As soon as Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby, I started to worry. He was so dominant, and the rest of the three-year-olds didn’t seem quite so sharp, and there seemed to be a pretty good chance that he’d win the Preakness, and that I’d head to this year’s Belmont, for the second time in my life, with a Triple Crown on the line.
And when he won the Preakness, my despair began in interest.
This has nothing to do with Big Brown, with Iavarone, with IEAH, with Dutrow. It has everything to do with being at Belmont Park with 100,000+ of my closest friends and neighbors. I didn’t write about it the time (though I alluded to it in comments on other sites and spoke at length about it with friends and family), because I knew that I’d come across as a whiny, self-interested narcissist.
Well, I might well be a whiny, self-interested narcissist, but in this circumstance, I also happened to be right, at least partially. Saturday, June 7th, at Belmont Park was indeed a case of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The Good: Though spectators can no longer bring alcohol into the track, we can bring in pretty much anything else. My friends and I arrived laden with snacks, water, and sandwiches, and aside from getting beer, we never had to hit a concession stand. We were well-fed and well-hydrated, and very popular with our neighbors, as we had lots to share.
Overall, betting and beer lines were not the horrors that I’d anticipated. I did plan ahead and I didn’t try to bet within ten minutes to post, and there were never more than two or three people in line in front of me.
NYRA staff, from mutuel clerks to bathroom attendants to security people, were helpful, polite, and cool-headed, often under circumstances that would have led most of us to blow our stacks.
The Bad: Shortly after we arrived at our seats on the third floor of the grandstand, I checked out the betting opportunities. Plenty of windows with human tellers, but only five machines on our level, near our section.
After funding my NYRA card with a human with no trouble at all, I placed my first bet at a machine, then went to a human for my second bet. I slid my card in and placed my bet; the teller handed me my ticket and said, “$6, please.”
But I just paid you with my NYRA Rewards card.
“The machine is telling me, ‘Collect $6.’”
Reinforcements were brought in, and the consensus was that no one had ever seen one of these NYRA rewards cards, and “Maybe because today’s such a big day, they’re not good today?”
Nice try, and the folks were very friendly and polite, but I forked over my $6 and went in search of more betting machines, which I found conveniently located on the second level, directly below my seats.
The Ugly: 95 degree heat +
100,000 94,476 people + lots of hydrating and drinking = pretty significant bathroom use. At around 3:00, the height of the heat and discomfort, I went to the ladies’ room (waited in line for about ten minutes) and discovered that not a single toilet had been flushing for quite some time.
Waste was perilously close to the brim, there was no toilet paper, and people were freaking out. All of these well-dressed (try walking on a urine-soaked floor in spike heels, and then slipping, hitting the ground with your sundress awry—no, that wasn’t I, but I witnessed it), middle-class/affluent white women, were verbally abusing the bathroom attendant, who didn’t seem to speak much English and who was maintaining a valiant poise in the face of the various assaults—verbal, olfactory, visual—she was facing. What exactly they expected her to do, I have no idea.
I found the nearest NYRA employee, who told me that as far as she could tell, there were no bathrooms flushing anywhere; when I explained the situation to her, she immediately got on the phone to try to get someone upstairs to help the bathroom attendant. She took me seriously, she listened, and she took what action she could.
Heading back to my seats, a friend informed me that the men’s room on that floor was closed (as reported to Railbird yesterday) and locked, and that fans were being directed to use the facilities (portable and permanent) in the backyard. Ah yes, take the 40,000 people in the grandstand, add them to the 60,000 out back. GREAT idea.
I really was worried for a time that we’d have a major health/safety issue on our hands; people who can’t pee are quickly going to lose their tempers and do what they need to do. I had visions of backyard urinating and apron urinating—none of which I actually saw, fortunately. And also fortunately, within about an hour the situation had been resolved; my friend told me that not only had the men’s room re-opened, but that it had been completely cleaned and was “spotless.”
For much of yesterday I called the situation “indefensible and inexcusable”; the next morning, I am hopeful that some unpredictable and catastrophic breakdown occurred, especially as this didn’t happen in 2004, when the crowd was 20% bigger. I doubt that we’ll ever get any of the details about it. I wonder if anyone at NYRA would talk to me about it? Hmmm, probably not.
My apocalyptic visions did not, fortunately, come to pass, and somehow, tempers cooled quickly, even in the almost-unbearable heat. The mood throughout the day was mostly upbeat, the racing was terrific, and while “anti-climactic” doesn’t begin to describe the big race itself, another memorable racing story was told.
I’ll be back later with more stories of individual races, and thoughts on the end of the Triple Crown season.