Belmont Bereft? Enter Besso

The Belmont fall meet ended with a whimper, probably coming from those whose feet are still unthawing after Saturday’s snowstorm, a storm that resulted in a cancellation after the third race on Saturday and of the full Sunday card. It’s not how Belmont’s storied championship meet should end.

But those who still want a little bit of Belmont just might want to talk to Michael Besso.

It’s mid-October, and it’s beautiful.  Michael and Elyse Besso are sitting on the patio next to the Belmont paddock.

He looks around. “I love this place,” he says. “I’ve been here since I’m 16.”

Besso is now 71. In 2000, he held his 60th birthday party at Belmont, in the one of the dining rooms.  “They let you have a race in your name,” he says. “I called it ‘Nutsy Fagan’s Day at the Races,’ because my mother used to call me Nutsy Fagan.  I named it after her.”

Besso's birthday party invitation

“They organize the party here so beautifully,” Elyse interposes. “In fact, a friend of ours who was there that day did it five years later. You get a race in your honor, they bring you down the winner’s circle to meet the jockey, they mail you the picture. It’s just wonderful.”

She is an elementary school math teacher in Syosset, recently retired. He’s in sales, in printing. They live in Huntington, on Long Island.

In addition to Belmont, Besso loves the Yankees and Jack Daniels, and, not content to enjoy them privately, he has, with no small degree of cheekiness, established the Besso Museum and Learning Center.

“Will at some time be listed as a National Treasure,” reads the brochure.

Besso was born in the Bronx and is a self-described “big Yankees fan.”  “I was maybe 10 blocks from Yankee Stadium, and I used to go there by myself.  I saved all my Yankees’ clippings from the paper, going back to Mickey Mantle, even DiMaggio. I had them all in a briefcase and I decided that I should do something with all this stuff.”

He describes Jack Daniels as his other passion, and he and his brothers-in-law—Elyse’s brothers—made a pilgrimage to Lynchburg, Tennessee, where the whiskey is made.  He came back with a chair made of half of a Jack Daniels barrel. It is, of course, in the Museum.

“These three things I love, I put them together,” he says.

“He’s had a ball taking over this room that used to belong to our younger daughter Julie and turning it into his ‘man cave,’ as they call it now,” says Elyse. “He calls it his Museum and Learning Center; he thinks that has a little more panache to it.”

“He started it more or less tongue in cheek,” she says. He breaks in, “The tongue has come off the cheek.”

It doesn’t take much to get Besso talking about racing. Like most people who have spent any time at the track, he’s full of stories.

“Did you ever go to Roosevelt Raceway?” he asks. “It was a beautiful place. In the 60’s, it was the place to be on Friday and Saturday night. They had what they called the double-double on the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th races.  If you won the double on the 6th and 7th, you were eligible to bet on the 8th and 9th.

“So I happened to be there. I had no money, really, I was looking over somebody’s shoulder at the program, and I picked the horses, and then I won. It was $1617.10. I remember it to this day.”

He continues. “That was a lot of money. So I went home and I told my father, I’m not working any more, I’m retired.

“He asked, ‘Where are you going to live?’ I said, ‘Here.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not.’ So that was the end of that.”

But it’s not the end of the story. “My father’s accountant told me I could go back to the track and pick up losing tickets, so I did that. And I won another $500 that day.”

Elyse laughs. “It’s been steadily downhill ever since.”

Michael first went to the track at Jamaica, with his uncle and his cousin. “He’d take us about once a month,” he recalls. “I had my first drink at Jamaica. Some guy at the rail offered my uncle and me a swig.

“As I got older, I used to take my nephew, who’s about 10 to 15 years younger than me. We used to come to Belmont and hang out in the grandstand.”

His birthday is June 11th, and he says he’s missed the Belmont Stakes once in 63 years.  “It was the day my daughter was born,” he says. “I was torn: Should I go to the hospital or should I go to the Belmont?”

At this, Elyse smiles indulgently.  As, one might imagine, she did when, on a trip to the south of France, she got bitten by a dog and he insisted on taking her to the racetrack instead of the hospital.

She says, “I said, ‘We don’t need to go the racetrack.”

He says, “It was gorgeous.  I couldn’t understand one thing they were saying.”

He says he always makes money on Belmont day; he says that he loved Woody Stephens and that he bet all of Woody’s Belmont winners.

“The day before the Belmont, I had a dream that my mother was telling me to bet Swale. It wasn’t much of a stretch to bet him, he was one of the best, but still, I won,” he says.

“There’s a moral there,” says Elyse. “Listen to your mother.”

Now that she’s retired, he wants to travel around the country visiting racetracks and ballparks; she, maybe not so much, though it’s hard to shrug off his enthusiasm.  That indulgent smile appears again when he starts talking about building a replica of the Yankees dugout in one of the closets in their home.

He hopes to have an open house in the spring, to share with the public his passions and his treasures.  The Museum is open by appointment, but with a few exceptions.

“Closed on major holidays,” reads the brochure, “and the Saturday of the Belmont Stakes.”

Which, according to Michael Besso, might be the most major holiday of all.

Besso at Belmont

6 thoughts on “Belmont Bereft? Enter Besso

  1. That was a nice story indeed!

    It was a shame the Belmont meet ended the way it did, but NO ONE could have predicted way in advance we’d have a snowstorm hit on the last weekend in October. That storm was the first snow in any part of the New York area since 1979 (and as I remember, it was 85 degrees a week after that one) and the first in NYC proper since 1952. This storm shattered all records for October, with the snow in Central Park either shattering the old record (which was .8″) or being the first recorded snow ever in October depending on who you believe. Belmont got an inch of rain AND 4.3″ of snow, and likely there was a mix of snow and ice in the track and turf courses that even with warming weather would have made racing impossible on Sunday. Had the turf courses been in shape, they likely could have moved the dirt races to the turf.

    In regards to the “double double” in the post, that was actually known as the twin double that many harness tracks offered, basically where if you hit the first double you got an exchange ticket for the second double. It essentially was the predecessor to today’s Pick Four, which was first offered by New York City OTB in the 1970’s in conjunction with the old WOR-TV “Racing from Yonkers/Roosevelt” shows (though an odd quirk of those pick fours was, it could not include a race that had triple (trifecta) wagering on it for whatever reason). That pick four was a $3 wager that was usually on Thursday and Saturday nights, when the racing shows aired at 11:30 PM locally.

  2. Very interesting-Andrea & I would love to visit…Also 2 of my grandsons and 1 son-in law are Yankee fans. I was a Bklyn Dodger, and then Mets fan-I have memories of Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and,of course, Shea. Have been to Belmont a few times, and we love Saratoga! Looking foward to meeting the 2 of you and viewing the Museum. Elliot

  3. I know and love Michael Besso and his wry wit! He is a gentle soul who always has a yarn to tell, a smile to share
    and a positive presence wherever he goes! Mazel Michael! 🙂
    And all the best for your Museum.

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