September 27, 2021

A Day at the Race: Aqueduct with Zilla

words & photos by ELIZABETH KRUSKA

I live in Vermont where we don’t have any racetracks. My closest track is Saratoga Race Course. Trust me, there are worse things in the world than living within easy driving distance of Saratoga; it’s a wonderful and special place.

Part of what makes it special is that the Saratoga season only lasts 40 days in the mid to late summer. Luckily the New York Racing Association (NYRA) also runs live racing at Belmont Park and Aqueduct Race Track at other points in the year.

I didn’t always love horse racing. In fact, I didn’t really think much about it growing up. I’d watch the Kentucky Derby, but that’s about it. I remember having a long conversation with another kid in my neighborhood about the Derby one year – it must have been in 1989. She told me she has a sixth sense about picking the winner. She said she just knew Sunday Silence would win and she cheered for him. I thought she was so smart.

I didn’t become a fan until I got to go to the Derby myself. My husband and I went with his father in 2008. Thankfully we were in the infield and did not see Eight Belles break down. But the second I walked into Churchill Downs I knew I was hooked. I walked under the Twin Spires into what felt like a cathedral to its sport. I looked at the signs on the walls, naming the winners. I could smell that indescribable racetrack smell—a combination of horse and hay and excitement (and on Derby Day, bourbon), and it felt like a place I belonged.

Every track is different but with similar feels. Aqueduct is no exception. We went on February 19 for the Franklin Square Stakes, a $100,000 stakes race for New York-bred fillies. We’re partners in a few horses with Zilla Racing Stable. It’s a small (but growing) New York-based syndicate run by Mike Piazza (not the catcher). In the last few years Mike has grown the stable and engaged several great trainers. He keeps it accessible, with buy-ins as low as 3% (although we own 1% of a colt because there was a spare percent kicking around nobody else was buying). We’re not high rollers, we’re a couple lawyers who live in Vermont who like ponies.

In any case, “my” filly, Out of Trouble, made a start in the Franklin Square Stakes on February 19, so we decided to make the trek to Aqueduct. Thanks to global climate change, it was about 62 degrees and sunny. The place was packed.

When you arrive at Aqueduct you’re greeted by a big blue mural on the side of the grandstand building (see photo above). There was a project a few years ago to install murals throughout the building.

One of my favorites is the one that shows how to read past performances. I think it’s clever, and I like that it’s a past performance sheet of Stay Thirsty, the Repole Stable colt who won the Gotham Stakes on the inner track that is such an important part of the New York racing and Aqueduct landscapes.

If I ever did a mural like this in my house, I’m not sure which horse’s past performances I would use. Probably Rachel Alexandra.

The layout of Aqueduct is different than the other NYRA tracks. For starters, it’s connected to a casino. I have never been inside the casino, but I have used the bathroom adjacent to it. It’s a really nice bathroom and the staff keeps it very clean. Come to think of it, the whole place is very clean and well-maintained. One thing I like about Aqueduct is its sort of throwback aura. Even though the vibe is gritty, the facility itself is clean and pleasant.

To get into the racing side of Aqueduct you enter through the grandstand and have to go up an escalator. On the first floor is a large indoor area with seating for wagering and simulcasting. On February 19 it was very busy and buzzing with people. As we walked in a 50-to-1 horse upset the field at Gulfstream Park. Clusters of people were pointing and yelling at the simulcast televisions. A few people were high-fiving. This same scene played out over and over as different tracks had races go off at different times. Every race is different, but the scene is always the same.

The second and third floors at Aqueduct also have indoor seating. There are outdoor grandstand seats accessible on the second floor. The second floor also has an indoor owners’ lounge with soft chairs and a nice view of the paddock and the track. We were there on Wood Memorial Day last year. They had champagne for owners that day, so we toasted with lots of horse owners while we stayed in from the cold, pelting mystery precipitation. That’s the thing about racing in the north; some days you’ll have ridiculous beautiful sunshine. Some days are grayer than Frosted and you have precipitation you can’t even identify.

The third floor has a restaurant, which everyone tells me is very nice. I haven’t been inside, but it looks nice from the outside. I really prefer being outside or being in the crowd at the track, so for me, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not going in the restaurant.

Since February 19 was 62 and sunny, there was no way on earth I was going to spend the day inside. My husband and I arrived just after the second race. We found a bench on the apron just past the wire and set up shop. For about three seconds we lamented not bringing sunscreen, but we quickly got over that. The Sun felt good.

The apron was pretty bustling. It wasn’t jam packed, but it was definitely full. I didn’t count, but I’d estimate there were a few hundred people there. When we arrived a man on the bench in front of us had some sort of drama going on with a security guard and a man in a wheelchair. The man in the wheelchair seemed largely unbothered by whatever this was, and only spoke up when someone stood between him and the tote board because he couldn’t see. Another man turned one of the heavy concrete benches so it was perpendicular to the track, and so he could sit with his face directly in the sunshine.

The crowd at Aqueduct is a racetrack crowd. Nobody is going for glamour points. Some people were dressed nicely enough to go to church, but even that might have been a stretch. Well, depending on the church, I suppose. Nobody was wearing big hats or bowties; this is a jeans and sweatshirt crowd. The crowd was very diverse; it’s mostly men, but some women, and it’s people of all different ages, races, and ethnicities. I heard at least six different languages spoken that day. Everybody is there for the horses. Regardless of language or background, this is a crowd that yells “come on!” and slaps their collective thighs with rolled up programs. After each race everyone’s an expert. Then we wait 25 minutes and do it again.

You hear the same conversations at every track. Lots of “who do you like?” and war stories about big paydays or big paydays missed. A horse named Mr. Palmer won a claiming race. He went off at a big price, and the place horse also had long odds. The tote board showed the payout for a $1 exacta, which was around $45. A man behind me kept muttering to his friends, “that’s robbery!” and saying it should’ve been twice that. Finally someone pointed out to him that the price shown was for a ONE dollar exacta. For two bucks someone would’ve won around $90, which he conceded seemed about right. I only had nineteen cents in my NYRA account so I didn’t bet that day anyway. As much fun as it is to play to win, I have plenty of days at the races where I don’t bet at all.

I ran into a woman wearing the same scarf as me. We struck up a conversation, and it turns out she’s involved in a prominent New York racing stable, as well as thoroughbred aftercare. We talked a lot about horse rescue, training, and aftercare. She was with two friends who were less excited about aftercare, and they wandered away. They were casual fans, and she got them to go to the track with her by saying, “hey, it’s a nice day, let’s go outside.” It turns out she was invited out by a woman associated with Zilla, and we saw her later in the paddock.

This is one of the really nice things about the racetrack. The sport is incredibly accessible. If you go to a track and talk to enough people, eventually you’ll talk to an owner or a trainer or someone connected to the sport somehow. It takes a lot of people to make a horse race happen. And you’ll meet a lot of fans, including famous fans. I sat next to Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville one day at Saratoga and had a great time with him and Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen. The day just worked out that way. Another time I met the owners of the wonderful mare Princess of Sylmar by picking up litter. Now we’re friends.

The paddock at Aqueduct is different than at other tracks I’ve seen. It’s sunken below the track level. The horses walk over from the barns and when they arrive at the paddock, walk down a ramp to a saddling area with stalls. The middle is open and has a gazebo. Horse owners and connections enter the paddock by going down a staircase on the side, and then stand in open middle area to watch the horses get saddled. The horses then circle around the perimeter of the open area for riders up, and walk up another ramp onto the track. There’s also an open area on top of the saddling stalls. Owners will often stand in that space to watch the race. It’s directly next to the track and has a perfect view of the wire. After the race the horses go back to the sunken paddock to be unsaddled, the winner gets his or her picture taken in the paddock area, and they head back to their barns.

Finally it was time for Race 9 – the big event we were there to see. There were two Zilla horses in the race, and apparently this was the first time that had happened in the history of the syndicate. Two jockeys emblazoned with lime green Z’s across their chests walked out of the jocks’ room to the absolute delight of the Zilla Squad in attendance. Although we don’t all own shares in all the horses, the syndicate members tend to behave like one big team. We cheer for each other’s horses. Many of us wear lime green whenever a Zilla horse is running (easier in the warmer months, obviously, since lime green doesn’t exactly scream “winter”).

Out of Trouble was in post position 3. Luna Rising, the other Zilla entry, was in post position 5. Both are trained by Kiaran McLaughlin. Piazaa (remember, not the catcher) commented that Kiaran’s crew keeps all the horses looking incredible. Luna Rising looked ready to go and had visible dapples on her hindquarters. Both horses got to wear Purina-sponsored bridles. I don’t know the extent of the Purina sponsorship for McLaughlin’s horses, but it seems like maybe they get to use the Purina logo for stakes races. It seemed a little bit special, since I’ve seen other super horses trained by Kiaran—e.g. Frosted—.

My girl Trouble doesn’t like the dirt. She likes the lawn. Her maiden win was at Belmont on the turf, and she won like an absolute boss. Unfortunately, there’s no turf available this time of year, so the choice was to give her the winter off, ship her to warmer climates, or run her on the dirt. She’s been running on the dirt in New York. She was 9th of 10 on February 19, which was a disappointment. To her own statistics, though, she has been improving. I think we’re going to have her try a longer race on the dirt next time a suitable race is available to her.

Luna hit the board for show money, so although Team Trouble was disappointed, the Zilla crew was overall pretty happy that one of our team’s horses hit the board. We all clustered around and watched a replay on the screens next to the paddock. (photo)

And then, it was time for the long drive back home to Vermont. We stopped for pizza at a place in Hartford, Connecticut (coincidentally, named Luna Pizza), based on the recommendation of some horse racing friends. That’s the thing about racing that seems different than other sports. It’s a sport, but also a pretty friendly community. Between meeting people at the track and meeting like-minded folks through social media, I’ve gotten to know a lot of really great folks who are more than willing to share their opinions, their picks (well, sometimes), and even recommendations for pizza, all just for the asking.