New York's Belmont Stakes, the horse race first run in 1867 that will complete its 145th running this weekend, has long been the unloved stepchild of horse racing's Triple Crown—often ignored except when a horse comes into the race having won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
But recently, the Belmont Stakes seems to have belatedly discovered the marketing appeal of its own distinguished history; its website boasts of its rich traditions as well as the unique challenges posed by the 1 ½ mile long "Test of the Champion." Unfortunately, the celebration of its history is at odds with the lack of respect shown for one of its most cherished traditions when it comes to the choice of the theme song for the event.
As the website reminds us, "the Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the Triple Crown events. It predates the Preakness Stakes (first run in 1873) by six years and the Kentucky Derby (first run in 1875) by eight." Not only that, but the winner of the first Kentucky Derby (Aristides) could do no better than third in that year's Belmont. A feature article on the site (by Richard Rosenblatt) makes the point that
there is no easy way to win the Belmont, no tried-and-true set of rules for navigating one lap around a racetrack that is unlike any other in the world. That's because one trip around Belmont Park on the first Saturday in June is a daunting 1½ miles, about the longest race any thoroughbred will ever run in his life. Jockeys rarely ride that far, either, so when it comes to strategy, there are all kinds of opinions on what it takes to be successful.
Another website commentator, Paul Moran, celebrates the fact that
a century after its opening, Belmont Park remains the keystone of thoroughbred racing in North America; hallowed ground on which every great American thoroughbred has claimed its place in history. It is racing's Broadway, destination of the immortal and merely great, a place defined not by its founders, but the horses who have run here—from Man o' War, Colin, Count Fleet, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, and Citation to Jaipur, Buckpasser, Kelso, Fort Marcy, Arts and Letters, Key to the Mint, Native Dancer. Their spirits live in the very winds that sweep the Hempstead Plain.
But the race's embrace of its history, welcome as it is, unfortunately neglects one notable part of the Belmont's heritage—the playing of "The Sidewalks of New York" as the accompaniment to the parade after the race. The Kentucky Derby knows enough to stick with "My Old Kentucky Home" and the Preakness stands by "Maryland, My Maryland"—and those races are unimaginable without them. But the Belmont scratched "Sidewalks" in 1997 in favor of the cheesy, strident anthem "New York, New York." (It's not much of a consolation, but it could be worse: The 2010 Belmont featured Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' truly awful "Empire State of Mind." That was apparently just a one-year mistake, and "New York, New York" was back on the soundtrack thereafter.)
What a shame. "The Sidewalks of New York," written in the 1890s, dates back to the era when Belmont Park itself was built. The wonderfully jaunty song from a by-gone New York is very much in tune with the worldly yet innocent spirit of horse racing itself—especially in the park-like setting of Belmont, which rubs up against the western edge of New York City (okay, Queens, but it's still the city). This great sporting spectacle hardly needs the overly commercialized bombast provided by "New York, New York." If the New York Racing Association wonders why its signature race fails to measure up to the timeless atmospherics of the Derby and the Preakness, it need look no further than its repudiation of "The Sidewalks of New York," a charming piece of genuine local lore that held its own with the parade music of those other two jewels of the Triple Crown.
So bring back "The Sidewalks of New York," the song that set the stage for the Triple Crown triumphs of Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat, to name just the last three Triple Crown winners. The Triple Crown tally for the "New York, New York" era? Zero. And as "New York, New York" blasts out again this afternoon, there won't be a Triple Crown winner this year, either. You can bet on that.