Column: A day at the races with the Riverhead Rotary

For a young kid, there are few experiences in sports as thrilling as walking into a baseball stadium for the first time and looking out at the pristine green grass that had previously just been an image on television.

I don’t recall the exact moment I saw the field at Shea Stadium for the first time. I was too young for any vivid memories. But I still recall that wow factor of walking through the tunnel and seeing the field. Shea Stadium is long gone, of course, and by now I’m old enough and have attended enough baseball games that the initial thrill has faded.

I was thinking back to that youthful excitement last Friday when, for the first time, I walked into Belmont Park, the grand race track in Elmont that has been home to horse racing for more than a century. I’ve watched many of the big races for the Belmont Stakes over the past 20 years or so, but had never been to the race track in person.

It was an experience long overdue, and something I’ve talked about doing for years.

So when a letter arrived in my mailbox at work from Ed Goldstein of the Riverhead Rotary inviting me to attend an event called “A Day at the Races,” I jumped at the opportunity. Mr. Goldstein noted that he had read an earlier column of mine on sports betting and thought I might be interested in checking out horse racing.

Mr. Goldstein was right!

More than 40 people in the Rotary signed up for the trip and we met at Tanger Outlets in Riverhead to board a bus that would take us to the track. Mr. Goldstein handed me a packet that included his personal “Cliffs Notes” on betting. His “no brainer” approaches to horse racing included picking winners by color (“gray is always the favorite of the ladies”), by name and the “all” button — betting every horse to win! Some more logical strategies followed in the paperwork, such as following the money or simply listening to the experts. The predictions for each race from three experts were included, which came in handy.

We arrived at the track shortly after 12:30 p.m., in plenty of time to take in the sights before the first race posted.

Mr. Goldstein, a retired principal at Pulaski Street Elementary School, told me this was the fifth racing trip the Rotary has done. One went to Saratoga; all the rest were to Belmont.

Our bus dropped us off right at the clubhouse entrance. We took the escalator up to the Belmont Room, where a lunch buffet awaited us. If every trip to Belmont includes this kind of luxury, I can get into this, I thought.

We all grabbed seats at the tables reserved for our group and enjoyed lunch, taking note of Mr. Goldstein’s recommendation for the clam chowder.

I looked out the window in awe at the massive race track, which makes a football field look like your neighbor’s backyard. While some people stayed mostly in the clubhouse as the races began, others went down to the box seats for a closer look. Our seats were right on the finish line, a view I could only imagine would cost my entire retirement savings during a Triple Crown Belmont Stakes race. On this day, attendance at the track was sparse, which made it a relaxing atmosphere to take in the experience.

My background in horse race betting is minimal, but I know the basics. So I quickly got up to the betting window to place my first bet. I placed a $2 exacta box on the 7, 2 and 6 horses, costing $12 total. The man taking the bet informed me the No. 6 horse had been scratched. Uh-oh. I scanned my book listing all the horses and threw out a number: the No. 1 horse.

I made my way to the box seats and watched as Tempers Way, the 7-5 favorite, and Handle With Care, the horse I scrambled to pick, finished first and second, giving me the exacta win. The payout was just $11, leaving me at a $1 loss. But it was a win nonetheless.

After a few trips to the betting window, I noticed the tickets advertised the NYRA racing app. I downloaded it, signed up for an account and made the minimum deposit. Suddenly, I had betting at my fingertips. I loved the ease of the app, which showed the most up-to-the-second information, such as which horses had scratched. Making any bet was as simple as clicking a few buttons. My first bet on race 3, another $2 exacta, paid out $44.40. The No. 3 horse, Unbridled Mesa, at 4-1 odds, won the race followed by Storm Rider, which had 10-1 odds. It was by biggest win of the day.

I still have a lot to learn about horse racing, but I gained a new level of appreciation for the sport that once was one of the biggest in America. By the end of the ninth race, I had made out pretty close to even, which I’d count as a win.

As we boarded the bus back to Riverhead, a voice from the back yelled out, “Thank you, Ed!”

Everyone applauded a great day at the races.

The author is editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].