Checking the Long Island Rail Road web site to obtain train times to Belmont Park in advance of my visit to see the races Sunday, I learned the LIRR isn’t running service to the track for the entire 2021 fall meet.

No problem, I said to myself.  I left early.  I jumped on the F to Jamaica, got off at Parsons Blvd. and took the Q110 bus which runs down bustling Jamaica Avenue before veering onto Hempstead Avenue.  It takes a long time – about an hour and 45 – but it saves the steep LIRR fare and offers the scenery and excitement that is downtown Jamaica.   

The Q110 route terminates on race track property making its final stop just across from where the LIRR trains would normally let out.  Just me and an old, broken down horseplayer got off the bus.  I was in a hurry to get in to see the first race so I raced across the pedestrian bridge only to find all of the doors on the west side of the grandstand locked.  On both the first and second level, there was no way in.  No signage, no personnel.  

A large opening on the apron granted access but there was no admission barrier – nor did it appear to be a formal entrance – but I walked through it not seeing any other way in.   

What happened next was textbook NYRA customer relations.  A stocky NYRA “Peace Officer” lumbered over to me out of nowhere and gruffly asked me what I was doing.

“I’m here to see the races,” I said.  

“You can’t come in this way.  You can’t sneak your way in here!” he said with a mean streak and a thick local accent.  

“Just tell me where to go, will ‘ya,” I said, aggravated by his accusatory tone.  “I’m not trying to do anything other than go to the races.  The bus dropped me off in the usual spot and I’m trying to enter in the usual spot.”    

“You gotta get outta here,” he said.  “You gotta enter via the clubhouse side.”  

“How do I do that?” I said.  “Everything is fenced off!”  

“Figure it out,” he said.   

Construction of the new hockey arena on track grounds has produced fencing all around the facility with no signage offering guidance to the loyal patrons who want to see horses run.  The NYRA web site offers no heads up to public transit users on how to enter the track.  A map of the grounds posted on the NYRA web site currently includes an illustration that would suggest the West entrance is not sealed off.  

Normal paths to the clubhouse were cut off from the bus drop-off point so I walked along the road that is a turn-off from the Cross Island and made a left onto Hempstead Turnpike.  Sidewalk continuity is spotty with more fencing and construction barrels forcing pedestrians onto either the shoulder of the Turnpike or the Turnpike itself.  It’s incredibly dangerous.  An accident waiting to happen, not to mention an insult to the sport’s older, mobility-limited fans given the track’s clear ability to accommodate people via entrances on the west side of the facility.  

Pedestrians have no good way in via the Turnpike other than a hole in the fence where track customers park their cars.  Google Maps suggests entering via gate 5 but that would force those on foot to share the street with cars.  

Once inside the track (admission is five bucks), the new arena again reminds you quickly that it owns the day – not the brilliant and very special race track that’s been in existence for 116 years.  

The primary reason everybody calls Belmont Park “Beautiful Belmont Park” is because of its barkyard area adjoining the paddock.  It’s a space that families and large groups of buddies have congregated in on race days for a long time.  That is ruined at the moment with max encroachment from a facility emblazoned with the name of a Swiss bank.  The noise, the dust, the construction equipment and supplies staged in the backyard don’t coalesce with the presence of horse saddling in what once was one of the prettiest and most tranquil of spots to see and feel that majestic activity in the entire world. 

I guess race fans must wait and see what it all looks like after the arena is done. What’s known and what’s permanent makes it clear to me that the backyard is ruined.  

A new train station dubbed “Elmont” will be a ten minute walk from the arena/track and is located directly on the Hempstead branch as a new station.  The railroad is saying the eastbound platform will be functional in time for the first Islanders home game on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  It’ll be another year before fans going back to Manhattan can board at that station on the way home – so the plan is to run trains on a spur from the track’s old station to Jamaica in the meantime.  The bottom line on trains is that what’s good for hockey fans will be good for horse racing fans via the better, more reliable service on the Hempstead branch.  

My beef (before actually seeing it and confirming my fear on Sunday) was that the state and NYRA and the people who should be protecting the rare and historically significant Belmont Park let the track’s best part get ruined by an arena project that could have found better patches of land elsewhere.  Why not on the track’s vast backside expanse?  Anywhere.  Anywhere but a chunk of real estate that represents a truly unique parcel of sporting heaven to generations of fans who will now quit on the tradition of bringing a lawn chair and a cooler to sit alongside the participants in a 9 or 10 race card.  The sight of that arena and the space it gobbled up is gonna make a lot of people sick.  

Echo Zulu won the 74th running of the Frizette, a grade 1, $400-grand race for two-year-old fillies in a romp.  The daughter of the great Gun Runner is undefeated and will next run in the Breeders’ Cup  on the first weekend of November pending continuing good health.  Notable from Sunday’s win was the call of NYRA track announcer John Imbriale who mispronounced the filly’s name in her previous two races at Saratoga.  Somebody must have said something, because this time Imbriale called her Echo Zulu (ZOO-LEW) instead of Echo (ZOO-LOW).  

The Giants, Jets and Yankees games (all thrillers) were on monitors in the indoor area just above the apron where a large group of boisterous regular patrons huddle – and routinely make both New York tracks a fun place to be.  The buzz and excitement created by these fans over the course of a racing day more than offset the repellent NYRA routinely applies via the shoddy communication and services offered at both Belmont and Aqueduct.  

Just back from five nights in Nashville to see my friends Jeff and Deborah.  I flew there last Wednesday night on a half-empty 737-800 from Newark.

Jeff’s been touting the week-long Kentucky Downs meet for many years. This visit was centered around attending the final three days of racing at the esteemed gathering of turf horses competing for $15.9 million in purses.  

To monetize the rising popularity of the meet, Kentucky Downs ended free, open access to the paddock and finish line this year.  Freebie general admission spectators were limited to a grassy area at the quarter pole in front of the gaming parlor that includes an upper level simulcast space.  Those who wanted to see the races’ outcomes in front of them were forced to purchase tables of eight at prices ranging from $369 to $795 depending on the day.  

Jeff and I lucked into seats at those tables on two of my three days there thanks to his friend Jim who bought in.  On Sunday (the meet’s final day), we were told the track bent their rules a bit and were selling individual seats at tables rather than forcing the eight-seat buy.  

On the day we opted for the GA space, it worked out fine because Jeff brought fold-up chairs and we set up shop under a large canopy erected by the track.  

The racing was exceptional.  On Saturday, there were two races with purses of $1 million, two at $600 thousand and one at $750 thousand.  Almost all of the races have fields of 12 with alternate entries ready to draw in should a horse withdraw.  

The track itself is unique.  Just barely north of the border with Tennessee, Kentucky Downs in Franklin, KY sits alongside a growing and popular casino called Mint.  The smoky gaming floor features machines deemed “historical horse racing” in concept to conform with state law but players stare morosely at the screens as if they were any other run-of-the-mill slot machines.  

The mile and five-sixteenths long course is Euro-like in look and feel.  It turns sharply left out of the main straight then throws an odd, soft right turn at the field on the backstretch before bringing them back left into the final turn.  Both a decline and incline of significance appear on the backstretch.  Even the home stretch appears to be less than flat.  The dryness and heat last week turned the course a bit brownish on the final weekend but the footing’s consistency is aided by the fact the track is used just a week out of the year. 

Participants ship in from all over the US and Europe.  The meet’s prestige has skyrocketed in the last five years or so as purses went through the roof.  The meet’s September timing also offers a nice stepping stone to the early November Breeders Cup event.  

New York-based jockey Joel Rosario won four races on Sunday and 17 on the meet which is difficult to do at such a competitive gathering of talent.  Every time you looked up, he was finding space at the rail and pushing the go button.  Rosario rode my pick of the visit Beantown Baby on Thursday and finished second.    

Not to get conspiratorial – or to in any way diminish the greatness of the horse meet – but Jeff and I witnessed what appeared to be a serious placing error in Thursday’s second race.  The 30K claiming contest for fillies and mares (non-winners of 2) ended with what looked to the naked eye as a clear victory for the number 11 Swanage.  Both Jeff and I stood near the finish line and saw Swanage hold off a late charge by number 2 Treaty of Paris.  Swanage won by what appeared to be about a half-length or maybe a neck plus.  After a lengthy delay (and supposedly a review of the replay and photo), track announcer Larry Collmus said Treaty of Paris had won!  “It’s official,” said Collmus.  

Jeff and I laughed.  How could it be?  Several minutes later, the track put up a photo showing Treaty hitting the line a hair in front of Swanage.  Was the photo doctored?  Or was the camera that obtains that view set up in the wrong spot?  

As the day wore on, other fans continued the debate.  I spoke to a guy wearing owner’s credentials issued by the state of Kentucky who was openly incredulous about both the photo and the placing.  

Smoke from western fires dimmed the hot sun a bit on both Saturday and Sunday.  There were no attendance numbers announced but at no point on any of the days was it difficult to find a place to bet, a bathroom or a spot along the rail.  Southern hospitality was in full effect throughout.  

Local haze was sipped after the races.  Saturday evening was especially pleasant as we sat at a table out in front of Southern Grist’s flagship location with a ten-ounce pour of just-brewed Insert Juicy Pun.  

We ate well too.  The pozole verde (served in a paper cup) from Mas Tacos was amazing.  We ended the weekend eating great burgers in a unique outdoor amphitheatre setting at the Pharmacy.  Deborah (author of maxleonread.com ) picked up hot chicken one night and southern style breakfast biscuits on my first morning in town. 

On my way out of Nashville Monday morning, the airport was packed.  Music City is a popular place for a weekend visit even with its current hot-spot-for-virus-transmission status.

The recently-released, once-a-decade census data puts Nashville’s population at 689-thousand, the 21st biggest city in America.   The “metro” area number is just under two million.  It’s not clear what effect the pandemic may have on breakneck momentum there but Nashville has long been in steady boom mode.

Monday’s edition of Nashville’s daily newspaper made no mention of the racing at Kentucky Downs, devoting most of its sports copy to the surprising blowout loss to Arizona by the football Titans the day before.  

On arrival back in New York City Monday afternoon, there was a noticeably big charge, a big pulse on the train and in the streets thanks to the return of about a million public school kids.  Monday was the first day back.  About six-hundred thousand students opted for remote only last school year.  That option doesn’t exist this year.  It’s a huge marker in the comeback attempt and it feels really good to see the energy the youth provide back in the groove.  Hope we can safely pull it off long term.  

Today, I stumbled upon a ceremony at the small sliver of park across the street from Lincoln Center.  It’s there that the city has a monument erected celebrating the life of Italian poet Dante Alighieri.  A few dozen were gathered around a lectern where speakers were talking about “Dante” and his legacy.  He died on this day in the year 1321.  There was a beautiful breeze and the 26-foot Dante sculpture on a large pedestal stood tall.  I knew nothing about it before today.