#They’re off! Belmont perfect place for New York’s sporting restart

They’re off! Belmont perfect place for New York’s sporting restart

If you listen close enough, even in the still of morning, you can hear the old thunderclaps of joy that have so often spilled out of this beautiful place, pouring out onto Hempstead Turnpike, surpassing the steady roar of the Cross Island Parkway.

Listen close enough and it is June 6, 2015, and there are thousands of people leaping from their grandstand seats, joining a horse named American Pharoah as he dashed the final few furlongs into forever, the folks running with him, laughing and weeping and shouting all at once.

Keep it up, keep listening, and it is June 9, 1973, and Big Red, Secretariat, is lengthening his lead over Twice a Prince — 10 lengths, 20, 25 — and Ron Turcotte is once more peeking back at the field, 31 lengths behind at the finish.

Listen closer still: It is a wonderful sunny afternoon plucked from any of the 52 springs and summers dating back to 1968, when this newest iteration of Belmont Park opened its gates. Listen: You can hear the regulars and the railbirds, maybe 5,000 of them, maybe less, many of them willing some 20-to-1 nag home, their pleas audible across the street, at the Belmont Deli and Grill, where the day’s wins and losses are shared over a sandwich and a steaming cup of coffee.

We too often forget about this jewel in our midst, Belmont Park, where the sport’s champions have long earned their crowns, where its best craftsmen ply their trade, where these grandstands have known all the highs and all the lows the sport of kings can yield. It is a magnificent old racetrack, a marvelous sporting playpen every bit the equal of its cousins in The Bronx (Yankee Stadium) and Manhattan (Madison Square Garden).

Exercise riders and horses enter the main track during morning training at Belmont Park.Getty Images

So it is right that when live sports returns to New York for the first time in 80 days on Wednesday it will do so here, at Belmont Park, where the skeleton of a hockey arena broadens by the day, obscuring the old view you could steal from the road.

When we bid farewell to sports, that was at a racetrack too, over at Aqueduct, in Ozone Park, where at 5:43 p.m. on the afternoon of Sunday, March 15, a 3-year-old named Gandy Dancing, with Manuel Franco up, won the ninth race of the day, a $60,000 maiden special weight race, paying $7.60, $5.10 and $4.40. The NBA had already vanished. So had the NHL. And four days later the rest of the Aqueduct meet would, too.

Wednesday, at Belmont, there will be no fans. But at 1:14 p.m. or so, a collection of 11 3-year-olds will gather at the gate for a $28,000 maiden claiming race. Vero Sun is your favorite, at 5-to-2. Wisecrack and Carnegie Song can each be had at 50-to-1. At 1:15 they will be off.

And so will we.

An exercise rider wears a mask at Belmont Park.
Getty Images

“I really can’t thank the whole backside community for hanging in there and caring for these horses,” Philip Antonacci says. “They are the real heroes in our industry.”

Antonacci is the bloodstock manager for his family’s Lindy Farm, based in Connecticut, and he will have a 2-year-old in the day’s third race — a maiden race, five furlongs on the dirt, which is sure to attract the most attention.

A year ago, he purchased the son of Malibu Moon and Tashzara for $175,000 at the Keeneland yearling auction. In early March, Antonacci applied to The Jockey Club seeking to give his horse a name that would honor both his family’s own Italian-American heritage and that of an old neighbor from Brooklyn who used to belong to the same parish as his grandparents.

And much to his great delight, “Fauci” was approved. He goes off as a 4-to-5 favorite, with Tyler Gaffalione in the saddle.

“It would be fitting if Fauci won, to give the whole thing a bit of closure,” Antonacci said.

Still, just knowing there will be activity again, with the dust kicking up all along Big Sandy, provides a small slice of familiarity at a time when it is in such short supply.

“It’s been tough on everyone, especially the backside workers,” Antonacci said, “and COVID took its ultimate toll on a couple of the workers. It was a tough time for everyone and we’re so happy to come out the other side.”

It will be quiet inside this grand old showplace Wednesday, quieter on Hempstead Turnpike save for the whir of the cranes and the trucks. But a small breath of life returns to our city, a brief whiff of routine, post time 1:15. It is a fine first gallop.


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