A Belmont Hello

Remember the trees? Remember the grass? Remember how they used to help a tired horseplayer forget about the losers?

 Remember Belmont?    (Cady)

In May 1968, Belmont Park re-opened after a nearly six-year renovation. During its absence from the New York racing scene, the horses ran at Aqueduct and Saratoga, the latter retaining its usual summer dates, the former picking up the slack.

And if the thought of an extra couple of months at Aqueduct every year dismays you, you wouldn’t be so different from the punters expressing relief at returning to beautiful Belmont Park.

Said one Robert Kleiner of Lefrak City in Queens, “’At Aqueduct, it’s like going into an iron lung.’” (“A Bygone Era…”)

The story that is told in the New York Times about the re-opening of Belmont is one of contrasts: the urban grittiness of Aqueduct vs. the pastoral greenery of Belmont, the gambling populace vs. the social elite. Though less than 50 years ago, the era feels as distant, foreign, and class-laden as Victorian England.

The grand re-opening merited as much coverage in the society pages as the sports pages, with articles headlined, “Belmont: After 63 Years, Still New York’s Fashionable Track” and “For Society, Belmont Was Beautiful Again.” “Horse or no horse,” wrote Charlotte Curtis, who covered fashion and society news for the paper, “one had to put in an appearance at the clubhouse on a Saturday or a stakes race day to count among the city’s socially elect. Or so a lot of people thought.”

In a May 19 column titled “The Dowager Queen,” written the day before the track’s re-opening, Arthur Daley discusses Belmont’s blue-blooded past and its uneasy relationship with the people who put their money through the windows.

“[Belmont] was regarded as the dowager queen of the American turf and her court was aristocratic. The peasants were superciliously shunted aside in favor of the clubhouse patrons and even more so by the upper echelon of the Turf and Field Club…

But the peasants have taken over most of the palace in the new Belmont.  Three-quarters of the seats in the huge new stands have been assigned to the $2 customers. For the most part they will have better view of the proceedings than the aristocrats. There hasn’t been anything like it since the fall of the Bastille. In fact, this may be the first bloodless triumph for the common man.

Would Daley, then, have been surprised by this exchange on opening day, reported by his colleague Gerald Eskenazi, standing near the walking ring as James Cox Brady, the chairman of NYRA’s board of trustees, cut the Belmont green and white ribbon to open the new track?

“’Move away from there,’ shouted a man in a leather jacket to the dignitaries. ‘We want to see. We’re going to pay for it.’”

While those in the Belmont Terrace were treated to a symbolic and undoubtedly delicious dessert (“white lemon sherbet topped with Belmont green crème de menthe”), those in the unheated grandstand on a chilly May day were not quite so lucky. Complaints were lodged about long lines for coffee, non-functioning water fountains and toilets, and worst of all, the length of time it took to place a wager. Wrote Eskenazi, “One bettor said he waited for one hour to make a wager at the advance betting window, where patrons can bet on the eighth and ninth races early in the card.”

Such inconveniences garnered relatively little attention, though, compared to the effusive praise heaped on NYRA for retaining Belmont’s idyllic setting while upgrading its physical plant.

The $30-million-plus structure is as modern as a mini-skirt while retaining the sweeping elegance of a floor-length Victorian ball gown. Horseplayers will still lose money, but they never before were privileged to do so in such exquisite and comfortable surroundings. (Daley)

Surroundings that were, on the day of the 100th Belmont Stakes a few weeks after the opening, deemed worthy of an allusion to a French master, in perhaps the first and only time that a racetrack has been compared to an Impressionist painting. According to the Times, a group of young bankers and their dates described Belmont’s backyard as a “Renoir garden scene.”

[It was] a combination of woodsy picnic, band concert…and beach party: fleecy clouds floating through sunny blue skies overhead; young men and girls resting on elbows, looking at each other or glancing idly at programs; older men resting on elbows, looking at the girls; non-girlwatchers, resting on elbows and looking at the past-performance charts in their Morning Telegraphs; family groups taking snapshots. 

As Belmont opens tomorrow, there will be, we can hope, families taking pictures in the backyard and sunny skies and young bankers and their dates flirting; there will be, for certain, the trees so often mentioned by those who praised Belmont’s bucolic atmosphere and who rejoiced that so few—only three—were lost during the renovation.

There will be no Morning Telegraphs, and the racing elite whose names littered these 1968 accounts—Vanderbilt, Payson, Whitney, Morris, Woodward—will likely not be much in evidence, either.

Which is too bad for them, because what Daley wrote will be as true tomorrow as it was in 1968.

“Belmont still is,” he wrote, “one huge garden spot.”

 

Quoted & consulted—many require payment or subscription to read

A Bygone Era IsReborn at Belmont,” New York Times, June 2, 1968.

Belmont Restores Charm to Racing Tomorrow.” New York Times, May 19, 1968.

Cady, Steve. “Belmont Slated to Open May 20,” New York Times, January 12, 1968.

Cady, Steve. “Workmen Win Photo Finish at Belmont.” New York Times, May 20, 1968.

Curtis, Charlotte. “Belmont: After 63 Years, Still New York’s Fashionable Track.” New York Times, May 19, 1968.

Curtis, Charlotte. “For Society, Belmont Was Beautiful Again.” New York Times, May 21, 1968.

Daley, Arthur. “Sports of the Times: The Dowager Queen.” New York Times, May 19, 1968.

Eskenazi, Gerald. “Belmont Is Not All Things to All $2 Bettors Despite Its Good Intentions.” New York Times, May 21, 1968.

Nemy, Enid. “Belmont Swings for a Night.” New York Times, June 1, 1968.

Nichols, Joe. “Aqueduct Opens Tomorrow In Season Marked By Return to Belmont.” New York Times, March 10, 1968.

Nichols, Joe. “In Reality Captures $55,800 Carter Handicap For Third Straight Victory.” New York Times, May 21, 1968.

 

6 thoughts on “A Belmont Hello

  1. Very nice story. The reference to Renoir made me think of a passage of Charlie Hatton’s from years before the reopening, in 1956, when he referenced Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley to describe the scene at Belmont. In his recap of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Hatton called Belmont “America’s turf headquarters,” and then wrote:

    “The setting was something to inspire Sisley. And when the Cup and Futurity had been decided, thoughts like ‘the King is dead, long live the King’ naturally occurred to everyone present. Who was it said: ‘Departing friend, defend your glory?’ It doesn’t matter, but defend it Nashua did. He ended a career that began in victory at four and a half furlongs by setting a new American two-mile record (3:20 2/5) in his second Cup, and he retired sound as the day he was foaled, on the word of Mr. Fitz.”

    That turf writers then casually alluded to Impressionist painters is still something to behold.

  2. Belmont was the first track I ever went to, and June 1, 1968 was my first day at the races, the 100th Belmont Stakes. I fell in love with the place ever since, as well as the races, especially since I hit the Daily Double cold for my first $2 that day.

    And while I loved racing then and now, my love for NYRA has only recently moved a bit off the disdain needle.

    They were the haughtiest of outfits then. Only now that they realize that bettors are customers have they actually been a bit more accomodating.

    If Mike Repole is the future kind of owner that it will take to keep the place full of horses, then make more Mike Repoles.

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