The 154th Queen's Plate delivered the expected amount of pomp, but not everyone was moved.
Midnight Aria had led the pack for the entire mile and a quarter, and he won the big race by a very wet, very narrow half-length. The horse ambled off the track to be hosed down while his owners collected their trophy and $600,000 of winnings in the infield. Barely 200 yards away, behind the grandstand, at row upon row of desks, hundreds of people took no notice because there was a horse they liked running in the fifth race at Saratoga. A top jockey was riding in Louisiana, and somewhere out west, where the day was just beginning, a gee-gee was bolting out of the gate at a promising pace.
We had arrived at Sunday’s Queen’s Plate—the 154th edition of Woodbine Racetrack’s oldest, biggest, and most prestigious annual event—expecting to find the beautiful people: rich, synthetic young men and women who had come the races to drink blue cocktails, pose on the mock red carpet, sit in the outdoor vodka lounge. And we did find them. But that’s not the Queen’s Plate. Or, rather, it’s not the only Queen’s Plate, because there are at least three others.
The first is the traditional one, and it’s all about standing. Standing for the Governor General to circle the track in a Bentley; standing for the Royal Horse Guards’ procession; standing for “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Then there’s the casual Queen’s Plate, the one for couples and families out on day trips, betting five dollars on sure things, trying some slots, and eating popcorn in the grandstands.
But the busiest Queen’s Plate takes place in complete isolation from the track. Its participants didn’t sit in the grandstands, but in a vast and windowless stretch of the Woodbine concourse. They were the serious bettors, the ones obsessively studying race forms and littering the floor with losing betting slips. With a wall of TVs blasting races from every corner of North America (as well as a baseball game and a sports highlight show), Woodbine’s 12 races, taking place just outside, may as well have been run on the moon. When there was real money to be won in some far-flung locale, an undercard race of winless fillies over three years old was meaningless.
This was Off-Track Betting, essentially the site of all known vices. With the swipe of a debit card, the bettors could make their picks and retire to a chair and desk with a beer and a pork sandwich. The only hints of restraint are the small beige phones scattered around the betting terminals, connected directly to a gambling addiction hotline.
What gets lost amidst the preening, the pomp, and the wagering is that horse racing is, in many ways, the ultimate sport. Thoroughbreds are small—almost fragile looking—but, even when warming up in the walking circle in front of the track, they move with a muscular athleticism that our boxers, sprinters, and hockey players can only dream of. The races themselves last maybe 90 seconds, but are incredibly tense. At the end of a mile or so, one horse is named the definitive winner. There are no maybes, no referees blowing calls, no umpires with flexible strike zones. For a spectator, there’s something very rewarding about that.