Aided by the early morning light spilling onto my face, I woke around 4:30am on Friday, June 8, and was greeted by my friend and bunkmate, Amy Tremper, saying, "I'm up!" We were both eager to get to Belmont Park, about 20 minutes from our hotel near La Guardia Airport, to watch training on the main track, in anticipation of Saturday's big race day.
Traffic was light prior to 6am, and we found gate 5 open.
Arriving at a race track to pick up credentials the day before a big race often proves problematic, as the security guards at the gate want you to already HAVE your credentials in order to let you in. After a few minutes of showing them the emails I had received, and my Preakness credential, we were allowed in and found a spot to park.
Our first stop was the press office. The door was open and the lights were on, but no one was there, so we wandered to the press box to take in the amazing view of the track. The only inhabitants of this lofty perch were the stewards. We bid them a good morning and headed back down to track level.
Video cameras were scattered about the clubhouse area, facing the track, as news outlets large and small were poised to capture their version of the run up to the 150th Belmont Stakes, and a possible Triple Crown. Amy and I found a bench near the rail, and I could see the group of race photographers gathered down in the gap where the horses come on and off the track.
Feeling that there was plenty of time before there was any serious training action, I left my friend for another quick visit to the press office, and this time returned with my credential around my neck. Now able to go wherever I wanted, I walked along the rail, around the outside of the clubhouse turn, to reach the observation area, which was lightly populated. Situated near a spotter for a major news outlet, I was able to hear that Hofburg was coming onto the track from the paddock and got a couple nice shots of him training.
It was a light morning for the big horses on the main track. Trainer Todd Pletcher sent his two Belmont Stakes contenders - Noble Indy and Vino Rosso - to the training track. Tenfold, trained by Steve Asmussen, was confirmed as having joined them, and I could only imagine that the same went for the other top horses that did not make an appearance on the main track.
Still, there was plenty to see as Belmont based horses filed past me onto the track they call "Big Sandy." You only truly get a sense for the depth of the track when you have to walk across it to get to the infield, but watching horses hooves disappear up to the canon bone gives even the casual observer clear perspective.
An influx of photographers and the appearance of Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, signaled that Triple Crown contenders, Justify, would soon be making his way to the track. Everyone accompanying this group of spectators filed in and settled outside the rail, on the sandy surface, creating a narrowing alley for horses to walk through as they enter the track to train.
I was standing with a trainer who is based at Belmont, who registered her surprise at this. The young horses stepping onto the track often have a high-spirited reaction to stepping onto their "playground" and behind the rail - and off it by a bit - is a safer place to be. She stated her hope that someone would move everyone back to safer positions.
Right about that time, the water tracks showed up, in advance of the tractors that would harrow the track. They managed to push folks back, but they still were bunched up in the gap. As the trucks passed, trainer Baffert stepped onto the surface himself and gave a look of approval at the track's condition.
While we waited for Justify, Free Drop Billy strode past. Then there was a flurry of activity to my right, a long stream of horses and a lot of unublishable photos as spectators clamored for a look at the 2018 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner stepping onto the track. With his pony beside him, they turned right and headed for the back stretch.
Exercise rider, Humberto Gomez, guided Justify around the final turn and into the lane, striding methodically down the home stretch. He looked light and happy, his tongue poking out of the right side of his mouth as he passed in front of me. As he runs at you, head on, the condition of this equine athlete is clear and remarkable.
As they passed the crowd and eased up, preparing to turn and walk back to the barn, I noticed a man in a wheelchair, just on the outside rail. As the crowd started to disburse, I was able to make out the straw hat and the familiar grin I had seen so many times on TV and in photos. Hall of fame jockey, Ron Turcotte, was about 5 feet away from my position. I quickly ducked under the rail as I saw Bob Baffert stop to chat for a minute.
As soon as Bob stepped away, I approached Mr. Turcotte and shook his hand, thanking him for all he's done for horse racing and for his glorious career. When I returned to my position, the people around me asked who I had been speaking with. I told them it was the jockey for the immortal Secretariat, and they encouraged me to go back over and take a photo with him. Potentially the least flattering picture I have ever had taken, it is one I will cherish and an encounter that made me tear up just a little.
I rejoined Amy just outside the clubhouse, and spotted Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr. enjoying the morning trackside with a group of friends. Mornings at the track are my favorite time, but Belmont delivered a couple of special surprises on this day.
After a lengthy photographers' meeting, positions were assigned and photo vests distributed. Amy and I headed back to our hotel for a quick lunch, showers and were then back at the track to catch a few races. Setting aside a description of each race, I quite simply enjoyed the beautiful afternoon and the fantastic condition of the turf and main track.
Belmont is ready for its big day. And I think Justify is ready for Belmont.