By Laura Amato
Sentel “Sonny” Taylor could probably walk through the Belmont Race Track with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back.
He doesn’t. But he probably could.
He doesn’t because he needs to watch the races. That is, after all, what he’s done for the past 52 years.
Taylor, who grew up in Chicago and now lives in Floral Park, has been working with NYRA since 1964, serving as an official timer and, now, as a placing judge for races.
His small office at Belmont—where he’s joined by two other judges—is packed with mementos and testaments to his time at the track. The walls are covered with photos, each one specially framed, and Taylor is more than willing to regale visitors with the stories behind each snapshot.
He had visitors in droves June 11 for the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes, and while there was no Triple Crown winner to time that day, Taylor reveled in the moment all the same.
“I started in 1964 and I’ve seen four Triple Crown winners,” Taylor said. “I love the people. The horses are wonderful, but you meet a lot of interesting people.”
Taylor knows plenty of people. Or maybe, more specifically, plenty of people know Taylor.
He’s acknowledged everywhere he goes at Belmont, from the elevator operator to the security guards and even the SWAT team that sits on the roof of the clubhouse. Taylor has a chair up there. He likes to go up sometimes before races to see the horses in the paddock.
When the horses start to leave, that’s when Taylor knows it’s time to get to work.
“It’s fun,” he said. “Once you get used to doing what you’re doing, it’s like anything. You really start to do it out of habit.”
Taylor found his way to horse racing through his great uncle, who worked for NYRA as a clock operator in the 1960s. After a stint in the army and the post office in Chicago, Taylor asked for a favor from his family.
He wanted a job.
“I got discharged in Brooklyn in the Navy Yard there, so they invited me up to Saratoga,” Taylor said. “I saw what he was doing and I kind of liked it. So I said, ‘Is there any chance that they might have an opening in that position?’ My great uncle said he would talk to his boss and see what they could do and they called me within about three months. I went up for an interview and I’ve been here ever since.”
Since putting in that request, Taylor has seen the best the sport has offered. In addition to witnessing those four Triple Crown winners, he has befriended some of racing’s most famous jockeys and trainers. The shine has yet to wear off.
Taylor doesn’t pick favorites anymore. He used to—when he would go see the horses in the morning before post time—but he’s got a slightly later wake-up call now.
Of course, when you’ve spent over five decades watching racing, there are a few moments that stand out. As far as Taylor is concerned, one horse stood above all the rest—Secretariat.
“I was right here in the corner timing the race and it’s amazing how fast he actually ran,” he said. “It looked like he could have even run faster. My wife was there with me at the time and she loved it. That was probably one of the greatest moments.”
Taylor isn’t sure when he’ll walk away from racing. He’s been here for so long it’s difficult to imagine a time when he wouldn’t come to the track with his binoculars and timer.
Taylor says he’ll know when the time is right. For now he’s simply content to watch history unfold in front of him.
“I’m going to keep going until I feel like I want to retire,” he said. “I’ll be 79 in September and I still feel good so I’m going to keep working.”