No, we are not entirely back to normal around here – or anywhere, really – 27 months after the sports world shut down almost overnight in March of 2020.
But the happy milestones on that path continue to accumulate, another of which unfolded Saturday at a very big, very old horse racing track in Elmont.
For all the recent games that have refilled our lives and refilled our arenas, the Belmont Stakes deserves a special nod this year.
It is as New York as sports events get, made even more so when Mo Donegal won the 154th running, fulfilling a lifelong racing dream for one of his owners, Mike Repole, who grew up in Queens.
Repole even had the second-place horse, the filly Nest.
The first Belmont was held in what is now part of the Bronx in 1867 – 12 years before the first Madison Square Garden opened – but this one felt extra-important, too.
In 2020, the race was run at a shorter distance than normal and with no fans in attendance, but the fact that it happened at all that June was the victory.
It was the first major sports event in New York State in the COVID-19 era, and it preceded rather than followed the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Then, in 2021, spectators were allowed back in, but only 11,000 of them, with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test required.
Better than nothing, but still weird.
Then came Saturday, which many in the crowd of more than 46,000 clearly saw as an opportunity for a welcome-home party and came dressed accordingly.
There were women in summer dresses and fancy hats and men in colorful sports jackets all over the grounds.
Many seemed to be enjoying adult beverages and fancy snacks, for which there were very long lines four hours before the big race.
Lots of the sort of young people horse racing rarely attracts decided to check things out, just as some of their great-great grandparents perhaps once did in the race’s early decades.
Attendance was capped at 50,000, not because of COVID but rather because of changes in the Belmont footprint and logistics created by UBS Arena.
The plan is to increase potential attendance in the future by allowing spectators into the vast infield, as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes do.
More parties figure to ensue.
That sort of super-sized crowd is more relevant in a year with the Triple Crown on the line, which it was not on Saturday.
But that was OK this time. The celebration was not for a potential Triple Crown winner but rather this celebration was for the event – and the venue – itself.
Belmont Park is no UBS Arena. The latter is as state-of-the-art as 21st century arenas get. The former is ancient and tattered. The current facility opened in 1968, three months after the current Madison Square Garden, and looks it.
Whether there is the money or the will to pretty-up the old place is not in my purview, and maybe horse racing itself is an absurd anachronism in an era in which people can legally bet on quarterbacks as easily as on quarter horses.
Those are discussions for other days. Not this day.
As the horses loaded into the starting gate, a huge roar went up from the crowd, and as they came to the finish line, the roar was led by a guy from Queens who had been waiting a lifetime to win his first Belmont.
So on one cloudy June afternoon, grand old Belmont looked just fine, and it was good to have a real Belmont Stakes back in town.