Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Belmont Park and Saratoga

On Sunday July 29, my husband and I drove from our home in Chicagoland to York, Pennsylvania. There, we stayed for three days with his family. Our stay in Pennsylvania may have consisted of most of our trip, but the best was yet to come.

On the morning of Thursday August 2, we bid my husband's family farewell and took to the road again. Our destination was Elmont, New York--home of Big Sandy, a.k.a. Belmont Park.

I was born in White Plains, a suburb of NYC, and hadn't been to New York since 1997. Even though we were only passing through, a nostalgic part of me was thrilled to be going through the city with my husband (whom I met in 2003). As we approached the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the traffic slowed to a crawl. It didn't bother me in the least--it was our welcome to New York City, and it meant we were almost there!

Entering the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

But before Belmont Park, we had one important stop to make. With the help of Google maps, I found a florist shop a short distance away from the racetrack. At the shop, after deliberating, I asked the florist to assemble a red and white bouquet with various flowers, including roses, for $25. The result was a gorgeous and surprisingly heavy and lush compilation of flowers. Bouquet in hand, we returned to the car and found our way to the gates of Belmont Park.

That red and white bouquet was to play a very important role in my life. It was about to fulfill a dream I had for over 20 years; a dream that took form when, as a young girl, an almost-black filly burst to life within the storied imagination of my mind--she who led every race from start to finish, she who was undefeated and won by open lengths, she who broke and equaled stakes and track records with joyous ease, she who died because her body gave out before her heart. But of course, this almost-black filly wasn't imagination. She was reality, and she was the greatest filly to ever grace a racetrack. She was Ruffian.

Since seeing Ruffian outside of old race replay videos and the countless photographs I've viewed of her over the years was impossible, it was a private dream to visit her final resting spot and lay flowers upon it. But Belmont Park is a very long way from Chicago, and her grave is not open to the public.

But the stars aligned, and somehow we were granted special access, and at last I had the chance to have a longtime dream fulfilled.

When we arrived at Belmont Park, we met with our contact, whom turned us over to a security guard. The guard was an older gentleman, but fit, with kind eyes. We found out shortly that he had seen Ruffian run, and had been present at Belmont Park during her fatal match race. He had incredible respect for the great filly, and his presence made the experience all the more profound.

We were guided across Big Sandy and the turf courses. In the distance, beneath the flagpole just past the finish line, was her grave. To say I had chills was an understatement.

We arrived, and I unwrapped the bouquet from the plastic flower sleeve and tissue paper. Red and white, for her Locust Hill Farm colors. I placed the flowers at the foot of her headstone.

We took photos and absorbed the scene for a while. The guard talked about Ruffian, and for a few moments we were transported back a little over 37 years, and it was another day at Belmont Park, and a big almost-black filly with a long dreamlike stride moved around the track like a phantom from another dimension.

 Dk. B or Br. F. 3 by Reviewer - Shenanigans by Native Dancer
Breeder and Owner - Mr. and Mrs. Stuart S. Janney Jr.
Trainer - Frank Y. Whiteley Jr.
Undefeated Two-Year-Old Filly Champion of 1974
Winner of the Fashion, Astoria
Sorority and Spinaway Stakes
Winner of the Three-Year-Old Filly Triple Crown of 1975
The Acorn, Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks
In addition to the Comely Stakes.

Then it was time to head back. We took these photos as we went in an effort to capture the experience of walking over the tracks. We also had a tour of the paddock, and went to an upper floor of the grandstand to get photos of the view.

Winter Memories loved this turf

Outer turf course

Big Sandy

Big Red oversees the paddock

One can't help but picture Secretariat winning by 31 lengths

Then it was on to Albany, where we stayed for the night. The next morning we went to historic Saratoga Race Course, the oldest racetrack in North America. Saratoga (as well as Belmont Park) are two tracks I have always wanted to visit. History seeps from the very ground of these tracks, particularly Saratoga--the Spa, the Graveyard of Champions!

Again, the stars aligned and we were granted access to the paddock. I am easily awed by all things racing, so I was bowled over when I found out we could enter the paddock as we pleased. Here are a few photos I liked in particular.

Inside the paddock

Sea Hero oversees the paddock

Smart Believer
Mrs. Calabash
Warming up

Warming up

Smart Believer winning her first start

A painter in the paddock

Hot pony

Midnight Taboo

Jocosity winning a maiden for two year olds

Tahoe Lake before the John's Call (above four)

Inscrutable after the John's Call

The speedy It's Me Mom being saddled for the Honorable Miss

Maple Forest (and Barbara Livingston) before the Honorable Miss

The lovely Maple Forest (Honorable Miss)

Island Bound (Honorable Miss)

Belle of the Hall (Honorable Miss)

CC's Pal (Honorable Miss)

Beat the Blues (Honorable Miss)

It's Me Mom (Honorable Miss)

Maple Forest (Honorable Miss)

CC's Pal driving to the win in the Honorable Miss

CC's Pal returning (Honorable Miss)

Ponies await the final race of the day


L.Williams said...

I love Saratoga! My favorite racetrack town!

Heidi Carpenter said...

We want to go back again next year, but for longer. It was gorgeous!!