Belmont Stakes Day was about War Emblem, Bob Baffert, and Sarava. It was also about a place called New York.
New York has never been easily understood or nearly appreciated by most outsiders looking in. Like most things unique, you either get it or you don't.
New York is about toughness.
It's about our ancestors alighting on Ellis Island with only a name (often changed on the spot) and a suitcase, then carving out lives and foundations for all the generations to come.
New York is about comebacks--from the Great Depression, from bankruptcy, and from terrorist SOBs.
New York is the Statue of Liberty still standing tall at its front door.
New York is not caring whether or not a Middle Eastern prince shows up at the races.
New York is its shirt-sleeved governor working the $2 bettors on the Belmont apron to roars of appreciation.
New York is where the little guy still stands a chance; where he doesn't get raked for $50 to get in to the races because it happens to be a big day.
New York is the picnic area behind the saddling paddock, where teenage girls walk side by side while talking on their psychedelic-colored cell phones. Where T-shirt hawkers sell their own bootleg Belmont designs for $5 (plain) or $10 (tie-dyed). Where a quartet of musicians provides between-races entertainment with a guitar case open to tips. Where a man with a grill cooks up Caribbean fare for a modest tag.
It is middle-age men explaining their handicapping to their elderly moms. College jocks from Queens and Jersey and the Island showcasing their muscles and thirst for suds. New York is gulping a Carvel ice cream cone before it drips down your hand. It is one cooler for every two people. Kindergartners running around in Derek Jeter uniforms. A bunch of people wearing police and fire department shirts that read, "Gone But Not Forgotten."
New York loves a champion and embraces an underdog. It alone loves the Yankees, and 40 years ago took the incompetent Mets to its bosom. It loves Baffert and adores Jorge Chavez. It forgives all except phoniness. It loves Bill Clinton. It elected Hillary, but it doesn't like her. It was ready to explode for War Emblem, but it liked the sound of Proud Citizen more.
New York loves a grand spectacle and excitement in the air. It turned out 100,000 strong to celebrate a perfect spring day. It turned out to show the world it still stands tall. And remains tough.
To an expatriate who returns precious few days each year, the pride of it all explodes forth, bursting out straight from the soul. It has always been the imperfect melting pot that somehow, against all odds, becomes a tasty stew.
Hell, it ain't perfect. Politicians screw up slot machine proposals for the tracks; mutuels guys get caught laundering money; the gap between the Ivy League inheritance-laden swells and the undershirt and cut-offs crowd is far greater than the railing that separates them in the paddock. All of it is New York.
It is nearly time for the fourth race and still they pour through the gates. A motorized clean-up crew wheels bundles of garbage along a pathway. "Guys! Watch your back, guys!" And you know you'd better get the hell out of the way.
New York is an American flag hanging from a rope strung between two trees.
From the air, New York is far too many buildings packed into an impossibly small space. Way too many people. And you can't wait to be down there, among them.
New York is an immigrant father making his way through sheer hard work; owning a business; and for enjoyment, going to Belmont Park with his young son. New York is that kid staring wide-eyed at Cab Calloway at the next table struggling to find a winner. New York is that kid back at Belmont nearly 40 years later, proud to carry the torch for those now departed.
New Yorkers sometimes pick up and land somewhere else. But they can go home again. New York isn't going anywhere. Lenny Shulman is features editor of The Blood-Horse.