The Belmont Track Kitchen: The Soul (Food) of Racing.

Marion Altieri,New York writer

Marion Altieri,New York writer

If the roads and horse paths of a race track are the veins and arteries that facilitate the transportation of Life, then surely the track kitchen–at which all paths cross–is the heartbeat, itself.

There are few race courses in the world that feature backstretches with as much soul as that of Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.   (For you who may be new to horse racing:  the backstretch is the place where racehorses live.)

The rustic spirit of Belmont’s horse home is obvious in the throbbing life that goats, chickens (baby chicks and prize roosters included), cats, dogs–oh, yes, and horses–contribute.  The whinnying, bleating, clucking, crowing, meowing and barking is music to which every soul can connect:  the choir members’ purity and organic innocence have the power to take a nice day and turn it into a gem.  (If you told the  people at Wendy’s across the street that the track is bursting with goats and roosters, they’d think that you were high.)

As the early-morning sun burns off the mist of the night before and the track flutters awake, the many good souls who care for the equine athletes already have been at work for hours.

The hard physical labor of rubbing, scrubbing, walking, evaluating, bathing, brushing, tacking up, feeding and watering a 1,200-pound animal is exhausting, and physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging.  Never have I questioned the motives of a groom at a race track, for these are some of the hardest-working humans I’ve ever met.

No one goes into horse racing because it’s a Glamour Job.  Grooms, hotwalkers, trainers, assistant trainers, barn foremen–all work long, tiring days.  An unexpected kiss from a special horse may be one of the only rewards of the day.

Another, compound reward is the camaraderie, cultural connection, smiles and delicious, filling food to be found at the track kitchen, known as The Morning Line.  And nowhere is the track kitchen more like Home than that at Belmont Park.

I stopped in on Thursday, waiting to meet with Trainer, Gary Contessa.  The parking lot of the kitchen was packed, but still I strolled in, and decided to sit at the counter.  Usually I don’t do counters, but I suspected that this counter was different–more of a hotspot for social interaction than a place merely to wolf down one’s sandwich before returning to work.

Esperanza and LupeAs soon as I plopped down, I saw Lupe and Esperanza, two beautiful women who come to Saratoga every summer.   (Their beauty is inside, and flows outward:  two such sweet, kind souls, wrapped in physical loveliness.  I have no doubts that many gentlemen hit on them during the course of any given day.)   🙂

As for me:  what a joy to see friendly, familiar faces!   We chatted for a few minutes, then I ordered my (very reasonable, delicious) egg sandwich.  I sat at the counter, taking a few moments to inhale everything: the scents–the sounds–the beautiful voices, conversing in Spanish. Lilting and quick, the simultaneous conversations carried on in the romantic language floated up to the ceiling and out into the Universe, where it joined my happy heart.

I’ve said often that I feel most at home at a race track.
Then, I amend that to state that I am most at home at the backstretch of a track, where the horses live.  Oh, to have a little apartment at a track backstretch, next to whinnying equine athletes and their companions.

And the kitchen–oh, the Belmont kitchen–is a microcosm of this sport, itself.
Owners, trainers, assistant trainers, jockeys, jockey agents, grooms, hotwalkers, media people–all are equals in The Big Picture, in Reality.

But most  people can’t see that equality when the show commences.  Fans, both casual and long-timers, see just the veneer:  the Richie-Riches in their silk ties stand in the winner’s circle, and grooms waiting to take the winning horse back to the barn for hotwalking, bath and lunch. (This is not to state that all owners are wealthy, this is merely to contrast it to the morning, when even the wealthiest and most well-heeled participants in the sport sit cheek-to-jowl next to everyone, when at the track kitchen.  In the backstretch–as in the Heart of God–we’re all equal.)

Good food is good food, and warm companionship always is welcome–regardless of your economic status.  The delicious sandwiches, soups, breakfasts and killer coffee may seem to be the drawing card, but all those yummy comestibles serve merely as excuse to commune with others of like heart and mind.

The bodies of those who work so hard with the horses will be re-fueled, with nutritious offerings. Their souls, as mine, are fed to brimming over, by the jovial camaraderie that happens within that glass-and-worn-wood door.  In the Belmont track kitchen, there’s no race, no class, no money.  There’s only our welcoming hostesses, Lupe and Esperanza–there’s lively, horse-centric conversation–and the scent of soul-filling food wafting through the air.

For a monstrous business organization that sits squarely on Hempstead Turnpike, mere miles from New York City–Belmont Park is a rural retreat; an animal farm; a multicultural convention and a dining experience that’s the private club for those who work in the industry.

Great food, cooked and served up with honesty and great love.
Casual connections and deep conversations, alike, enjoyed by colleagues, friends and lovers.

Spiritual, physical and emotional fulfillment, all in one small building.

I can guarantee that Zagat’s doesn’t have a listing like that.