With more than 100,000 fans expected to watch California Chrome attempt to win the Triple Crown on Saturday, the Belmont Stakes will provide its annual economic jolt to Belmont Park, which often enough has a relative handful of fans rattling around the huge premises.
But not this Saturday. The industrial-size grandstand will be packed. The lines to wager and eat are likely to be long. And it will be a lot better day for everyone if it doesn’t rain.
For better or worse, the park itself is dressing up, with a temporary area on the first floor being converted into the $300-a-head Champagne Room, where the former Yankee Bernie Williams will be on hand playing his classical guitar.
Thousands will jostle one another in the backyard paddock to get glimpses of the horses, especially the Belmont Stakes field. Normally, the paddock is a nicely landscaped, sort-of-bucolic setting where fans in ones and twos can studiously eyeball the entries for each race before the horses head to the track. It’s quiet, almost contemplative. The trainers and owners interact with the jockeys. Bettors study the odds. Everyone has elbow room. But not this Saturday.
More than anything, though, the day will be a test of preparedness for the New York Racing Association, which was seized by the state two years ago after the deaths of horses at its tracks and assorted management missteps.
In four of the last five Belmont Stakes, when no horse was seeking the Triple Crown, attendance averaged 50,361.
By Belmont Park standards, that in itself is a huge crowd, unmatched by the turnout any other day of the year.
But when there is a Triple Crown at stake, that figure gets a whole lot bigger.
In 2008, 94,476 fans braved sweltering weather to watch Big Brown lose his chance to be a Triple Crown winner; four years earlier, Smarty Jones’ attempt brought in 120,139.
Christopher Kay, NYRA’s president and chief executive since last June, vows that the track will be ready for this onslaught, although no one will really know for sure until early Saturday evening. NYRA will add as many as 1,000 security, concessions and parimutuel workers to cope with additional spectator and bettor demands, and Kay said that preparations for Saturday had begun in January.
If nothing else, Saturday will be a compelling day of racing for those people who still follow the sport closely, instead of just perking up when a Triple Crown is on the line.
There will be five Grade I stakes races in addition to the Belmont Stakes. That’s a hefty total, and the $8 million in purses make it a very rich day of racing.
And besides the upgraded race card, Kay said that the track will ramp up its entertainment.
In other words, Bernie Williams will have company. There will be music from the West Point Band and LL Cool J.
And, for what it’s worth, Frank Sinatra Jr. will sing “New York, New York’’ instead of the recorded version of the song by his father that has been heard at Belmont in the past. Not surprisingly, the possibility of California Chrome becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 has made tickets scarce.
All grandstand reserved seats, which cost $20 to $150 each, have been sold out. So have premium offerings like the $450 tickets for the Turf and Field Club and $375 tickets for the North Shore Terrace.
But some of the 1,800 temporary bleacher seats that are still to be built near the track’s far turn are available at $250 each, as are some of the 240 table seats under a specially rigged trackside tent near the clubhouse turn at $1,000 apiece. There are $10 general admission tickets available (an extra fee if bought on Ticketmaster.com) as well as $30 clubhouse tickets, but only at the track.
Fans arriving Saturday will see a track that looks much as it usually does, only packed, making the grandstand seem less cavernous. The thousands of cars stored in the parking lots by local automobile dealers — a source of extra rental revenue to the track during the many days when attendance is minimal — will be gone.
A pond in the infield that had dried up has been refilled. And the damage caused to the grandstand roof by the winter’s storms has been repaired.
Some fans who attended the 2008 Belmont Stakes, when Big Brown finished last, may recall the overflowing toilets that suggested that the plumbing system at the aging track was not up to serving a huge crowd, at least not in really hot weather.
Kay was unaware of a problem that predated his hiring but was confident that the infrastructure of the track, which shuts down in the winter and opens up in the spring, was in good shape.
“Everything was tested before we reopened Belmont: sewers, water, electricity and gas,’’ he said.
The rest, perhaps, is up to California Chrome.
If he can become the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, then everyone in the crowd more or less goes home a winner.
All 100,000 of them.