Vinny Fitzpatrick had never worn a nasal strip before and it felt kind of funny, as if it his nostrils were being pulled back slightly. But he could breathe that bit better which was a good thing, because on this day of days, there was so much to breathe in.
For Vinny was at Belmont Park with a cold beer in his paw and a sense of wonder galloping through his soul. From his vantage point, Vinny had a perfect view of the oval-shaped racetrack, a verdant green, enclosed by a ring of brown dirt.
To his left, a massive throng of race-goers crammed the biggest grandstand he'd ever seen – Vinny reckoned it must stretch out for three furlongs. While down below, by the winning post, a short round man belted out New York, New York on a stage with gusto.
It could have been Frank Sinatra. In fact, it was; Sinatra's son, Frank junior. There was half an hour to post time for the Belmont Stakes and Vinny was as happy as a roly-poly porker in a muddy sty.
The shock trans-Atlantic excursion began with a call to Angie on Thursday morning from her chiefs in Winston Racing with an 11th hour offer for return flights to New York, two nights’ accommodation and VIP tickets to the races at Belmont. Angie had declined but being the quick thinker she is, suggested her husband, Vinny might like to go instead.
As he boarded the United Airways flight the following morning, Vinny had to pinch himself. He was going to the races, and not just any race but the famed Belmont Stakes, where Champagne Chrome was attempting to become the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown of Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
Vinny recalled the days of the 70s when Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed put American racing on the global map. Since then, 10 horses had been loaded into the stalls at Belmont with the first two legs of the treble on their CV, only to have dirt kicked in their faces.
This year, it was the turn of California Chrome, a horse that cost buttons, to seek racing immortality and Vinny was going to be there to see it happen. Vinny had never been to New York before and was goggle-eyed by the skyscrapers, the landmarks, and the sheer vibrancy of the city that never sleeps.
Saturday dawned warm and sunny, and Vinny was up with the larks in Fitzpatrick’s Hotel, a home from home for the Irish on Lexington Avenue. The Winston’s whipper-in was Phonsie Murphy, a former Flat jockey, known as ‘The Scurrier’, whose job was to escort the crew of 12 to and from the track where they would be fed and watered.
The journey to Long Island had been manic as Penn Station was jammers with punters queuing for tickets, and jostling for seats, but the hassle had been worth it.
There were 13 races on the card, the first at 11.35, and Vinny waded in. The betting was slightly different in the States as you could back a horse to win, be second (place) or be third (show).
Vinny’s initial bet was a $10 across the board, or $30 per race, but as the losers mounted, he began chasing his money. Soon, he had doubled his stake but couldn’t find a winner. Usually, losing made Vinny tetchy but he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face as he rambled around the enclosures between races, noting the photos of former big race winners at Belmont.
At every corner were curvy jockettes, handing out purple posters of California Chrome, and plastering purple strips on the noses of punters – it was a gesture of support for ‘California’ who raced with a nasal strip.
A buxom beauty called Sandie applied a strip to Vinny’s fleshy schnoz, which he wore with pride.
Studied the form
Ahead of the Belmont Stakes, Vinny studied the form and felt California Chrome was vulnerable over the extended distance. At odds of 4/5, he wasn’t value.
Instead, Tonalist made appeal to Vinny, as a proven stayer who skipped the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and was fresh. He checked his wallet, winced slightly, but decided to invest $20 on Tonalist to win, place and show.
It was at this moment, that Vinny made his biggest mistake of the day. With a crate of beer rattling inside him, he waddled off for a pee, reckoning he had enough time to do his business and place a bet. He left things tight and when he arrived at a betting booth, where a large impassive woman was stationed, Vinny could see the horses being loaded up on a nearby monitor.
As Vinny reached for his dough, he became flustered. “I want to put 20 bucks to win, place and show on, er,” he stuttered. He couldn’t recall the name. “It’s tunnel-something or other,” he said, cursing himself for leaving his programme on the table.
The woman shrugged. “Do you know the number sir? I need the number.”
Vinny reddened. “It’s near the end of the field. It’s 10, I think. Or maybe 11. Hold on. I’ll be back in a tick.”
The dash to the table, to gather the programme, and get back to the booth, took Vinny no more than 20 seconds – it may as well have taken an hour.
As he blurted out: “Tonalist, 20 bucks to win, place and show,” and slapped 60 bucks on the counter, he heard the commentator call “And they’re off”. The poker-faced Tote operator flipped her window down to closed and turned away.
If Vinny was cursing his luck at that point, some two and half minutes later, he was positively fuming as Tonalist swept from the clouds to claim the Belmont Stakes at 10/1. At The Scurrier’s table everyone celebrated, as they were all ‘on’ and Vinny felt like a gate-crasher.
The Scurrier poured him a glass of bubbly and said: “You ok, Vinny? You look like you’ve found a dime but lost a dollar.” As Vinny lifted the sparkling wine to his lips, he said softly “you’ve no idea just how many dollars, Scurrier, no idea.”
Two hours later, Vinny was stuck in a lengthy queue for a train at the Belmont Park station where The Scurrier cracked a joke about the best way “out of here is on horseback”.
Vinny smiled to himself. Even allowing for the betting mishap, it had been a day to treasure.