New York sports makes long-awaited return at Belmont Park

Fauci was taken by Prisoner, but horse racing still came back from coronavirus Wednesday at Belmont Park.

At 1:21 p.m., the sanitized starting gates flew open and live sports officially returned to New York for the first time in 80 days after the COVID-19 pandemic plagued the state. It may have looked different — with facemasks as common as losing tickets used to be and the huge grandstand left empty with no spectators allowed in — but on the dirt and turf, jockeys and horses went back to work for the first 10 races in the delayed spring/summer meet at Belmont, which brought in an opening day-record handle of $10,972,254.

One of the biggest betting favorites of the day, Fauci — named for Dr. Anthony Fauci — was kept at a social distance by Prisoner, the Todd Pletcher-trained and Repole Stables-owned maiden who beat the even-money colt by 4 3/4 lengths.

Still, it was hardly just another day at the races for the horsemen involved.

“It means the world to me,” said Reylu Gutierrez, the Rochester native who rode Star of the West to a win in the first race of the day. “I grew up watching NYRA racing and I grew up at Finger Lakes. I stayed here throughout the whole pandemic. I was galloping horses, jogging horses, breezing horses, whatever it takes to earn my place here at NYRA. … Kind of had to get a little teary after the wire because it really does mean a lot to me.”

An hour before the first post time, the national anthem played to a handful of workers scattered across the track. Soon after, track announcer John Imbriale announced the scratches and changes for the day’s races over the PA system. Except there were no fans there to hear them and race to the windows to add any last-minute bets.

Riders wear masks during the return of racing to Belmont Park.
Riders wear masks during the return of racing to Belmont Park.N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

Before the first post parade, Imbriale paid tribute to those who were lost to the pandemic — including a Belmont backstretch worker, Martin Zapata — and said the opening day of races was dedicated “to those lost and those who continue to fight this disease.” A moment of silence was then held as the jockeys stood spaced apart in an area near the paddock, then knelt for nearly a minute in solidarity with the protesters across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“There’s a lot going on in the world right now. It’s important to show respect to all causes and to all people and show we here at NYRA support everybody,” Gutierrez said. “Horse racing in general supports all ethnicities from everywhere. Horse racing is a worldwide sport and it doesn’t matter what color you are, what religion you are, what [ethnicity] you are — what matters is in horse racing, we are one.”

In the day’s only graded stakes, the Grade-3 Beaugay, Javier Castellano, who tested positive for COVID-19 in March, won on Rushing Fall in a wire-to-wire effort.

Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. turned in a strong day, winning five races on Prisoner, Strongerthanuknow (the first New York-bred winner of the meet), Madita, Value Proposition and In the Loop.

There were some normal horse racing hiccups along the way. In fitting 2020 fashion, the skies opened up and it poured during the second race, in which Smile Bryan outlasted early leader Polar Bear Pete, though it soon cleared up. Gaultier and Hidden Scroll both lost their jockeys out of the gate in separate races later in the day, while Too Fast to Pass pulled up before the finish line with an injury in his race.

Now they will do it all over again Thursday as the 25-day meet continues, flush with health and safety protocols to protect everyone involved.

“Everybody from the high-ups to the people that work down here, they’ve done a fantastic job,” Gutierrez said. “I feel very safe here.”

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