Postcards from France, Mailed from New York

One week before this year’s Belmont Stakes I flew into Paris on a business trip. Oh, sure, it sounds great. When the people I work with found out they were all “oooohhh, Paris!“, as if I were going there with someone other than Nick, my boss. Or that my delving into the finer points of european newspaper circulation might somehow lead me here.

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Well, I won’t lie. I was able to squeeze in a little pleasure before business. But once the workweek arrived, it was off to the bright and shiny skyscrapers of La Defense, where we worked all the French day and even into the New York afternoon. We were all business. At the end of the week, I flew back to New York and directly into the whirlwind of the 2014 Belmont Stakes and all of its blustery aftermath. Which is intended as partial explanation as to why these French postcards from a couple of weeks ago are arriving only now, and all have New York postmarks.

Concorde at CDG, Paris

Saturday morning, May 31st, Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris

Flying from New York to northern Europe in late spring is hell on your circadian rhythm. Just as you have sensibly ushered in nine hours of New York darkness with three pints of Newcastle Brown Ale at a Newark Airport lounge, you find yourself trundling down a jetway and into a window seat with an extra hundred dollars worth of legroom that you hope will buy a little shuteye, to no avail, despite several hopeful hours spent with eyes closed, when somewhere south of Ireland the sun starts poking your lids through leaky shutters and – poof! – there goes your New York night. Welcome to Paris, with sixteen hours of daylight, sunsets at ten o’clock, and all-you-can-eat jet lag.

As a black Mercedes taxi sped me away from the terminal, I gazed longingly at an Air France Concorde. Its nose looked like that of another “not quite extinct, not quite alive” bird known as the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, but the rest of it just looked plain fast, even as it sat there stuffed for posterity. It seemed fitting, through my tired eyes, that the supersonic age was hereby immortalized; yet another relic from another vanished era, here on the distant outskirts of this museum of a city.

Two horseplayer at the back door to Longchamps, 1992.

Two horseplayers at the back door to Longchamp, 1992.

Saturday afternoon, May 31st, in a corner of the Bois de Boulogne

It’s been twenty-two years since my last visit to Longchamp, and I had been told by an old college friend that you could no longer enter the track via the back door, which had been just a short walk from the Boulogne Jean Jaures stop on the Metro. This was disappointing, as this had been my favorite way to enter a racetrack: from a Metro car, through a bucolic park, entering via a small gate and then downhill to the infield, crossing over a grassy backstretch that had been chewed up years ago by the likes of Sea Bird, Ribot, and Mill Reef.

We dropped our bags at our hotel in Saint Germaine and took the Metro towards Longchamp. There was supposed to be a shuttle bus at Porte d’ Auteuil, but we couldn’t find it. So, instead, we set off on foot, past Auteuil (the steeplechase track) and through the Bois de Boulogne, past hundreds of cars that were parked for easy access to the French Open at Roland Garros, taking guidance from Google until, at last, the track came into view and we came wide around the last turn and in through the main gate, just like everybody else.

Suave Dancer, winner of the 1991 Arc, and the lonely Longchamp backyard.

Suave Dancer, winner of the 1991 Arc, and the lonely Longchamp backyard.

Saturday afternoon, May 31st, Longchamp Race Course

Being an American provincial, I like to think of Longchamp as France’s Belmont Park, and these days they seem to have more in common than ever before. They both fill up precisely once per year (Belmont on a June Saturday and Longchamp on the first Sunday in October), and spend the rest of the year seeming mostly deserted. Twelve furlong ovals with massive grounds and hulking grandstands are great on big race days, but even on a beautiful late spring day like this one (one Group 3, plus a couple of handicaps, allowances and cheap claimers), they can both come off as magnificent anachronisms; monuments to a vanished age.

An American horseplayer visiting Longchamp for the first time would almost certainly be put off by any number of differences between French and American racing. Even though the parimutuel system was invented by a Spanish entrepreneur living in France, good luck finding a tote board. Television monitors located near the betting windows supply win odds, but probable exacta (“couple“) payoffs are nowhere to be found. If your preferred exacta combination is getting pounded, you will find out about ten minutes after the race is completed, should it come in.

Watching the race unfold is also a departure for anyone used to watching six furlong sprints on a flat mile oval. At Longchamp the starting gate for twelve furlong races is discreetly tucked away in a far corner of the grounds. After a few jumps out of the gate the field disappears behind the “petit bois” (a small forest placed conveniently in the middle of the racecourse), only to reappear a few furlongs later at the top of a hill on the far end of the grounds before they hang a right that starts a bending mile-long run home. Binoculars are fairly useless here, at least from the lower angles. I watched the early stages of the races on a small monitor in a corner of the grandstand until the field was about three furlongs out, when you could finally hear the pounding hooves and turn away from the TV to start looking for the silks you bet on. While this does create a sense of mystery regarding the first three quarters of the race, the upside is that your hopes typically remain undashed until at least the final two furlongs.

The Chantilly backstretch, on the morning of the 2014 Prix du Jockey Club

The Chantilly backstretch, on the morning of the 2014 Prix du Jockey Club

Sunday morning, June 1st, Chantilly Race Course

I met my old college friend at Gare du Nord, and we boarded a standing-room-only train that would deliver us to the town of Chantilly, about twenty-five miles north of Paris. Scott had been to Chantilly some years before, but never on Prix du Jockey Club day, so we got out there early to be on the safe side. We followed some racetrackers for a few short blocks, then across a street and into a park, down a leafy allee that presently opened up onto the flat, expansive pelouse that is Chantilly Race Course. We were directed through a gate and out onto a backstretch that had been glided over fairly recently by brilliant fillies like Zarkava, Goldikova, and Treve. With the Grandes Ecuries (Great Stables) looming in the distance, I decided then and there that I had found a new favorite way to enter a racetrack.

While it was an extremely pleasant day at the races by any measure, the rather small and subdued crowd – maybe 15,000 people? – made it seem like something less than a classic, at least to this tourist. I understand that the Prix de Diane (the French Oaks), which is run two weeks later, is a much better-attended affair, owing mostly to it being the preferred event for fashionable French ladies to wear extravagant and unwieldy hats. In the Prix du Jockey Club, the Irish-bred longshot The Grey Gatsby (#4, green-checked silks) benefited from an inside trip and a parting of the sea a couple of furlongs out to win going away. At 29-1, it was the first time I remember feeling kind of sad that I never liked Fitzgerald. The 2-1 favorite Prince Gibraltar (#6, red silks and red cap) had an extremely troubled trip, only getting free in the final furlong or so to finish a fast-closing third, and perhaps remains the one to watch going forward.

The Grand Ecurie at Chantilly, viewed from near the finish line on French Derby Day

The Grandes Ecuries at Chantilly, viewed from near the finish line on French Derby Day

Late Saturday afternoon, June 1st, Chantilly Race Course

The trip back to Paris after the races was calm and uneventful. A train pulled into the station, and there were plenty of available seats. My only regret was that I did not have enough free time to explore more of Chantilly. It is a very old racetrack, with its first race card having been run in 1834. The course was built so that the end of the backstretch abutted against the great stables built in 1719 by the estate’s owner, Louis Henri, a hard-working chap who held down two jobs as the Duke of Bourbon and the Prince of Conde. [The Grandes Ecuries is now home to France’s Living Museum of the Horse.] The Duke built the grandest stable ever because he believed in reincarnation and, certain that he would come back as a horse, wanted a stable that would be suitable to a cheval of such quality. It seems doubtful that any of today’s dukes of the American thoroughbred industry believe in reincarnation, and that’s too bad. It’s not that I am hostile to the more conventional views of the afterlife. It’s just that, if even a few of them thought there was the slightest chance that they might come back as a cheap claimer, they might actually try to do something to make life a little easier on the thoroughbred, and other denizens of the American backstretch.

 

 

 

Throwing it Back: 1998 Belmont Stakes

Victory Gallop, Gary Stevens, Real Quiet, Kent Desormeaux

Sixteen years ago last week, one of the most exciting stretch drives in the history of the Belmont Stakes resulted in Victory Gallop denying Real Quiet the Triple Crown. This race followed my first published story about horse racing, which you can read by clicking on the PDF attached below (note: The Observer’s headline writer apparently did not realize that Victory Gallop was a colt).

(sic) She’s No Seattle Slew!

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

 

Guests of the Association

As an experienced guest of the New York Racing Association (my first Belmont Stakes was twenty five years ago), I am happy to report today that I was one of the six thousand “unaccounted for” travelers on the outbound Long Island Rail Road trains.

As regular readers of The Long Island Rail Road Today could tell you, nearly 36,000 people took the Belmont Special out to Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, but only 30,000 took a return trip back into the city.

The last of those 30,000 did not depart the Belmont platform until nearly eleven PM, or, about four hours after the finish of the big race, and about two-and-a-half hours after the 13th and final race on the card. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I purchased a nice seat in the third floor grandstand a few days before California Chrome ran off with this year’s Derby. In recent years I have not bothered with buying seats in advance, on the theory that if no horse was able to complete the Derby/Preakness double, I’d be able to scoop up nice ones on the cheap in the secondary market. And if some horse did win both, creating a Triple Crown bid, I told myself I wanted no part of that particular NYRA guest experience. But this year was different, and for that I blame Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations.

It was Panza’s bright idea to snatch the Metropolitan Mile from the Memorial Day card, along with several other graded stakes from other dates, effectively turning Belmont Day into a springtime Breeders’ Cup that race fans would find impossible to resist, even if there wasn’t a Triple Crown on the line. To Mr. Panza’s credit, Saturday’s racing was a brilliant success. The only problem was that there was a Triple Crown at stake, and that is what screwed the Corgi, as they say around Windsor Castle.

I had a big breakfast at a diner around nine, knowing that food lines at Belmont would be terrible and would result in missed bets and races. I had purchased my rail ticket the night before, and cruised by 20-deep lines at the ticket machines with about five minutes to spare before the first train departed at 9:45. It was not just “standing room only” on this train, they even ran out of standing room. I’m not sure if anyone was able to get on the train when it stopped in Jamaica, but we inched into Belmont more or less on time, and I was able to get through the security screening in plenty of time to see Australia win the Epsom Derby for Aidan O’Brien. So far, so good. And it was an absolutely gorgeous day.

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Once I was at my seat – first row of the third level, just outside the sixteenth pole – it became increasingly clear that that a huge percentage of the ticket holders were secondary market buyers who had overpaid to see California Chrome’s underlaid shot at “history”. A family from Auburn, Alabama was just down the row from me, and had rationalized using air miles to buy cheap, last-minute flights and staying at a “cheap” midtown hotel, as somehow making up for spending $500 apiece on their four seats. I warned them about the long lines they would see outside the women’s rooms and that they should head for the LIRR platform the instant the Belmont was over if they wanted to have any chance on getting back to midtown before nine o’clock.

Early on in the card, the betting lines were fine. Through about the sixth race I could stay in my seat until after the post parade and still get my bets down with a couple of minutes to spare. But as we moved closer to the feature race the crowds grew thicker, the lines got longer, and tempers flared as hardened horseplayers blew their stacks, sitting 8th in a line that was not moving with four minutes left until post time. As is often the case on these big days, you are at the mercy of the teller at the head of your line. During one queue, a couple of us wondered why our line was barely moving. When I finally got to the teller, she was punching tickets and clumsily giving and taking money left-handed, while her right remained immobilized in a sling.

Did I mention that the racing was terrific? Nine consecutive graded stakes races, with an average field size of ten and an average win mutual of nearly $15.00. And the race with the shortest field – the Ogden Phipps – turned out to be perhaps the best race on the day, with Bill Mott’s Close Hatches tenaciously holding off the late rush of Princess of Sylmar. Whatever troubles NYRA’s guests encountered during the day and the evening and late into the night, the quality of the racing was not one of them.

What is frustrating for close observers is that all of the problems that were encountered on Saturday – long lines for food and drink and bathrooms; incompetent tellers and balky machinery resulting in long lines and angry punters; a seeming complete lack of wi-fi availability; parking lots (the white and blue lots) that were impossible to escape; and three-hour waits for return trains – were altogether predictable. The LIRR’s own guide to the Belmont (which was handed out after you had your ticket scanned) told people they would face two hour waits for their return trains (which turned out to be on the optimistic side).

As an experienced guest of the Association, I have workarounds for some of these. Long lines for food? Eat a big breakfast. Long lines for drinks? Don’t drink. Long lines for the bathrooms? Don’t drink. [Although, I must say, it hurts to take a train to the races and then not have anything to drink. Note to self: Research a non-metallic flask that will pass the metal detector wand.] Lack of wi-fi and long lines at the windows? I’ve got nothing here but if NYRA could take care of the first problem the second would likely go away on its own. Actually, here is a solution to the wi-fi problem (with a tip of the hat to BH on the Thorograph board), if NYRA would like to solve it by this time next year.

The infrastructure issues, mainly the bathrooms and the parking and return train problems, are seemingly more intractable, but, really, how hard can they be? Porta-Potties have been a huge success at the Preakness. Is it really that difficult to move traffic out of a parking lot? Someone must know something about tied-up traffic. Maybe Andy Cuomo can call Chris Christie. And that dreaded return train issue? That’s really a head-scratcher.

After the last race on Saturday, which finished just as the sun was going down, I walked down to the second floor to find that the queue for trains was still extending back into the grandstand. Experience told me this was still at least a two-hour wait (and this was confirmed later on by Twitter and the newspapers). So, I walked downstairs and out of the grandstand, heading for the gate at Hempstead Turnpike. I turned right on Hempstead and right again on Springfield and in fifteen minutes I was at the Queens Village stop on the LIRR. I bought a one-way ticket for $7.00, and, about 40 minutes later I was back at Pennsylvania Station in New York. Including the walk, my return trip took just a shade longer than my outbound trip in the morning.

Christopher Kay, the CEO of NYRA, loves to talk about the “guest experience”. Well, I know a thing or two about guests, and the most important thing is that they eventually get the hell home. Especially when they came expecting to see history, only to wind up on the short end of a sucker bet, waiting for trains that never seem to arrive.

As for next year? I think I’ll buy two nice seats and hope like hell that the Derby winner loses in Baltimore. This new Belmont Day card would be great without those extra forty thousand hoping to witness history. Given the sad state of affairs at NYRA, we won’t be getting a New York Breeders’ Cup any time soon, but this new “springtime” cup will more than suffice. And if some horse does pull off the Derby/Preakness double? Maybe I’ll take the cash. But if not, it’ll be a one-way on the Belmont Special, and a one-way from Queens Village. And I’ll enjoy the walk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinderella at Midnight

It turns out horses and strawberries aren’t the only things that can go bad overnight. Steve Coburn, the noisy half of the Dumb Ass Partners who own California Chrome, has failed his Broadway audition, even while his horse was gallant in defeat.

Shortly after Frank Sinatra Jr mangled the lyrics to “New York, New York” (demonstrating to the breeders in attendance the limitations of the sire side influence), Coburn showed that he can’t make it in New York, and perhaps not anywhere else either.

If at first you spotted him an allowance for blowing off some steam after five weeks in the spotlight and a few too many over a long afternoon that ended in crushing defeat, he could be forgiven. But when he doubled down on his dumbass remarks in the cool morning light of Sunday, he joined history’s long list of one-time folk heroes who show feet of clay once they kick their shoes off. But at least we know he wouldn’t ever try to play basketball against kids in wheelchairs (don’t click on this, just trust me, please).

If it never occurred to Coburn that dissing your competitors by all but guaranteeing victory, and then calling them cheaters and cowards after they beat you is bad form, we can only hope he is reminded of it every now and then until he gets it.

Here we are tempted to cite Kipling and his sage advice about treating triumph and disaster just the same, but instead will just note that, next time, perhaps we could chill on believing that every Derby/Preakness winner is a super horse, or that every talkative guy in a cowboy hat is a folk hero.

I am not one of those guys who rant about a mass media that likes to build up folk heroes only to tear them down once they start to crack. That’s like complaining about circus geeks who also happen to enjoy the taste of chicken. Yes, I mean you, Bob Costas! Once Coburn had fouled the bed, Costas was a bit too eager to invite everyone in for an orgy, and credit to Robert Evans for not taking the bait.

Of course, many others who helped build Coburn up were only too happy to help tear him down, now that his freshness date had expired. But at least there was a little subtlety about it in places. This is, as best I can tell, Joe Drape telling Times readers that Coburn was drunk:

Steve Coburn, a voluble co-owner of California Chrome, had kissed his wife, Carolyn, before the race and still looked flush from it as Chrome loped into the backstretch

Here is Drape writing about Coburn prior to the Preakness:

Coburn is employed by a Nevada company that makes magnetic tape for items like credit cards and hotel keys

And here is Mike Tierney writing about Coburn in the NYT after the Belmont:

With his five weeks of fame over, unlikely to be extended or renewed, Coburn will return to his factory job for the 6 a.m. shift on Tuesday.

It’s small wonder that, even as the American population continues to drink up mass media with a Big Gulp, they seem to have a lingering disdain for the people who produce it. Could it be because all too often they see people not unlike themselves – plain-spoken, middle class, ordinary – lauded as good people while on the ascent, and then derided as dumb hicks once their usefulness is at an end?

Chip Woolley, the cowboy trainer of Mine That Bird, comes to mind. In the week before the 2009 Derby, when he was just some hick curiosity who pulled his no-hope gelding behind a pickup truck all the way from New Mexico to Louisville, he could feel the derision. Then, once he became a Derby-winning trainer he was criticized for remembering all the subtle slights and taking mild offense. But in his post-Derby interview, in a high pressure moment at the apex of his career, he was thoughtful and generous enough to give credit to Bird’s previous trainer, showing more class and grace in that moment than Steve Coburn, or Bob Costas, could ever hope to possess.