Autumn in New York (Playing the Ponies at Belmont)

It was late September when husband Dave and I ventured east to catch granddaughter Tess’ sixth birthday.  Reminiscing, we had organized many Alaskan parties for our five children that sometimes posed challenges. The last prom-pizza party was a few years ago as volcanic ash rained from the sky while a broken main in the street meant teens dodging a hole the size of two Volkswagen Beetles. At Tess’ party we soaked up Virginia’s fall sunshine while watching thirty kids throw plastic loofas and then smear their faces with turquoise and tangerine fish-esque cake.

The following morning we boarded Amtrak for a few days of clichéd autumn in New York.  Coffee and a danish at Juniors restaurant in Grand Central Station is a great way to wake up before riding the subway, the easiest way to get around. We strolled through a few museums that seemed in exhibition transition after the summer.  “Regarding Warhol” was at the Metropolitan and a “Century of Toys” was at the Museum of Modern Art—too much repetition, not very exciting. Never fear, you can always find adventure in Gotham along with some new restaurant to try.

Backstory–forty years ago my father had promised me a trip to the racetrack when I turned twenty-one, which never occurred as he suddenly died. Growing up, most kids get some sort of allowance for babysitting or taking out the trash. Not my two sisters and I, we got our mad-money by betting on the horses! Daddy would hand out a list from the newspaper and tell us to study the ratios found next to the silly names (2-3 was my favorite odds).

Fast forward forty years and I’ve been researching the lower East Side of the late nineteenth century and discovering that off-track betting was the poor man’s stock market. Of course there was corruption and murder but who’s counting?  Since I’d never been to a track, let alone smelled manure, I persuaded Dave to accompany me to Belmont Park, rationalizing my project would be better if I experienced the roar of the greasepaint, in this case the whinnying of the equines.

We took the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station, changing at the Jamaica interchange for the park, famed for its stakes in June after the Kentucky Derby and Maryland’s Preakness.  Wait!—Penn Station needs some explaining. Once upon a time, there was the beautiful 1910 Penn Station, built by McKim, Mead and White and modeled after the Roman Baths of Caracalla. But the post-war consumer Americans loved Armstrong tiling more than Neoclassical columns.  In 1963 elegant Penn Station was razed and replaced by uninspiring steel and glass giving the sensation of over-chewed gum to its new interior.

Back to our sojourn to Belmont Park–after shoving past grumpy passengers who smelled like the ever present pretzels and processed cheese, we ran up and down several flights of stairs panicking that we would miss the train.  Note: the station is loaded with police and their dogs, more helpful to lost passengers than customer service.  For thirteen dollars roundtrip each, we boarded a train which provided a good view of Queens, think Archie Bunker’s house. We rode across from an office groupie who were heading to a catered party trackside.

The train stopped at the front of the park, named for Augustus Belmont, a Rothschild cousin, who moved to America to manage family holdings. Like Dorothy coming upon OZ, visitors immediately see three concentric race tracks surrounded by impeccable lawns and shrubs.  We paid the two dollar entrance fee and walked under massive bleachers past rows of betting stalls resembling teller cages.  Feeling overwhelmed by the massive grounds and the lack of directional signage, we sat and listened to the bugler clad in red and white call the first race and watched the office groupie assemble around tubs of beer and chafing dishes. The horses came out of the gate on the far side of the track so the start had to be watched on jumbo monitors. Races appeared over in seconds. The winner along with all the losers quickly vanished followed by a chase ambulance, and several John Deere tractors pulling rakes—similar to a Zamboni cleaning an ice rink.

We hadn’t figured out how to place a bet and hunger was setting in as the pastry from Junior’s was wearing off. We wandered back under the bleachers past a gift shop of logoed paraphernalia and paintings of famed horses and trainers, observing some fans come to the track content to watch races on monitors in areas resembling living rooms.  We found a restaurant and ordered two burgers. The chef was Puerto Rican and said he went home offseason. The female cashier went to her niece’s condo in Mexico. The atmosphere was concrete and linoleum but the onion rings were big and crispy. Grabbing a table next to an ivy-covered window overlooking the warm-up areas and parking lots, we watched picnickers study racing charts under beach umbrellas.

After lunch we headed for the paddock, finally locating the racing sheet. Horses were being walked about. A woman with a cherry red suit was talking to a jockey. Once jockeys mount, everything moves quickly. The horses and riders circle the paddock and off they go to the starting gate. We found a cluster of open betting booths and put five bucks on “Bellamy” for no other reason than word-association.  Bellamy was the name of the family in “Upstairs Downstairs.”

Our nag tanked, only to be beaten by the horse owned by the lady in the cherry red suit. By now we were getting the hang of it. We’d bet five bucks at a cage, head to the paddock to view our hopeful winner and then return to the bleachers only to watch our equine lose. “Big Sky Posse” reminded us of our family week in Montana this past August while we could relate “Big Red Talent” to our Nebraska son-in-law (red is the color of the Nebraska football team).

We learned to read the tote boards that constantly changed odds as more bets were placed. There seemed to be more scratches as the afternoon progressed and horses with poor odds often beat the favorites. Word of caution: it’s hard to avoid cigarette smoke coming from those out for an afternoon of beer drinking with buddies. Yes, we saw a few having tantrums over losing. The tradition is to tear up your betting stub and throw it on the ground as you exit the Park.

Outside the gates of Belmont Park.

A day at the races is a New York City excursion with food and entertainment at reasonable prices. An announcer lets everyone know there’s thirty minutes to catch the last train. On the way back to Manhattan we sat across the aisle from a seasoned couple who were discussing their one hundred twenty-five dollar winnings while reading “Betting on Horses for Dummies.” We slumped into our seats having lost on all five races.

Later that evening we joined daughter Maddy at Rosa Mexicano in Union Square; the hostess turned out to be a West High graduate. The premises seemed a converted warehouse with exposed pipes but roomier than most New York eateries.  A large water motif had tiny sculptured divers cascading down blue falling water contrasting with the orangy room décor.

Like all NYC restaurants it was noisy, but the fresh guacamole made tableside was mesmerizing as pits popped out of avocados that happily joined the diced onions, tomatoes and cilantro. The light chicken enchiladas were smothered in a tangy pale green sauce made from tomatillos and jalapenos with just enough beans and rice. And you could actually taste tequila in the margaritas. The churros that we dipped into communal chocolate and  fruit sauces was a great way to engage with Maddy and  provided a nice contrast to the more hearty fare we had sampled earlier at Belmont.