By John Dundon
Every summer since 1904, crowds have stampeded to Belmont Park in Elmont to see the Belmont Stakes—the weekend-long horse racing festival that aficionados dubbed the “test of the champion.”
The championship track—1.5 miles of brown dirt, contrasting starkly with the some of the greenest infield grass around—is the final leg in the quest for horse racing’s Triple Crown, one of the most elusive feats to capture in sports, which makes the Belmont Stakes so special. The goal? To win all the three major horse racing competitions in succession. It’s happened just 12 times since 1919—most recently last June, when American Pharaoh become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. But this time, there is no chance of a horse winning the Triple Crown.
After winning the first leg at the Kentucky Derby, Nyquist lost the Preakness Stakes due to a late inside dash by Exaggerator. Jockeyed by Kent Desormeaux, Exaggerator comes in to Belmont Park as a 9-5 favorite over the field. Nyquist—undefeated before the Preakness—is a late scratch from the race due to a fever.
“We know we’re not going to have a Triple Crown race every year,” New York Racing Association (NYRA) President Chris Kay told reporters during Friday during a news conference at the Garden City Hotel. “We said, let’s make sure people understand this is one of the must-see days for incredible horse racing—it’s an incredible card.”
Kay noted that aside from the race itself, the racetrack will host a day of “partying, fun and great racing.” Among the festivities, rock artist Daughtry is expected to perform at Belmont Park on Saturday.
The novelty of the Belmont Stakes has pushed the spectator count to astronomical levels, in the last 10-15 years especially. In 2015 about 90,000 people packed into Belmont Park to see American Pharaoh be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed won it all three legs in 1978. Last year would have likely seen a crowd that shattered the previous attendance record of 120,139 set in 2004, had NYRA not put a cap on the crowd capacity.
With no Triple Crown threat in this year’s field, attendance is expected to take a nosedive from last year. The question is, how many people will be there on Saturday, June 11? Kay anticipates the crowd will be between 45,000 and 55,000.
In ‘04, over 120,000 people made their way to the track. That year’s Triple Crown contender horse, Smarty Jones, placed second. The year following that record crowd when there was no Triple Crown winner in contention? Attendance was cut in half—less than 62,000 made the trip.
From ‘02 through ‘04, three consecutive Triple Crown hopefuls propelled attendance to over 100,000 each year. The three years thereafter—when no Triple Crown was on the line—attendance struggled to hit the 60,000 mark. The same is likely this year. The average crowd volume of the last five non Triple Crown races at the Stakes is 57,451, according to NYRA.
Despite the lessened interest from last year, both Nassau County Executive Mangano and NYRA remain confident in the entertainment factor that the 2016 Belmont Stakes will offer. Mangano predicted it will have a “$10 million economic impact on the county.” With no Triple Crown hopeful in this year’s field, Preakness winner Exaggerator will be the most talked about horse coming in.
“He ran great in the Derby, and he ran great in the Preakness,” said two-time Belmont Stakes winning trainer Todd Pletcher. “He’s shown up every time.”
Kay also expressed excitement over the fact that Lani, a horse from Japan, will be racing.
“There’s huge interest in Japan for this race,” Kay said.
Nassau County police encouraged spectators to take the Long Island Rail Road to Belmont Park. Hempstead Turnpike is expected to see extensive traffic delays, and Plainfield Avenue will be closed.
Despite the expected attendance drop business owners surrounding Belmont Park are expected to be packed.
“Of course, it’s busier when there’s a Triple Crown up for grabs, maybe it’s a 10-15 percent difference,” said Tracy Cooleen, general manager of Jameson Bar and Grill in Floral Park, one of dozens of businesses on Tulip Avenue that feels the impact of attendance numbers at the Belmont Stakes. “The area is busy either way, but certainly you can tell when it’s a Triple Crown year.”
So while there may not be record-breaking crowds this year, it’s still the place to be on Long Island this weekend.