In the Paddock

Think back to high school or college. No, no, no, not the fun part. The part when you’re sitting in a warm classroom at the end of the spring semester and about to start an exam you feel fairly well prepared to take.

Now, imagine taking that same test and knowing you’re not going to pass after the first question. 

That’s the feeling I had Tuesday, three days after trekking back and forth from the most bizarre day at the races anyone could ever remember. 

“Have you been in a high-risk area for coronavirus in the last 14 days?” said the friendly masked lady behind the plexiglass in the lobby of Saratoga Hospital Medical Group’s primary care facility in Wilton, where a routine physical scheduled a year earlier awaited. 

She stopped typing and looked up when she heard, “Actually, yes. I was in Nassau County on Long Island Saturday for the Belmont Stakes.”

Her first reaction wasn’t completely expected. 

“Wow, that must have been something to be there for the Saratoga horse winning,” she said, referring of course to the for-the-most-part locally owned Tiz The Law, before transitioning back to the expected queries about social distancing and mask wearing, symptoms of any kind or known exposure to coronavirus in the last two weeks. 

Thankfully all those answers checked out and while she waited to hear from my doctor and her team – about whether it was safe to wait in the lobby for my appointment or go back to my car in the parking lot (it wound up being the latter) – we got back to the business at hand. 

No doubt it was “something” to be there for the 152nd Belmont Stakes that will go in history for everything it was and everything it wasn’t. 

We know what it was. It was Tiz The Law handily dispatching his nine opponents to win the shortened opening jewel of the Triple Crown. What it wasn’t was a day like any other at the races I’ve experienced from growing up in Saratoga and sneaking through the old kitchen by the paddock to being invited by a friend and now Hall of Fame trainer to fly with him and a Hall of Fame jockey to witness the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, and just about everything in between.

Nothing about the 2020 Belmont resembled any of the other 58 Triple Crown races I’ve been fortunate to attend. That goes without saying, with most activities these days barely noticeable compared to when things were “normal” and before the coronavirus pandemic locked down the world. 

Thankfully the opportunity was presented for The Special to attend and cover the Belmont. We didn’t draw straws, but it wound up being my gig and 2020 was my 25th Belmont. Wow, that’s a lot. No wonder that physical seemed important. 

Belmont Week since 2013 typically consists of a few nights on Long Island, mornings in the barn area, a few days at the races, dinner and beers a few times with my man Greg Charkoudian and a first half-energized and second half-tired drive home after the main event. 

Belmont Week 2020 consisted of a “virtual” Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour visit with Todd Pletcher Tuesday, overseeing the first Saratoga Stryders group workout of the year at the Saratoga Spa State Park Wednesday and writing and editing our third edition of The 2020 Special Thursday and Friday. 

The most common question during the the week seemed to be, “Are you going to the Belmont?”

The answer was always yes, but how could anyone not have some hesitation? 

“Don’t feel like you have to go,” Joe said more than once. 

Not feeling obligated but definitely curious, off I went Saturday morning after a 6-mile run through the Spa Park. Following a familiar routine – down on the Taconic and back on the Thruway – I pulled into the only gate open at Belmont Park a little after 1 p.m. The only holdup after barely any traffic on the Throgs Neck Bridge and Cross Island Parkway came at the entrance gate, where they checked everyone’s temperature and provided a bright yellow wristband signifying you were cleared for entry. 

Throughout the day people texted and called, asking, “Are you at Belmont? What’s it like down there?” 

Lost for words to describe the scene the first few hours – while races were run and small celebrations at a safe distance went on in the winner’s circle – finally a description arrived. 

Quiet and empty, Belmont Day felt like morning training, with just a smattering of people in the clubhouse boxes, hotwalkers and grooms on the apron and eerie silence broken occasionally when a race was run and horses flew past the stand. 

No rolled up programs popped against a gambler’s thigh, no Jamaicans ribbing the jockeys, no retirees, weekend warriors or wannabe wise guys and no tourists in searsuckers or floppy hats smoking cigars.

By the end of the card the right horses won, including the New York-bred trained by a team universally respected for their craft and horsemanship.

What about the trip back you ask? 

Never smoother, never easier. Only one slowdown heading to the George Washington Bridge – of course – and home by 10 after one stop in New Jersey to see my sister and her kids from a safe social distance. That left me 36 hours until my exam, which I’m fortunate to report earned a passing grade.