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Big Brown a big letdown

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ELMONT, N.Y. ” Heineken keg cans, cleavage and curious-looking plaid shorts stretch as far as my eyes can see.

I’m standing in line for the ATM inside muggy Belmont Park, sandwiched between a shirtless middle-aged man with arms and a stomach made of cookie dough and a bald guy sweating through his “Smart-Ass University” T-shirt. The woman in front of us is wearing a metallic leopard-spotted hat with what appear to be crow feathers dangling from all sides. I briefly consider telling her, “I like your plumage,” but figure silence is better than taking a pocketbook to the temple.

I wonder where one purchases crow feathers. I wonder why I agreed to this.



Oh, the lengths ” or should I say furlongs ” I’ll go to witness history.

I find horse racing about as exciting as the Canary Initiative or quiche, but I was eager to watch Big Brown pursue the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. After all, the horse’s trainer and most equine pundits assured me victory was a sure thing.



I readily ponied up $60 for a seat in the third level and $20 more for a train ticket from Penn Station to Elmont. Anything for a sure thing.

I’ve made a huge mistake. It’s shortly before 1 p.m. Saturday. I’ve been outside for only 30 minutes, but I already am sweating through my jeans. My green polo clings to my torso as I idle in this 90,000-person sauna, gnawing on a hot dog as old as Seattle Slew.

Only five more hours until Big Brown takes to the starting gates. Ten races, featuring horses and jockeys I have never heard of ” and don’t care to ” will compete before the main event. It will be 300 of the longest, dampest minutes of my life.

My friends and I try to pass the time. We talk about how much has changed since college; four of us are married, one still lives at home and another is taking a creative blacksmithing class. (I can’t wait to see how his coffee table turns out.)

We buy T-shirts ” everyone but me. After a night spent trying to down every beer on the Upper West Side, I can’t justify spending $23. In retrospect, I do regret not purchasing a commemorative ticket holder and lanyard, however.

We take pictures of people in questionable wardrobe. Apparently, a horse race is the perfect excuse to pull out your “I-got-dressed-in-a-dark-apartment” outfit. My personal favorites: the guy in penny loafers (without socks), quilt-patterned shorts and a black sport coat. And who can forget the man in cut-off jean shorts? His skin-tight blue tank top showed off a colorful bicep tattoo (I’m convinced it was a wizard) and, unfortunately, nearly everything else.

I wonder if a horse track really is the place for a person who has a history of making bad decisions. (See wizard tattoo.)

Bryan fields calls from his grandfather, father and mother, and scribbles their wagers onto a torn piece of notebook paper. He periodically stops writing to adjust the garish onyx and gold ring on his right hand. I will later inquire about the jewelry, and Bryan says it’s his grandfather’s and it’s lucky. I think he looks like a used-car salesman, or a pimp ” a 170-pound Jewish pimp with an affinity for Lacoste.

An older woman in a nearby section jumps to her feet at the conclusion of the Manhattan Handicap race, screams and swings her arms and hips in an odd circular motion. I will later find out that she won $6.25.

I watch two men in front of me analyze hundreds of loose papers they store in bulging manilla folders. I deduce that they’re Belmont regulars ” and they’re both single.

Bryan has a less-scientific approach. He asks wife Shane which horse stands out to her, then heads for a betting window to lighten his wallet.

I refrain from betting because: 1) I don’t have a ring; 2) I couldn’t tell the difference between Criminologist, Denis of Cork or Majestic Warrior if my life depended on it (I could’ve asked the guys with the folders, though); and 3) Recent events have led me to believe I’m an unlucky person (recent events = hitting a parked car).

I wonder if Big Brown gets nervous. On a completely unrelated note, I wonder if the horse’s jockey, Kent Desormeaux, pronounces his last name like Basalt Mayor Leroy Duroux.

Big Brown leaves his stall, prompting the crowd to erupt. A group of well-dressed, well-lubricated fans in the front row begin passing out champagne flutes.

As the bugle sounds, Shane leans over and says, “The tension is mounting.”

I reply, “So is the chafing.”

Desormeaux pets Big Brown. The crowd erupts. Big Brown twirls his tail. The crowd erupts. Big Brown jogs 10 feet. The crowd erupts. I skillfully balance a hot dog, pretzel and two Cokes on a paper tray as I meander through the crowd and back to my seat. Not even a slow clap.

Big Brown enters the starting gate. Bryan rubs his ring. The starting bell tolls. The gates burst open. The tension boils over.

Then nothing.

I squint through the haze as I follow the pack on the other side of the colossal mile-and-a-half oval. Big Brown is holding strong in third. By the backstretch, he is sputtering like a Pinto with an empty gas tank. By the final straight-away, Desormeaux is standing as Big Brown grinds to a halt.

The Crown doesn’t fit.

A smattering of boos ensue as I stand in stunned silence. Bryan stares longingly at his handful of betting slips, the last remnants of roughly $150 lost. Fans, many with unlit cigars hanging from their parched lips, file through the aisles and toward the exits.

“Experts” still struggle to decipher what went wrong. Sunburned fans weren’t the only ones left red in the face.

Maybe Big Brown’s hoof injury was more of an issue than originally thought. Maybe it was the track conditions ” many refer to Belmont’s deep dirt as “Big Sandy” ” that gave him trouble. Or maybe it was the relentless heat. I can relate; I didn’t want to walk one block to the subway, let alone run a mile and a half.

So much for history. So much for a sure thing.

At least there was cleavage.


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