Going the furthest I’ve gone from home since the pandemic began, walking the streets of New York once more, was inspired by the chance to go to the Belmont and made possible by the work of many who went into making COVID-19 vaccines available. And yet, the roots that racing has grown into the fabric of my being that made it almost a mission to go were sown long ago.

I first saw Belmont Park in 2002, when the popular Evening Attire was still in the early stages of a career that spanned much longer than even most geldings’ careers do, and he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup. My memories of that visit are vague as it was not primarily why I went to New York, but I am glad I took the time to go and see him. What I mainly remember about that day is standing by the winner’s circle after he won. My luggage got lost on the way back home, so I have no photos from then but certainly the gray horse left an indelible image and I followed him throughout the rest of his career.

Returning to Belmont Park in 2019 felt like attending for the first time. It was about a week before the Belmont Stakes would be run, and my plane touched down in the evening in pouring rain. I had been on a plane for hours, after nearly two weeks in England and Ireland (mostly Ireland). I didn’t have the leeway to extend my time off work long enough to catch the Belmont Stakes but it was on my mind. Yet I was glad to see the track again, and enjoyed the beautiful architecture and nods to racing history throughout the facility. It also spurred the goal to attend the Belmont Stakes as soon as possible, the only Triple Crown race I had not attended.

I purchased a ticket sometime in the topsy-turvy year of 2020, so topsy-turvy I couldn’t even remember when I made the first of two payments on the ticket and when I got the notification the second payment was due, wasn’t sure attendance would be possible.

Less than two months ago, NYRA announced attendance would be possible and previously purchased tickets would have seat locations moved to allow for social distancing. That gave me a better seat location without a change of price. The trip was a whirlwind one, with the day of the Belmont being my only full day in New York. When I arrived, I found my seat was directly across from the wire.

Belmont is such a unique track, with its circumference and configuration, that I recalled from my visit two years ago that sometimes I had not even been sure where a race was starting. I suppose it makes sense, then, that a track that large would still have discoveries to yield on only a third visit, particularly with the first one leaving only vague impressions (and that is by no means due to the experience I had, but probably due to a lot of memories made in a short time on that trip). This time it was the revelation that Belmont has two turf courses. I may have heard that or seen it over the years watching races from there on TV, but sometimes only direct observation makes a fact truly register. And it really was a moment of, “Hey, there’s two turf courses!” They don’t do anything in half-measures there!

The first race of the day I caught was thrilling from the start, as the horses burst from the gate right in front of the grandstand (and my section) and it got my adrenaline going. I love that feeling, when the thrill of racing transmits itself to the crowd. It was good to be back for a big race day, my first since the Blue Grass Stakes a few months ago.

A little more than 11,000 spectators attended the day’s racing.

Unfortunately, Swiss Skydiver had to be scratched from the Odgen Phipps, which had been tabbed as a race that may have rivaled the Belmont. She had a fever after shipping, which trainer Kenny McPeek said was probably due to coming by van instead of plane, which had not been an option. The good news is, she shook it off by afternoon. I had looked forward to seeing her for the first time, given that every racehorse of merit was one whose races I had to miss in person last year, like many, but the main thing was doing what’s right for her. Letruska ended up winning the Odgen Phipps. Given that she had a slight edge over Monomoy Girl earlier in the spring, it raised the thought of her career being on an upward trajectory.

I did enjoy the day immensely, but one legitimate complaint has to be noted. Given that this was the first Belmont where fans got to return since the pandemic, and also personally that I had never been before as others may not have, consideration of the experience of paying patrons should have been paramount among everyone on the track in a working role. As mentioned, the first race I saw that day saw the field break from the gate right in front of my section. No one obstructed the view.

I’ve been to a multitude of races and many tracks over the years. I have never once until Belmont day seen a starting gate crew block patrons’ view. I’ve seen them watch a race after the field broke, but they crouched down by the rail. They didn’t stand directly in front of patrons. I have no issue with them wanting to watch the race. But when a seat is right at the start and then later the finish of the race, it is a slight disappointment that people there in a working capacity wouldn’t even consider they are hindering the view and thus part of the experience we paid to have.

That aside, it was an exciting race. I was amazed Hot Rod Charlie was as tenacious as he was in never quite giving up, particularly after having the lead as long as he did, and it seems likely if Essential Quality was not as good a horse as he is, Hot Rod Charlie had every chance to prevail at the wire.

I moved over by the winner’s circle to watch Essential Quality receive his blanket of carnations and the acclaim for his victory; one thing made easily possible by a small crowd to do at the last minute. It gave me a momentary flashback, even, of standing at that winner’s circle the first time I ever came to that track and watching another gray horse after winning a stakes race. Later, I discovered I was in a few professional photographers’ photographs of the ceremony. That had not been on my mind at the time – I just wanted to get my own photos – but it was a happy discovery later as it had been my first time at the Belmont. My favorite capture that I happened to be in the background of was when Luis Saez threw some petals from the carnations skyward, for how celebratory it was.

During the course of the day, there was a large contingent who was greatly enthused about Hot Rod Charlie, and several similar moments where it struck me how happy people must be to get back to the track on days like these. I know that. Many of us did what we could to help curtail COVID-19 spread in the pre-vaccine days, but it could take a mental toll over a long period of time. And things like this, for people who feel racing is intrinsically part of them, no doubt felt an extra level of enthusiasm for the chance to come back and be there in person. I know I did, especially as it was my first major excursion since going to the Santa Anita Breeders’ Cup in 2019.