New York racing gets through Stakes weekend, resumes hibernation

Union Rags. (NYRA, via flickr)
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In the end, the Belmont Stakes on Saturday was just a race.

Without the presence of I’ll Have Another, who was scratched from the race on Friday because of an injury, most of the sports-related drama (if not the political drama) had been removed from the event. There was to be no Triple Crown.

Still, the mere fact that the proceedings went off without any other hitch must have come as something of a relief to the keepers of the racing industry in New York. About 85,000 people attended the event, which isn't bad, even if there was still room for more fans in Belmont’s mammoth and sprawling grandstand and clubhouse. (Was the track built by a large, powerful race of giants? It seems that way.)

The one dark moment in the day came in a race before the main event, during the True North Handicap, when the sprinter Giant Ryan was injured. The horse fell to the ground near the finish line, managed to get up, and then held aloft his left leg. Attendants raised a screen in front of the horse to block the view of thousands of spectators. (Seeing a horse euthanized on the track is bad for business.)

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But luckily, the horse’s injury, while severe, may not be fatal. An inflatable splint was applied to the leg and Giant Ryan was able to walk into a horse ambulance, to applause from the crowd. He is to undergo surgery this week.

Before the Belmont Stakes started, I’ll Have Another was officially “retired” in a ceremony in the Winner’s Circle. In true New York fashion, those proceedings were greeted with disinterest by most of the fans, who were busy placing bets.

The race itself was a different story. Paynter tried to go wire-to-wire in the 1 ½-mile marathon but in the final stretch, Union Rags, a powerful, Bluto-like horse, caught him, as the crowd roared.

The scene seemed at odds, as it does during the exciting finale of every Stakes weekend, with the fact that Belmont sits virtually empty for the other 364 days.

It’s a different story in the Albany area (where I was born and grew up), where the cicada-like culture of Saratoga dominates for five weeks each summer.

Belmont, except than for a very small core of racing fans in New York City, is a once-a-year thing. Even a Triple Crown wouldn't have changed that.