Where the Who’s Who of Horse Racing Celebrate the Belmont Stakes – The New York Times

Last year, Justify, an American thoroughbred racehorse, ridden by jockey, Mike Smith, won the Belmont Stakes with a time of 2 minutes and 28.18 seconds, becoming only the 13th winner of the Triple Crown.

It seemed like an unbeatable moment for Jack and Laurie Wolf, the co-owners of Justify. But more thrills came later that day.

After the race, the couple, who split their time between Louisville, Ky., and Saratoga, N.Y., returned to their hotel. When they got out of their car, they saw that about 25 staff members, dressed in uniforms, had lined up outside the property, many of them holding trays of Champagne. Spectators were clapping. “I had tears in my eyes,” said Ms. Wolf. “It was my favorite memory, just amazing.”

The four-star Garden City Hotel is in Long Island, about a 23-mile drive from Midtown Manhattan. Since opening in 1874, the hotel has been a gathering place, cultural center and temporary home for jockeys, horse owners, trainers and journalists attending the Belmont Stakes, the third and final race in the Triple Crown series. And for Mr. and Ms. Wolf, it was a place to celebrate a win.

The first incarnation of the hotel, shown here, burned to the ground on Sept. 7 1899. CreditGarden City Hotel

The couple, after their celebrity-like greeting, returned to their suite to change and then headed to the ballrooms on the second floor for a celebration. “We keep spaces available for the winning families,” said J. Grady Colin, a general manager who has worked at the hotel for seven years.

Over 80 people, including all four Wolf children and an infant granddaughter, attended the party, some staying awake until 2 a.m. “I honestly can’t remember what we drank,” said Ms. Wolf. “I just remember it being a big party.”

At around midnight, Mr. Smith, the winning jockey, was holding court at King Bar, off the lobby, after having bought dinner for the other jockeys at the Red Salt Room. (It is tradition for the winning jockey to buy dinner for the rest — the Belmont purse is $1.5 million.) That celebration also went into the wee hours of the morning. Hotel guests regularly stopped by to pat him on the back and get his autograph.

“I think I ordered some sort of steak, but I didn’t come close to finishing it because people would stand up and cheer,” Mr. Smith said. “I would try to take a bite and then they would cheer again or ask for photos.”

“Ninety-five percent of the people who came up to me I didn’t know, but no one was a stranger that night,” he added. “I wanted to tell everyone the story of winning the Triple Crown.

Between the Wednesday and Sunday leading up to the race, the hotel goes through 50 cases of French Champagne, 15 cases of bourbon, 25 cases of fine wine and more than 500 dry-aged steaks.CreditAndrew Seng for The New York Times

It may seem strange that jockeys, trainers and owners all stay under the same roof for a race of such consequence. But during the Belmont Stakes, which this year takes place on June 8, this is exactly what happens.

All the behind-the-scenes activities of a major horse race — the hobnobbing between owners and trainers, info trading among serious gamblers and the parties — happen not at the racetrack, but at this historic hotel.

Garden City assumed its role as horse race headquarters by happenstance. In 1905, when the Belmont moved from Morris Park Racecourse, in the Bronx, to its current home, Belmont Park, in Elmont, N.Y., it was the only luxury hotel in the region. “It had no peer,” said John Ellis Kordes, a local historian.

“Every famous person who came to the area came to this hotel,” Mr. Kordes said. “You had Vanderbilts coming through the front door. Charles Lindbergh stayed here before making his famous flight. If there was a big event, it was logical for them to be at this hotel.”

CreditAndrew Seng for The New York Times
CreditAndrew Seng for The New York Times

Now, of course, there are other luxury options. “Some other owners have started to stay in the city,” Ms. Wolf said. “For people who don’t live in New York City, it can be more fun for them to do that.”

This means that the Garden City management must work hard to keep the hotel’s standing. About half of the hotel’s 269 rooms are booked to V.I.P.’s during the week of the race. The hotel is about a 15-minute drive from the racetrack.

Weeks before the event, the hotel staff replants all the flowers, putting in begonias and hanging geranium baskets. They have a series of planning meetings where doormen, bellmen and butlers recount what each guest likes in order to make sure the hotel has that particular wine or bourbon, for example, in stock.

Brian Russell, the head barman, makes a signature cocktail for each horse running in the race. “If we know the owners we will take into account what they like,” he said. “For others we try to incorporate liquors to accentuate the horse’s name.”

He added: “If it’s a bubbly, energetic name we will incorporate Champagne. If it’s a serious name, something more stern, we will make a Manhattan or an old-fashioned variety.”

Traditionally, the winning jockey of the Belmont Stakes buys dinner for all the other jockeys. CreditAndrew Seng for The New York Times

For the week leading up to the Belmont Stakes, the hotel offers hard copies of the Daily Racing Form, which offers past performances for race entrants, odds and selections.

On race day, the hotel provides a Cadillac Escalade to transport owners and jockeys to the track. “You would be surprised how many people forget to make arrangements to get to the race,” Mr. Colin said.

The hotel makes $1 million during the week of the Belmont, more than double what it normally takes in during a busy summer week. From Wednesday to Sunday, the week of the race, the hotel goes through 50 cases of Champagne, 15 cases of bourbon, 25 cases of fine wine and more than 500 dry-aged steaks.

The only people who really get rowdy are some of the musicians who attend the Belmont Stakes as spectators, Mr. Colin said. “It seems that some rock stars enjoy horse racing, and what’s in their coffee cup in the morning isn’t coffee,” he explained, adding that “there is an occasional suite that might take an extra day or two to get back into shape.”

Since opening in 1874, the hotel has been a gathering place, cultural center and temporary home for jockeys, horse owners, trainers and journalists attending the Belmont Stakes.CreditAndrew Seng for The New York Times

Another hotel fixture is Christine Moore, a milliner who usually sets up a pop-up shop by the spa, where she displays her hats. “I wait to get my hat every year until I see her,” said Anne Lynn, a horse owner who has attended the Belmont Stakes for the past 18 years. “I love trying them all on in person.”

In 2015 Ms. Lynn sampled hats next to the jockey Victor Espinoza. “He won the Triple Crown the next day when he rode American Pharoah,” she said.

Her husband, Bill Lynn, in recent years has enjoyed chatting with Eddie Olczyk, a sports analyst and former National Hockey League player, in the lobby.

Mr. Lynn said he also uses his time at the hotel to network with people interested in buying the horses he breeds and trains. “It helps that they get to know you personally,” he said. “I don’t know why but they start to think I know something about horses.”

CreditAndrew Seng for The New York Times
CreditAndrew Seng for The New York Times

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