Geoff Worden (left) with his brother at the 2014 Belmont Stakes.
Enough time has elapsed. My Triple Chrome depression has passed. I am chomping at the bit to get back to a racetrack and it is time to share some adventures and opinions.
Disclaimer: I realize it isnʼt completely fair to judge a place when you visit for the first time during a huge event. Restaurant reviewers donʼt make reservations for Motherʼs Day to evaluate a new chefʼs menu. People who come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras mistakenly believe the city is all about flashing body parts when, in fact, itʼs mostly other tourists engaging in that activity.
It is okay to evaluate your experience though, so here are my thoughts.
My brother Zach and I headed to Penn Station early Saturday. A mad crush of humanity, as I expect pretty much everywhere in New York City, eagerly awaited the announcement of the track number for the Belmont train and then flowed in that direction like a tidal wave.
We hustled down the stairs and found two of the last seats on the train. I tried to negotiate with the guy seated on my right, to switch with my brother, but by the time he was done evaluating how serious a Rangers fan Zach was, it was too late. The aisle was full and two old men were actually bribing two young women behind me for their seats.
The ride passed uneventfully and my heart skipped a beat when I caught a glimpse of the stretch and the grandstand as the train pulled in to the station. Excitement filled the air and I felt like I could almost taste adrenaline.
WORDEN'S FIRST LOOK AT BELMONT PARK
My brother and I had a fantastic day together and though we would certainly have changed a few things, we have some great memories.
Our view was spectacular! We had a perfect shot of the last turn and most of the stretch. The seats were shaded, which became a huge bonus later in the day.
THE VIEW ALLOWED FOR A SPECTACULAR VIEW OF THE RACETRACK
Green and purple were everywhere and people were handing out California Chrome posters, including my favorite, a “Triple Chrome” poster. Everyone was smiling.
The festive atmosphere made our winning bets seem more successful and our losses seem less consequential. Trying to talk handicapping with my brother and having him tell me he would pick whoever I picked made me happy. I let him down though, we hit a few but mostly missed all day.
LL Cool J entertained me, he was a weird but wonderful choice for the event. He sounded good but how could he not play “Going Back To Cali?”
Belmont is an amazing track and I was very happy to find the wall of winners! It confirmed the long history of the place and the potentially epic nature of this running.
The place is massive. Some employees had no idea how to direct visitors because they work at other racetracks and are brought in specifically for the Belmont Stakes. Although I loved our seats for watching racing, I missed being able to easily visit the ￼paddock. The commute took nearly the entire length of time between races with the crowds and confusion and not wanting to turn the day into a mad dash from one thing to another. We only made the trek a few times, leaving me feeling shortchanged.
CALIFORNIA CHROME BEFORE THE BELMONT STAKES
If I had to do it again I would sit much closer to the finish line. Not because I need to see the horses at the wire but because it would put me in the heart of the amenities and areas of interest. Our end of the grandstand seemed like we were invited to a party but then seated at a table in a different room ... on a different floor.
We wandered quite a bit looking for interesting food options but it wasnʼt until much later in the day that we found an area that offered some better choices. Who knew we needed to study a map before we arrived?
For our first meal of the day, we decided to try some cheesesteaks from a cart. It was the best thing we had seen to that point. The cheesesteaks (almost entirely lacking cheese) were assembled from chafing dishes full of ingredients. My onions had not only ever seen a grill, they were barely steamed, and were cut into large chunks. After two bites of raw onion, I picked most of them out.
As the day wore on, time spent waiting in lines dominated time spent watching racing and enjoying ourselves. The grandstand became brutally hot as the sun beat down on the back wall. Our seats were always comfortable but we needed to venture into the heat and crowds for drinks, food and bathrooms.
I will not complain about a $10 16-ounce can of Budweiser. If you donʼt like the price, donʼt drink beer. However, standing in line for more than 30 minutes for the privilege of paying that price is inexcusable. Choosing a cold water or soda would not have altered the wait, just the price. In Belmontʼs defense, the beers were ice-cold, the only way Budweiser should ever be served. (They also matched Zachʼs Rangers jersey perfectly) I won’t complain about long bathroom lines because that is an issue at any large event. However, one lengthy line for a men’s room had people standing in water an inch or two deep and no sign of any employee trying to fix that problem.
Zach stood in line for at least 45 minutes to buy two hot dogs (we were all about dividing and conquering by then). At one point during his wait, they were serving dogs without buns. No discount, just a napkin instead of a bun. The hot dogs at Belmont are Sabrett, so there is nothing unique whatsoever (or particularly good). The same version is available at carts all over New York City - they cost less there and always come with buns.
People with no seats invaded the stands before the big race. Some were very pushy including one that tried to intimidate my brother out of his seat. Ushers werenʼt checking tickets to gain access to the seating areas and they were consequently overwhelmed ejecting squatters while more people without reserved seats filled the aisles.
I have attended a Super Bowl, a World Cup Final, an Arena League Football Championship, a handful of National Basketball Association, Stanley Cup and Major League Baseball playoff games as well as World Series games. I am drawn to Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, both large, alcohol-fueled events, like a moth to a flame but I have never experienced anything like the mayhem trying to leave after the Belmont Stakes.
Granted, my usual approach of waiting until the crowd thins out might have alleviated this ugliness but the Rangers and Kings were playing for the Stanley Cup and we thought we could beat the crowd and see most of the game in Manhattan.
Unfortunately we went down one floor too many. The entrance/exit for the trains is on the 2nd floor. The escalator dumped us into a sea of humanity with barely enough room to get off and get out of the way as a steady flow of people continued to arrive from below.
There was nowhere to go but forward. There was no sign of security or any staff. There were no announcements to inform us of what was happening. There was no moving air. We heard reports of people passing out (two) but I have no verification of that claim. I can verify that it was a total mess. From the moment we left our seats until the train started moving was at least an hour and maybe even 90 minutes.
We finally made it back to Manhattan, found a bar, the game, some cold beer and eventually another bar, pizza and better cold beer. Iʼll write about that in my next post.
My final impression of the event was that it felt like the first time the track hosted a large event rather than the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes. Food ran out, staffing was insufficient, service was inefficient and it appeared no one was in charge.
Am I glad I went to the 2014 Belmont Stakes? Yes!
Will I return for another Belmont Stakes? I doubt it, but feel free to offer insight that might improve someone else’s visit or convince me to try again.
Will I give Belmont another chance on a quieter day? Absolutely.