It is one of the great moments in American sport. On the first Saturday in May, as the first potential champion steps upon the hallowed race course, the band strikes up "My Old Kentucky Home." Then 100,000 people, their mint juleps raised in tribute, sing along and there's not a dry eye in the place, even among the frat boys. But this was not the first Saturday in May. It was the second Friday in January, and Churchill Downs' fabled twin spires were replaced by a windswept vista of the Kennedy airport long-term-parking lot beyond the cyclone fence of Aqueduct Race Track, in South Ozone Park, Queens. And when the hoof of the first decided non-champion touched the Big A's winterized "inner dirt track," a man named Delroy, a night watchman of the Rastafarian faith, one of the 3,000 or so hard-core horse players to show up on this snowy, sub-freezing day, broke into song.
"Play that funky music, white boy!" Delroy sang, his lone, gloom-cutting falsetto calculated to spur on C. C. Lopez, rider of one Red Hunt, a 22-to-1 shot who was making his racetrack debut. It didn't help. Moments later, icicles hanging from his dreadlocks, Delroy stood squinting into the cold mist, trying to make out which of the late-arriving horses was Red Hunt, 0-for-1 lifetime.
It is unlikely that the seventeenth-century English aristocracy had Aqueduct winter racing in mind when they imported those three Arabian, Turk, and Barb stallions -- stock from which all Thoroughbreds are said to be descended. Begun in the mid-1970s to keep gambling tax dollars pumping year-round, winter racing has long provided a handy metaphor for the 50-odd-year decline of the erstwhile Sport of Kings. Indeed, with its slew of six-furlong races, its bowls of clamless clam chowder ladled out from steaming steel vats, and the same daily "faces" -- Rastas, Chinese waiters, Korean War vets on disability, etc. -- serial plunging at the $2-exacta windows, Aqueduct seems a perfect spot to divest one last grubstake before tottering off this mortal coil.
This is especially true when the heavy weather's rolling in off North Conduit Avenue, as it was so often early this year, when several dates were canceled because of unmerciful cold, rain, and snow. Even on so-called good days, "it's unbelievable," says the aforementioned jockey Lopez, a genial soul who has been piloting bloodline-deficient nags around the inner track for the better part of a decade. "You're out there in nothing but a leotard and a T-shirt. Your hands freeze, your feet freeze, your face freezes. The horse is going 40 miles an hour into a gale -- what's the wind-chill on that?"
Given this general mise-en-scène, it is no wonder that Aqueduct and its quick-drying inner track (a tight-turned "bullring" notable for outrageous bias toward front-running "speed" horses) are almost universally eschewed by racing's fancier element. You won't find society owners like the Phippes, swank trainers like Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey, or top jocks like Jerry Bailey, Pat Day, and José Santos saddling paragons like Skip Away or Silver Charm amid the howling winds of the Aqueduct paddock. Most of these "connections" leave New York in November, choosing to pass the winter amid the more copacetic surroundings of Florida's Gulfstream Park or Santa Anita Park out in California. But no matter. There's a kind of purity at the Big A in winter, a monkish singularity of purpose. It is a prole-bound pre-TV world, full of arcane etiquette and schematized ways to wisdom.
"When the fat cats are away, the mice will play," Gasper Moschera says, standing in front of barn No. 56 on the nearby Belmont Park "backside" (take a right off Ruffian Road, to Seattle Slew Avenue, then onto Assault Road). It's six o'clock on a wretched winter morning; the roosters are screeching as if in pain, but Gasper's already on his second cup of coffee, just as he is every day, seven predawns per week. Horse trainers, the auteurs of the sport, usually hang shingles with their names (often gold-leafed) on the barns where their charges are stabled. But Gasper, who has won more races in New York than any other trainer for each of the past six years and who is generally known as the king of winter racing, puts on no such airs.