At retooled Belmont, stars align for Triple Crown

6/6/2014 5:45 AM
By By Michael R. Sisak Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - Martin Panza celebrated California Chrome's charge to Preakness Stakes victory three weeks ago like most fans at the packed Pimlico Race Course - bumping fists, slapping hands and thinking ahead to Saturday and the possibility of the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years.

And then Belmont Park's director of racing operations thought about everything else: the tens of thousands of additional people who show up for the Belmont Stakes whenever a horse has a chance at history; the millions more in expected wagers; and the need for more of everything, from seating, concessions to bathrooms, security and about 1,000 additional workers.

Local officials and business leaders celebrated too, seeing the race and the added interest of a Triple Crown contender as a boon of sold-out hotel rooms, dinners out and free publicity, so long as the writers and broadcasters were aware the track is actually on Long Island, as NBC's Bob Costas noted Wednesday, and not in New York City.

If California Chrome triumphs, it will happen on Panza's turf - or rather, his dirt - at a marquee New York-area event that the track's new management team reimagined earlier this year as a fusion of sports and entertainment worth attending even when the Triple Crown is not on the line.

They have filled the undercard with high-stakes races, increased the day's total purse to $8 million - the second-richest day in American horse racing behind the final slate of the Breeder's Cup - and surrounded the action with music from rapper and actor LL Cool J, former New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams and Frank Sinatra Jr. singing "New York, New York."

"For the first year of us doing this, under this new format, it's not going to get any better than this," Panza said in an interview near his track office, which was filled with boxes of Belmont Stakes caps and bags of other race souvenirs.

"From our end, what we need to do now is observe how the day goes and see what we can do for next year, always thinking that there could be another Triple Crown on the line."

California Chrome is the 12th horse to reach Long Island with wins in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, since Affirmed won all three in 1978.

Attendance for those 11 races averaged nearly 30,000 more than in years without a contender - going from a low of 37,171 in 1995 when Thunder Gulch and Timber Country split the Derby and the Preakness, to a record 120,139 in 2004 when Birdstone upset Smarty Jones in the last of a three-year stretch of Triple Crown contenders in the Belmont Stakes.

On-site wagering on the race-day program also surged in those years, according to track records, jumping from $6.8 million in contender-less 1996 to $9.2 million the following year when Silver Charm took the first two races, and from $8.8 million in contender-less 2007 to $13.3 million when Big Brown raced for history in 2008.

I'll Have Another's wins in Louisville and Baltimore sent attendance for the 2012 Belmont Stakes to nearly 86,000 and on-site wagering to $13.8 million even though the horse was withdrawn the day before the race due to a leg injury.

The head of the track's management team said ticket sales for this year's Belmont Stakes, with its emphasis on high-level racing and daylong entertainment, were already brisk before California Chrome broke from the gate at Churchill Downs in May.

More than 70 percent of tickets and premium tables for the race were sold before the Derby and all were gone before the Preakness, according to New York Racing Association president and chief executive officer Christopher Kay.

After the Preakness, Kay said, they added a trackside tent and additional seating to accommodate the surge of interest in a potential California Chrome coronation.

General admission and grandstand tickets costing $10 remained available through the track late in the week and more than 3,000 tickets, ranging from $12 for grandstand to $2,300 for a table for two at the Garden Terrace Restaurant, were available on the secondary ticket sales website StubHub.com.

Good weather - 82 degrees and sunny, according to the National Weather Service - could push the crowd into record territory.

"Our intent is to make Belmont Stakes day an important day year in and year out," Kay said.

This year it has been an important day - and week - for business.

The largest hotel on Long Island, a Marriott with more than 600 rooms in Uniondale, and the ornate Garden City Hotel - where management said all of the owners, trainers and jockeys in the Belmont Stakes were staying and where the menu includes a cocktail named for each horse - have sold out under race-related demand.

Other hotels were also booked solid, officials said, forcing some out-of-town fans to find lodging in Suffolk County, about 20 miles east, or stay in Manhattan, about 15 miles west.

"This Triple Crown opportunity doesn't come too often," state hotel association chairman John Tsunis said. "But, whoever wins in the race, the real winners will be Long Island and New York State."


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9/1/2014 | Last Updated: 2:30 PM