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.
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.