Dear Gov. Cuomo,
I'm sorry you were unable to attend Saturday's 144th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. While everyone was disappointed with the news on Friday that Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another would be unable to run because of the early onset of an injury to a tendon in his left front leg, there is an old show-biz expression that “the show must go on.”
It did, and what a show it was!
Had you been at Belmont Park, you might have noticed an upbeat, well-behaved and youthful crowd of 85,811 who – with or without a Triple Crown on the line – came to celebrate one of the great sporting traditions in New York state. They handicapped, wagered and cheered with enthusiasm throughout the 13-race card. Nearly every seat at Belmont Park was full on Saturday, an exception being the one in the Trustees Room reserved for you. Fans packed the track apron, the backyard, and the area around the saddling area and walking ring to get a glimpse of these magnificent Thoroughbreds.
On this wonderful afternoon, the most magnificent of them all was the Belmont winner, a colt named Union Rags, who made his name in New York last summer, winning the Saratoga Special not far from your upstate home in Albany and then romping in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park during the fall meeting.
Governor, I know family is important to you, so you might want to know that the father of Union Rags, Dixie Union, raced in New York. So did his grandfather, Dixieland Band, and his great-grandfather, Northern Dancer, who came to the Belmont in 1964 with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown. The mother of Union Rags, a filly named Tempo, raced in New York, too, as did his grandmother, Terpsichorist. His maternal grandfather was a horse named Gone West, who won some big races in New York. Gone West was trained by a fellow from Kentucky named Woodford Cefis Stephens. The Kentuckian made good in the big city, winning the Belmont Stakes five consecutive years in the 1980s. In fact, the lyrics from “New York, New York,” sung by the guy from Hoboken, N.J. (“If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere…”), I think they were inspired by old Woody Stephens.
The thing is, New York racing was, and still is, a very big deal. Not just to the politicians up in Albany, and not just to the people who enjoy watching and wagering on the sport, or the tens of thousands of New Yorkers whose livelihoods depend on it. But people in Kentucky, where the horse is king, also are dependent upon a healthy New York Thoroughbred industry.
By not being able to attend the Belmont, you missed an opportunity to meet some extraordinary people.
Let's start with Michael Matz, the trainer of Union Rags. He is what some people might call a true American hero. You may have heard of the story of the United Airlines flight that crashed into an Iowa cornfield in July 1989, claiming 111 lives. Matz and his fiancée (now wife D.D.) survived the disaster, but instead of fleeing to save his own life as the plane burned, he led four children to safety. Seven years later, as a United States Olympic equestrian, he was given the honor of carrying the American flag during the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
Then there is jockey John Velazquez, who is living what immigrant families for many generations have referred to as the “American Dream.” You surely know about that, since grandparents on both your mother and father's side of the family emigrated to America from Italy, and through hard work the Cuomo and Raffa families have done quite well.
Velazquez, born in Puerto Rico, came to the United States, worked hard, and has risen to the top of his profession, the ultimate recognition coming in just a couple of months when he will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Johnny V. has a beautiful family, and he is not only successful in his given profession, but gives back to it. He is the chairman of the Jockeys' Guild – the organization that represents the men and women who participate in this most dangerous occupation – and is a tireless advocate and board member of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which offers assistance to riders who have suffered serious racing accidents.
Phyllis Wyeth, the breeder and owner of the Belmont Stakes winner, is what I would call an “American original.” She has done some amazing work in her life: among other things, founding the Herring Gut Learning Center in Maine, a school dedicated to educating students – many of them at-risk – about aquaculture and environmental issues; supporting numerous environmental causes in various states; and serving on the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
As a young adult, she was struck by a young, idealistic Massachusetts Democratic politician named John F. Kennedy, who had lofty expectations, not only for himself but for his country. She worked on his staff, first when he was a U.S. Senator and later as President of the United States, until she was seriously injured in an automobile accident that eventually left her confined to a wheelchair.
If you'd been at Belmont Park, perhaps Mrs. Wyeth would have shared some memories with you about what “Camelot” was like. But no worries. I think you'll have another chance to meet her at Saratoga later this summer. I hope you'll take the opportunity to do so.
Governor, quite frankly, you seem angry about this horse racing business, and I don't fully understand why. It's not just about the wealthy, conservative Republicans who have controlled the New York Racing Association for so many years, the people you and your father before you have battled with. You've won the battle, accomplishing what your father Mario, who also served as New York governor, couldn't do: a state takeover of horse racing from the NYRA board of trustees.
A government-run horse racing industry scares me. All I have to do is think of how poorly the state's off-track betting system – controlled by politicians and their cronies – has been operated, competing against instead of cooperating with the racing industry. NYRA has been far from perfect, but it has survived that corrupt OTB system and a sometimes hostile state government. It has even survived bankruptcy and financially challenging times that have prevented sorely needed capital improvements to its racing facilities.
I hope you'll stop focusing on the racing elite, those people who have controlled the game in New York for so long. Our industry is as diverse as the sidewalks of New York. Visit the backstretch of a racetrack sometime, the breeding farms, the horse sales. All of us – not just New Yorkers, but people throughout America who make our living in this game – are depending on you to do the right thing.
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