Boutique Belmont?

What, exactly, is it that makes a racing meet “boutique”? We hear the term all the time, usually referring to Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland, meets known for their brevity, the quality of the racing, and their popularity.

Recently, bettors have come out in full voice decrying the diminished quality of racing at Saratoga (too many state-breds, too many claimers, too many turf sprints), and I’m sure that I’ve heard similar complaints about Del Mar, though I don’t follow that meet as closely (or, truth be told, at all, really).

The word “boutique” comes from the French for “shop”; Merriam-Webster offers the following definitions:

1 a: a small fashionable shop b: a small shop within a large
department store
2: a small company that offers highly specialized services or products

It’s not a big jump from the word’s denotation to its metaphorical and descriptive use, its shift from a noun to an adjective, in its association with smaller racing meets. It makes sense, particularly in a market in which any product that is seen as limited is considered desirable, and many race fans who seek ways to broaden the sport’s popularity are on record as calling for more “boutique” meets, arguing that less is more.

I’ll leave that discussion to others, but having left a desolate Belmont Park on Saturday, on a day on which two Grade I races were run, I found myself asking, “Why isn’t the Belmont fall meet considered ‘boutique’?”

Size aside (can anything as big as Belmont be considered “boutique”?), in terms of racing product, there’s not much difference between Saratoga and Belmont. The former offers 36 racing days, the latter 38. Saratoga presents thirty-three graded stakes races (fifteen of them Grade I’s, or 45%), Belmont twenty-three (ten of them Grade I’s, or 43%). Saratoga is known for establishing some of the divisional leaders in racing’s second season, while Belmont opens the pre-Breeders’ Cup, third season of the racing year. While each meet has lost some of its former luster, no one could deny that horses in the mix for end of year honors establish themselves in the summer at Saratoga and in the fall at Belmont—though the effect on Belmont of the Breeders’ Cup being held at a track with a synthetic surface for the next two years remains to be seen.

Even given the terrible weather forecast on Saturday, the emptiness of Belmont was discouraging; while attendance was way off during those first few dreadfully rainy days at Saratoga, fans and bettors still turned out. Even on a perfect weather day of great racing, Belmont can seldom expect more than 10,000 people to show up.

So does a “boutique” meet lead to higher attendance, or do we call meets with high attendance “boutique”? I rather suspect the latter. Do “boutique” meets only happen in places that already attract visitors (such as Saratoga and Del Mar) or that are in the heart of horse country (Keeneland)? Is the Meadowlands a boutique meet?

These fall weekends at Belmont are as compelling to me as the summer ones at Saratoga; the weather is frequently gorgeous, the racing is terrific, and I get to see the equine and human stars of the sport. If I could only convince a few more of my fellow New Yorkers to drag themselves away from the other weekend charms of the tri-state area, we might have one more meet to add to the “boutique” list.

9 thoughts on “Boutique Belmont?

  1. It can be sad to go to a desolate Belmont during the fall meet. It is almost like a bittersweet dream where you show up and everything is just perfect but then you are all alone and there is no one to share the dream with. Somewhere in the 1980’s racing lost the urban masses to the media. Now they are watching games on TV are loading up on Chinese slave produced stuff at shopping malls. The only time the masses show up is when the TV tells them to during the triple crown.

  2. It might just be the hangover effect.Saratoga, sandwiched between Belmont’s summer and fall meet, is a welcome respite and nobody wants to go back to work after time off.I don’t know much about NYRA and how it runs its show but it might just have blown its wad marketing the spa…

  3. The meet begins only 4 days after Saratoga-making it hard for people to even look forward to the meet-why not have a 2 week break and then begin the meet??-Less is more, Less is more.For New York racing fans you go straight from the Big A to the Spring Belmont week to the Spa and then back to Belmont-again-Less is More. (Look at the beauty of the short but popular NFL season-just 16 games-and oh yeah they gamble on this sport too)

  4. Boutique for bin Laden too?Am I the only one who caught this piece a couple of years back?_______________________When we first caught wind of the story, we figured it was just the kind of mordant humor one should expect around the track. After a while it registered — despite the comical delivery — that to many regulars the tale seemed very real and more than a bit scary. “Hector is on the early shift. He unlocks doors and turns lights on, that kind of thing. It was last Wednesday that he saw him just as he was stepping out of the stairwell. Hector said it had to be him.” “I’m sitting down with my coffee getting the changes on the card, OK? I notice some guys going into the last men’s room on the second floor, OK? They looked out of place, know what I mean? I didn’t give it much thought, but when these guys came out about 10-15 minutes later, that’s when I seen him. Not in the usual clothes, but in overalls, OK? It was him, man.” “One day last week was cold and wet. I think it was Thursday. I’m going upstairs on the third floor about the eighth pole and this big guy brushes past me in a hurry-like. You never see nobody up there, especially rushing around. I probably wouldn’t a thought nothing of it, but with all the rumors, I took a look, you know? A good look. If it wasn’t him, it must be one of them movie doubles.” Out of the eyewitness accounts that have been passed among the odd population of Belmont’s patrons, a convincing picture is coming into focus. Somewhere in the echoing and empty corners of the gargantuan grandstand, far from the war-torn deserts of Asia, many are beginning to believe that a very important figure is hiding out: Osama bin Laden. “Big fat Pinkerton come up here asking questions about two weeks ago. They must of dropped him on his head when he was a kid, poor bastard. Outside of that, nothing.” So testifies an elderly racing fan — offering only the name of “Casey” — of the only discernible official reaction to the astonishing rumors. “Our patrons are a colorful and durable crowd, to be sure. Do I think that people saw something out of the ordinary? Maybe. Do I think that decades of bad diet, exposure to the elements, and knocking around an empty building can end up dulling your senses? Definitely.” Such were the comments of an NYRA security officer, who — considering the uncharitable description of the hardcore veterans that constitute his organization’s customers — unsurprisingly demanded anonymity. It seems that no one in any kind of official capacity is willing to be engaged on the subject. The NYPD, FBI and Homeland Security issued standard communications that no tips or alerts of any kind have been received from the NYRA or its patrons. By any measure, it is as though the idea were so far beyond the realm of possibility that no interest could be taken. “They still got that reward on the man? Who knows? I’m keeping my eyes open just in case. Man, a hundred Osamas could hide out in the bathrooms in this place.” So says Winthrop Brathwaite, 47, who has been a regular for “over twenty-five years.” His friends accepted his assessment with the combination of disagreement, languid consideration, and playful teasing that accompanies their daily patter on matters equine. The grandstand at Belmont strikes the visitor as monumental. It is like some kind of abandoned warehouse in a long-disused industrial zone. The racing fans gather in lonely clusters and blend into the forlorn shadows. The sudden announcements from the public address system — staccato interruptions of gloomy silence — are among the few reminders that somewhere in the vast physical plant is taking place a major sporting event. The acres of empty betting windows that lie in great banks have a sprinkling of self-service machines where a solitary bettor makes his voiceless transactions. Above the windows in odd arrangement are single televisions emitting odds quotations from the track’s closed circuit system. On occasion a lonely figure will shuffle in front of the antiquated display and cast his gaze in a way suggestive of long-imprinted habit — a survivor of some unnamed, terrific cataclysm that wiped out all but a handful of men like him. As hard as the bin Laden rumor is to swallow, the visitor is simply not being honest were he to deny that Belmont Park might be a very easy place to disappear. Unlike places that are completely off limits, where any intruder might trigger an alarm or be prey to a guard dog, the echoing vastness plays host to isolated groups of paying customers. How easy it would be to mingle in the forgotten group — diminished, unwatched, unnoticed. Plenty of urban legends have great staying power, despite lack of chilling currency and plausibility. As the rumors become commonplace, and as the officials continue to ignore them, we wonder if it is an impossible longshot that Belmont is someday recalled as “that place where bin Laden hid out for the entire fall meet.”

  5. PC: See you at Aqueduct?Winston: If we’ve got a hangover, nothing like the hair of the dog to cure it. See you at Belmont? SS: I couldn’t wait to get to Belmont last Saturday–two great races, and beautiful Belmont Park. I know that not everyone loves it and that there’s an argument to be made for a break, but I love that in NY, we race year-round.TJ: you lost me with this one.

  6. Breeders’ Cup changed everything some 20 years ago. Belmont has the quality of stakes that should in fact characterize the meet as “boutique.” This meet once was the highlight of fall racing — until the great number of Breeders’ Cup preps everywhere diluted the effect of autumn racing at Belmont.

  7. I think part of the “boutique” element is the intimacy of the track surroundings. Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar are all smaller tracks with their own individual nooks, crannies and charms. Belmont, while beautiful, is enormous and sweeping. It’s top-shelf stakes racing, but nothing at that track could be deemed “boutique” in my mind. Neither could anything at Churchill or Santa Anita.To use shopping as a comparison, both Sak’s and Claudine offer high quality product, but only the latter is a “boutique”, if only because of its size.

  8. Maryjean: Of course–excellent point about the Breeders’ Cup overshadowing the fall races. While I love the excitement of the BC, I hate its significance, which seems disproportionate to me.El Angelo: Yeah, the size of the plant does seem to mitigate against “boutique.” It makes that smaller tracks are the boutiques.

  9. The insatiable need of NY State (and NYRA) for money pretty much means that long breaks between the “meets” are impossible. It’s a struggle to get even the one-week break at Christmas.And if you though Saturday was bad, Sunday, when the weather was glorious, was worse. I think the 30 or so Castle Village Farm partners who showed up to watch our filly Just Zip It in the Schenectady Handicap made up half the total crowd. I remember Belmont from when I was in high school, when people still went to the races. It’s sad now.

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