Two surprises from last week’s Belmont Stakes.
First, of course, was the winner, Ruler On Ice, a 24-1 shot. Second was the return of “New York, New York” as the theme song, performed during the post parade.
Last year, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) went with the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys hip-hop ballad hit “Empire State Of Mind”–a boastful song in which the singer calls himself, ironically, “the new Sinatra,” the old one having had the hit with the equally boastful “New York, New York.”
But where Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York” (really it’s “Theme from New York, New York,” the theme song from Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York, composed by Broadway’s great team of John Kander and Fred Ebb and sung by Liza Minnelli) states the goal of being “king of the hill” and “top of the heap” in “the city that doesn’t sleep,” “Empire State Of Mind” speaks of “my stash spot,” “off-white Lexus,” “that boy Biggie” and “New York, New York (I made you hot, [N-word]).” Presumably, the NYRA realized their dreadful mistake and went back to the traditional “New York, New York”–except that its use of Kander & Ebb’s tune was hardly traditional.
Actually, the traditional theme song of the Belmont up until 1997–when “New York, New York” took over–was “The Sidewalks of New York.” A sentimental song written by lyricist James W. Blake and vaudeville actor/composer Charles B. Lawlor, the 1894 copyright is also known as “East Side, West Side,” the first words of the chorus.
Performed by the likes of Mel Tormé, Duke Ellington and even The Grateful Dead (they played it once, in New York in 1972, as an instrumental lead-in to “One More Saturday Night”), “The Sidewalks Of New York” depicted life in New York City in the 1890s. It was a time, obviously, when the horse was as much the mode of transportation as the focus of a race, where “all around the town” boys and girls and a gal named Mamie O’Rourke “tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.”
And like Stephen Foster’s similarly poignant “My Old Kentucky Home” (which was published in 1853), it ends with a nostalgic look back to those times, now that the kids, who have since grown and moved on, would surely “…part with all they’ve got, could they once more walk/With their best girl and have a twirl on the sidewalks of New York.”
Substituting “New York, New York” for “The Sidewalks Of New York” (which was used as Governor Al Smith’s theme song for his presidential campaign of 1928) is comparable to replacing “My Old Kentucky Home” with Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman.” Sacrilege.
But New York has no shame, no sense of tradition. It’s personality and character constantly being replaced by modern norm. Where once everyone in the Belmont crowed waved their arms side-to-side while singing along to “The Sidewalks Of New York”‘s “east side, west side, all around the town” chorus, they were left voiceless last week when the NYRA went with a mere recording of Sinatra singing “New York, New York,” no Linda Eder, say, or Michael Amante–both of whom have sung it live at the million-dollar race that is suddenly too cheap to hire a real singer.
“The Sidewalks Of New York,” meanwhile, has been quietly relegated to heralding the Manhattan Handicap–the race run just ahead of the Belmont Stakes–with the NYRA bugler playing it. But the association issued a press release to trumpet the return of Sinatra–though without explanation for the reversal.
According to press reports, NYRA marketing director Neema Ghazi said last year that “Empire State of Mind” was a “quintessential 21st Century theme song for New York City.” NBC-Universal’s Adam Freifeld, however, said that this year’s Belmont broadcast on NBC Sports–its first showing there in five years–would feature a distinct New York flare, with the return to Sinatra’s “New York, New York” a symbolic part.
There could be no mention made of tradition in relation to a race that would be celebrating its 143rd running.