Luis Saez, who finished first in the Kentucky Derby aboard Maximum Security before a surreal disqualification just the weekend before, headed for the tunnel to the jockeys’ room, a reminder that horse racing’s bountiful eccentricities include the stark asymmetry between its big days and all the other days.
Ninety minutes earlier, on a train with eight cars, a conductor had said, “You’re the only passenger.” The 3:40 p.m. from Jamaica in Queens to Belmont Park on the edge of Long Island rushed and then crawled and then stopped, all in 11 minutes. The doors opened to a revelation on the platform: There had been one other passenger.
Racing had begun at 3:05 on a workday. The other passenger walked the lonely outdoor concourse to the second-floor entrance to the 114-year-old track, only to find it locked. He muttered, then descended nearby stairs to open doors.
Belmont Park, with nine races on the card, felt ghostly.
Thursday counted as an extreme, with attendance almost countable — low triple digits? — and well more barren than a typical weekday. It also counted as a reminder. When jockeys and other horse people finish their occasional turns among psychedelic bacchanals with six-figure audiences such as last Saturday at the Kentucky Derby, they return to a day-to-day with a fraction of the fanfare and a collection of the fanatics.
Jockey John Velazquez, 47, laughed briefly at that thought and said: “There are hardcore customers, I’ll call it. They’re here every day, no matter what, whether it’s a big day or not. They’re the ones who come to the races all the time. So, yeah, so they’re the real fans, the real core business fans who come to watch the horses in the races, yeah.”
The sparse crowd seemed rich in those who do not concern themselves with, say, kale and quinoa. The pretzel stand looked lonely, if friendly; the IRS stands, unattended; the binocular-rental stand, untroubled. On the days when horse racing doesn’t dress itself up and garnish itself with flowers and fill the train platforms or parking lots — as Belmont Park itself will for the final leg of the Triple Crown on June 8 — the sport’s dilapidation relative to yore feels heightened.
Yet as usual in horse racing, names that gained nationwide renown from a historic, contentious Kentucky Derby were sprinkled throughout the entry charts of an anonymous Thursday, the dissimilarity a strain to comprehend: the same sport!
Race 5, purse $70,000, New York-bred 3 years old and up: Aboard entry No. 1, San Juan Diego, sat Saez. Aboard No. 5, Real Dan, rode Velazquez, whose Derby mount, Code of Honor, crossed the wire third and wound up second. Aboard No. 6, Five Star Bunt, there was Irad Ortiz Jr., fifth and then fourth in the Derby aboard Improbable; and on No. 7, Sicilia Mike, Jose Ortiz, fourth and then third in the Derby aboard Tacitus.
The trainer for No. 8, H Man, would be Jason Servis — not present at Belmont on Thursday — who just lived the otherworldly sequence of receiving congratulatory hugs for a Derby win that then did not occur. As happens at tracks day upon day in anonymous fifth races, there’s some noble stranger running, and here was the winner, 7-year-old gelding H Man: his 56th race, with 12 wins, 11 places and seven shows at four New York tracks since 2014. His sire, Musket Man, finished third in the 2009 Mine That Bird Kentucky Derby, and if you look at his performance charts until your eyes melt, you can spot seven trainers through H Man’s years, one of them twice, and claimed away twice.
“Nice horse,” said David Cannizzo, the Saratoga-based trainer who had H Man twice — for his first 14 races, then two more last winter. “Nice, solid, hard-knocking. . . . I claimed him back and lost him [back]. . . . Just a grinder.”
As for seeing him come and go, he said: “Part of the game. It makes you keep going. In the claiming game, you’ve got to keep turning them over.”
Down in the jockeys’ room after Race 5, a jockey hurried in with dirt caking his mouth. A giant electronic sign showed “24,” the number of minutes till the next post. Three jockeys gathered before a TV to re-watch a race few had watched. The ever-demanding scales sat just inside the threshold. A painting on the wall next to it showed a race within the hands of a higher power.
Saez, who appeared on national TV for much of 22 minutes last Saturday, a fraught expression upon his handsome face while stewards reviewed tapes, on Sunday morning boarded a charter plane to New York with other jockeys, trainers and owners. That afternoon at Belmont he rode three horses almost anonymously (second, last, last). He rode six more Thursday (win, sixth, fourth, fourth, fifth, fourth). He declined an interview request.
Velazquez said he had ridden through the spring in “Tampa, Oaklawn [Arkansas], Florida, Louisiana, New York, Kentucky and London.” To manage the grind, he recommended arriving at the track early to allow for 30-minute naps. He said a seasoned jockey feels zero difference between audiences of 150,000 and low triple digits.
“You’ve got to pay attention,” he said several times on the way to this: “You can have an idea what’s going to happen, but eight out of 10 it’s not going to happen the way you think. . . . The horses, anything happens, it’s just when that door opens, you don’t know what to expect until they react for it and what the other ones are going to do.”
Five days after the Derby, 663 miles away, even after one of the loudest weeks in modern racing history, outside on a patch of grass, set somewhat apart from the small crowd, an excellent duo serving as the day’s musical diversion sang Simon and Garfunkel: “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America.”
They finished, one guy clapped, and another shouted, “Nice!” The last race began, and the 199th-ranked jockey at the moment, Samuel Camacho Jr., won aboard Amanda Lane, who paid $121.50, so as Camacho exited a huge, empty track, he looked so happy and young as a sole spectator lunged over to high-five him, and Camacho lunged back, but they couldn’t quite reach.
“Sixty to one!” the spectator said.
“That’s God,” Camacho said on a day only the most caring deity might have watched.