemployment rate has climbed to 9.4%, which economists have embraced “optimistically”. Perhaps these young revelers know something the rest of the country does not: “the panic is over, the party is here.”
The party is most assuredly here, at least for today. The train pulls into Belmont Park and people start to shuffle off, creating a veritable stampede of miniature embroidered shirt animals.
Once inside the gate, the crowd is much more textured and diverse than the one that packed the train. It becomes obvious that there are segregated tiers within the park. For instance, the area on the ground floor next to the track is called The Apron and it is a different group of people altogether. This is where you find the gold chains, the tattoos, the baseball jerseys, the Coors Light. This is where the belching and profanity abounds. As one young man put it, “It’s better down here, f–kin’ get hammered and be with everybody.”
On The Apron — the portion of a race track that separates the infield from the racing surface — there are tarps and blankets spread out on the brick floor, which is littered with beer cans, cigarette butts and discarded race tickets. It generally clears out between each race, while people run inside to place bets and by post time, it’s full again. Though it’s early in the afternoon, many are already too drunk to navigate the intricacies of placing a bet, so they stay seated in a lawn chair or on a metal bench. Once they pass out, their friends are often gracious enough to tie their shoelaces together or scrawl obscenities on their foreheads.
By paying attention to the beverage in a patron’s hand, one can determine where in the Park they’ll be seated. On the ground floor, it’s Coors Light: not negotiable. In the backyard off of the track, where the shining, milky, soft bodies from the train are congregated, it’s most often Heineken.
In the box seats and the grandstand, one level up from The Apron where the owners and trainers and The Mayor and other types sit, they’ll have champagne. And above that in the Garden Terrace restaurant, where the Astors and the Rockafellers pass the time, they serve something called a White Carnation. This is a mixture of cream, orange juice, peach schnapps and soda water over ice in a highball glass, garnished with an orange slice. It’s the kind of drink one might inadvertently drop his monocle in, having been horrified by a belching contest down on The Apron.
All the way up top on the level with the placing judges’ stand (the eye in the sky) and the press box, they serve Budweiser in a bottle.
There is another group harder to define, as they are concerned less with drinking than the vice that ought to rule the day: gambling. Among these old timers, each race is a sacred affair. They are the religious faithful, the pony players, who are here every weekend and regard the day’s amateurs with a mild annoyance. They stay indoors, out of the sun, crowded around banks of televisions while a race is on because that’s the best view. Between races, they study their paperwork, shuffling through their tattered racing forms, drawing diagrams on the crinkled pages of their programs.
They flick toothpicks around in their mouths, scratching their heads with their pens. They wear rumpled baseball caps, rubber slippers with socks and sad, droopy tank tops. Sometimes two or more of them will congregate around a garbage can, spreading their paperwork out, to consult one another. They speak in low, calm, gravelly voices and check over their shoulders every so often. “I like to be prepared when I do shit” says one, circling several numbers in his book. “You know, like a boy scout.”
Post time for the 11th race, the Belmont Stakes, is 6:45pm. By 6:15, the whole building is frantic. People have to place their bets, get another drink, use the restroom, all at the same time and get back to their seats to see the horses off.
A small number of people can be seen cutting down a side hallway into a fire exit stairwell. It turns out this is where the old timers come to get high between races. Three flights of stairs are crowded with smokers and a wild haired hippie in a blue tablecloth blazer stands at the top with a roach in his hand, talking maniacally to a friend. “You run 16-1 and that’s an improvement? Cooome ooonnnnnn!”
The men’s room is a sick, sad mess with overflowing toilets and men inadvertently urinating on each other. “The Belmont Shower”, they’re calling it, as they howl with laughter.
From The Apron, the race is set to start. New York Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson stand up to wave to the cameras and the crowd from their front row box seats (though it’s unclear why Governor Paterson needs a front row seat).
Two favorites, Dunkirk and Charitable Man take an early lead but can’t sustain it. A longshot, Summer Bird, hits the line first and breaks several thousand hearts. Everybody likes an underdog, but if everybody bet on him, he wouldn’t be the underdog. Apparently, that’s how it works.
And so the exodus begins. People slink off, headed to the buses and trains, leaving only the gamblers behind because there are still two more races. A large group poses for a photo, one of them calling out “Jersey all the way, baby! Shout out to Mookie and Squeezebox!”
A few men crawl along the floor of the Apron, hoping to find discarded winning tickets.
In the line for the train, two older women express dismay at the crowd. “When we would go to the races when I was younger, we had a sense of pride. We dressed up, we acted appropriately.” She pauses to look around her at the discarded beer cans, the vomit and the rowdy revelry and shakes her head. “Not like this. This is obscene.”