ELMONT, N.Y.—From just about 20 feet back from the track at the Belmont Stakes, watching three year-old thoroughbred Justify and his jockey, Mike Smith, make history mostly looked like outstretched arms holding aloft cellphones with the cameras rolling. A normal-sized woman could look up and see, on those screens, ten horses hurtling down the stretch, separated by milliseconds that represent metaphorical miles. The tiny fraction of the 90,327-strong crowd standing in those 20 or so feet between me and the fence earned their superior camera angles by staking out a spot in the grandstand hours ahead of time. These were the focused, goal-oriented ones. They were the minority.
The Belmont Stakes was the eleventh race held at the track that day; gates had opened at 8:30 and the drinking had started not long after. By the time the Triple Crown was officially on the line at 6:50 p.m., the festive atmosphere was starting to split between the people who were rocketing towards blackout before sunset and the people who were already working on their hangovers having not yet slept.
In the hours between when I arrived and when the Stakes began, I saw three men wearing the exact same pineapple suit at the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes—electric teal base with pineapple-print jackets, pineapple-print ties and, depending on the man, pineapple print slacks or shorts. These men did not arrive in matching fruit-themed formalwear; I should also clarify that these three grown-ass men were not sitting on each other’s shoulders inside one giant pineapple suit although that would have been awesome. I mean that on three separate occasions throughout the day I encountered and photographed a man wearing a pineapple suit who appeared to be doing so independently of all the other men wearing pineapple suits. When I presented this strange coincidence and the photographic evidence thereof to some friends at the race, both said the same thing: “I saw one, too.” They went on to describe a pineapple-suited man who they insisted was not any of the pineapple-suited men I’d photographed. All of which is to say that a conservative estimate is that there were between three and five men wearing the exact same pineapple suit—retails for $99 and is a very straightforward Google search away—at the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes.
In this way, I imagine at day the Belmont feels different than it would have a century and a half ago, but in many other ways, tradition reigns supreme.
There is no women’s bathroom in the press box at Belmont Park. There’s a single stall next to another full-sized men’s room that women can use, and it’s located in a strange metal-sided hallway hung with yellowing horse pictures that leads to the press area. There is, however, a betting booth. I’ve been in enough press boxes to understand that the first rule of covering sports is that there is no cheering for one competitor or another so if this seems like a conflict to you—it is difficult not to cheer when you’ve got money on the line—you would not be alone. But even if you’re filing a story to the sports section later that day, it’s hard to escape the confounding customs within the overtly dated confines of Belmont Park.
On the day of the Belmont Stakes, the press box betting booth was manned by Raul, who was born in Puerto Rico but has lived in New York for the past forty-something years. During the week he works at the post office. He used to come to the track to gamble—once, in the 1970s, he won $7,000 on a $5 bet and his wife worried that he’d stolen the money. Now he’s a part-time teller here at Belmont, which means he can’t place his own bets.
Raul hated being stuck in the press box. Not only was it overly air conditioned on the 80-degree day, but reporters don’t bet big. Throughout the day, an unsteady stream of mostly male writers placed $2–$10 bets before each race, often turning over any winnings onto the next ticket. It was a little boring for Raul, and with no big winnings there were no big tips. He’d much rather have been working one of the IRS–labeled windows, where gamblers collecting $600 or more must go to cash out. All that free money makes people generous; a teller in the Trophy Room told me that some of the luckier attendees tipped him hundreds.
Tellers have a ceiling on how much cash they can handle that corresponds to their experience level. At first they can only accept up to $5,000; after 13 years on the job, Raul has a $15,000 ceiling. Once he took a $12,000 bet—in cash, of course—from the owner of a horse who was running. It could have been one hell of a tip, but the horse didn’t win. “Nobody knows anything about this game,” Raul said when I asked him if being on the other side of the equation had given him any insight into betting well. “The only ones that know anything are the horses and they’re not talking.” I held onto my money.
Raul will be back at Belmont next weekend, or maybe the one after. At that point, the declining popularity of horse racing will be evident; the pineapple suits will be back in their owners closets, and their owners will be drinking elsewhere. Many of the tellers at wagering windows on Saturday were bussed in just for the occasion from neighboring states to meet the incredible demand that a potential Triple Crown inspires. A Belmont Park official told me that having the same horse win at the Derby and the Preakness is good for an extra 20,000-30,000 fans in New York. Corporate staff from Churchill Downs flew up to help them handle all the extra media. “Plus,” one of them said, “it all started with us.”
The opportunity to witness something historic is a boon and a curse for the crowd at Belmont Park, which has single weekend of national relevance on which to capitalize and also has a budget to meet. The promise of being witness to—or at least drinking near—history brought them to the track, and then it separated them from as much of their money as it could. The man who sold me a $6 bottle of water told me it would be $5 without a Triple Crown on the line.
The big race, the one that brought the teeming masses out to Elmont—not a typo, that’s the town name—is the headliner, but not the final act of the day. In an effort to ease congestion at the exits, Belmont schedules two more races in the evening after the Stakes is run. I stayed through those and then some, wandering through tableaus of discarded decadence in variously posh clubhouse rooms. Even after 8 p.m. it took close to two hours to make it across the parking lot to the regional rail. An Uber ride that cost $50 earlier in the day surged to $231 once everyone was desperate to leave the grounds. It’s tempting to describe the process of leaving the Belmont Stakes as a sobering experience but for many revelers it was, in point of literal fact, decidedly not that.
The debauchery, or at least what I saw of it, isn’t worth all that many words. A police sniper stationed on the roof of the clubhouse said that he’d seen some fights but allowed that it was nothing like the years when spectators were allowed to bring in their own beer. Even if you’re betting in the black, $15 booze is a bit of a deterrent. Down on the concourse level, though, the limits of that deterrent were clear. A security guard escorted a shirtless man who kept trying to climb onto the track from the premises. It’s just a big frat party where everyone’s got mild heatstroke and it’s possible to get crossfaded on second-hand cigar smoke and the high of seeing so much cash before lunchtime. It’s a very safe sort of debauchery, although it’s safer if you try to stay hydrated. I briefly wonder if the Park has a moral obligation to charge less for water.
If you can break them of their habit of always turning left, and their legs pass a vet’s inspection, ex-racehorses make great hunter/jumpers. I have ridden many more ex-racehorses than I have seen run in races. My sister’s horse when we were in high school was an ex-racehorse we called Gale. It was short for Florence Nightingale, which is what someone else had renamed her after she retired from racing, where her name had been Phone The Nurse. If you flipped up her top lip you could see a serial number with a letter at the end; all racehorses have that tattooed on them. A laminated chart hanging in the stables explained what birth year each letter corresponded to.
I thought that my experience around horses would make seeing the crowning jewel of the Triple Crown especially resonant. I had never see someone do a variation on what I did at the highest level, and I had never imagined that thousands of people would cheer for it. What would it be like to see my first big league game after a lifetime of playing catch? Would the horses look stronger or faster than those I had known? Could I notice the nuances in the jockey’s strategies? Would the smell of the stables and the heat of the horses and the rumbling of them all running by make it feel almost like I was riding again?
When I first got to Belmont on the morning of the race everything smelled like over-buttered popcorn; the crowds had not yet shown up to eat it. Seven hours later, as Justify crossed the finish line, it smelled like beer burps and body odor. Somewhere in between, the cigar smoke diluted just enough to perfume the air pleasantly; there was no hint of the manure.
The horses disappear in the spectacle of it; very few physical feats are made more viscerally satisfying by the addition of almost 100,000 people. What you end up feeling is just the experience of being in a large, drunk crowd. That is fun enough, and made more interesting by the costume element of it all, but the Belmont Stakes isn’t even really equestrian-themed. If anything, it’s candy-colored fruit-themed and almost everyone is here for the acceptable levels of unhealthy behaviors. The horses might as well be slot machines.
If you want to find the sport under all of this, you have to get away from the crowds. There is a cool, dark underpass through which the horses, jockeys, and their accompanying staff walk from the stables out to the track. Down there, you will see practitioners taking postgame stock. I couldn’t get there to see Justify and Smith either before or after the Stakes, but I watched as some of the earlier races disbanded. It was a sunny day and the track wasn’t sloppy but all the horses and jockeys were covered in mud up to their faces; in 15 years of riding I never came away looking like that. If you’ve watched a horse race on television, you know that this happens. But up close, it’s startling. Everyone looks both keyed-up and tired; the work of the race feels real and dangerous and effortful. It was surprising both because of how transformed they were and because, from where I was sitting, the whole thing had looked so easy.