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Belmont Readies for the Big Race

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Horse racing fans are gearing up for tomorrow's Belmont Stakes. Even though there won't be a Triple Crown winner this year, the race is notable because it marks the 100th birthday of the New York historic Belmont Park. From member station WNYC, Richard Hake takes us on a tour of North America's largest and longest track.

(Soundbite of "Call to the Post")

Mr. JOHN IMBRIALE (Announcer): (Via projected acoustics) And after a hundred years, we're still off at Belmont Park!

RICHARD HAKE reporting:

To the fans, Belmont Park looks more like a college campus with its ivy-covered red-brick buildings and lush back yard. The actual racetrack is a whopping mile and a half around, and the 1,200-foot-long grandstand and open areas held a record 120,000 fans at last year's stakes.

Unidentified Fan: Come on, ...(unintelligible)!

HAKE: No longer do they wait at teller windows. They line up behind computerized betting kiosks. But a day at the races is pretty much the same in Belmont as it's been through its history. Tony Stabile has been a jockey agent here for the past 33 years.

Mr. TONY STABILE (Jockey Agent): Belmont's more of a family-friendly track because of the grounds, because of the park area, because of the ambiance.

HAKE: In includes every type of New York character you can imagine at a racetrack. Ramon Hernandez has been training horses for 50 years.

Mr. RAMON HERNANDEZ (Horse Trainer): The best. I love Belmont. Better than anyplace in the country here.

HAKE: This race starts as every other race does, with a guy wearing a bright red-colored coat, white satin pants and a black hat.

(Soundbite of "Call to the Post")

HAKE: Sam Grossman, or Sam the Bugler, as he wants to be identified, also plays in a wedding band on Long Island. He's been at Belmont for more than a decade.

Mr. SAM GROSSMAN (The Bugler): Oddly enough, the bugler at Belmont hit the Pick 6 for $130,000 at the beginning of '93, and he left. And I had never been to a racetrack in my life. `What would a nice Jewish boy be doing at a racetrack?' And I got an audition, actually three auditions, and they gave me the job.

HAKE: Grossman admits he's afraid of the horses, but loves to do his part to keep the racing tradition alive.

Mr. GROSSMAN: The "Call to the Post," which is the tune that I play...

(Soundbite of "Call to the Post")

Mr. GROSSMAN: ...is actually a US Army bugle call. It's called "First Call." It's one of the first calls of the day.

HAKE: Announcer John Imbriale, perched high above the manicured grass and turf in a glass-enclosed booth, waits for the bugle to fade.

Mr. IMBRIALE: They're in the gate and off!

HAKE: He's memorized the horse names and numbers and is ready for the unexpected.

Mr. IMBRIALE: Number nine, One Day Soon, has unseated his rider, and now number nine, One Day Soon, has run off.

HAKE: Yet, the most exciting part of Belmont is to watch the crowd.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. IMBRIALE: (Via projected acoustics) Light Gun now coming on! Light Gun on the outside! Witch Ways West on the inside, and Light Gun is in front with a sixteenth and a finish!

HAKE: Imbriale says it's when the horses round that final stretch during the Belmont Stakes when the tension really mounts.

Mr. IMBRIALE: I would be able to see the horse come into the paddock really before anybody else, and the crowd was big back there, and they would welcome the horse like they were welcoming, you know, a returning rock star.

HAKE: After 100 years, with OTB parlors and other electronic ways of betting, horse racing attendance is down. But a few thousand fans still come out to Belmont Park every day. For NPR News, I'm Richard Hake in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Hake
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