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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Belmont Stakes is the third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, after the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. It is held on the Saturday between June 5 and 11 at Belmont Park in the town of Elmont, New York, on Long Island just across the border from the New York City borough of Queens. It should be noted that there is no relation between the name Belmont Park and the town of Elmont; the hamlet changed their appellation from Foster's Meadow in 1882, 23 years before Belmont Park was founded. The racetrack was named for August Belmont, who also helped fund the first Belmont Stakes in 1866, which was run at the Jerome Park Racetrack in the Bronx.
When a horse wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Belmont becomes the center of the sports world for the day, as there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1978. The chance to witness history leads to crowds in excess of 100,000, while the racetrack will see fewer fans should the Kentucky Derby and Preakness be won by different horses.
Belmont Park was opened in 1905 but the current grandstand took four years to build starting in 1964. It first welcomed bettors on May 20, 1968 as the largest grandstand in thoroughbred racing, a distinction that it still holds today. The seating gallery totals nearly 33,000 while total capacity can exceed 120,000, as it did in 2004, when Smarty Jones had a shot at the Triple Crown. In 2014, California Chrome made a run and Stadium Journey went to see history. Sadly, it didn’t come to pass, but our experience will be useful should you plan to attend the Belmont Stakes in the future.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Belmont Park is a simple racetrack that gets dolled up once a year. As such, food options are quite limited. The best place to find something is in the lawn area outside the main entrance, known as the Belmont Backyard, where some slightly more interesting offerings can be found. The Mac Truck is one of these, with the traditional Mac 'n' Cheese running $7, while specialty versions such as Buffalo Chicken and Pulled Pork are $10. Other portable stands include Hot to Trot Sammy's with Pulled Pork Sandwiches for a ten-spot, and Sausage & Peppers, which has a Sausage & Pepper Hero for $8.
Inside the grandstand, there is a large concession that offers a choice of sandwich (Buffalo Caprese, Blue Crab Cake, or Beef Tenderloin) or Waldorf salad along with kettle chips and a soft drink for $20. Other than that, you are severely limited in your choice. Hot dogs are $6, chicken tenders are decent ($8), and hamburgers are also $8.
Beer is available but severely overpriced, with a 16-ounce bottle of Coors Light going for $10, while 24 ounces offer no volume discount at $15. Bottled water and Coca-Cola products are $5. At least one beer stand temporarily ran out of its wares during my visit, leading a frenzied staff member to retrieve some stock, As he wheeled a large cart filled with cases of cold beer through the crowd, he earned a rousing cheer from the thirsty throng.
There are vending machines scattered around the grandstand which offer 12-ounce cans of soda ($2) or candy ($1.75) if you want to avoid being gouged. My advice is to bring your own food, which is permitted as long as items are in a clear plastic container or bag, no larger than 18″x18″. Coolers are not allowed.
There are restaurant options in the clubhouse, but those are booked months in advance and are not accessible to the average visitor to the Belmont.
The Belmont buzz begins a mile away as a colorful contingent of fans make their way along Hempstead Avenue, avoiding the nightmarish traffic early in the afternoon. The lines at the main gate for ticket holders are quite long, while the $10 cash admission is nearly empty. Do not try to sneak in there with your ticket, you will not be allowed.
Inside the gates, the Belmont Backyard offers a beautiful outdoor lawn setting to relax. The paddock is close by here if you want to see the horses paraded before they enter the track. Inside the grandstand, there are your typical racetrack accouterments such as betting windows and programs ($6) with each of the 13 races listed in detail.
As the day progresses, the building fills up and it becomes noisier and noisier as the excitement builds. If you lack a ticket, you can still sneak out into the seating area early in the day (they are usually checking tickets here) and spend a race or two taking in the sunshine and scenery before you are unceremoniously booted out.
By the time the race rolls around, the place is at a fever pitch, with fans standing 10 deep trying to get a glimpse of the ponies as they tear around the track. Then the race ends and everyone realizes that they spent an entire day to barely see two minutes of action. It is anti-climactic when the favorite loses, and within seconds the place clears out, although there are still two races left to be contested. Nobody cares though and Belmont Park returns to its standard sedate existence, waiting for another year to pass before it again becomes the center of attention.
Just across the Cross Island Parkway is Queens Village, which has a few stores and bars with Jamaica Avenue hosting a number of small establishments. Most fans, though, head home or into the city, which is where the real action is. If you take the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station, there are dozens of Irish bars within a block or two. Jack Doyle's on 35th Street is one that merits a visit for those from out of town.
Like the Kentucky Derby, attendees dress up with pastels the choice for both men and women, while fancy hats are also quite common. There are some serious racing fans here and I had a few nice conversations with them. But there are also far too many from the douche brigade - young, moneyed, entitled, smoking cigars in the no-smoking section, acting like they were important. Combine that with more than a few excessively inebriated idiots and you can see why regular racing fans stay home. Betting windows are also a nightmare, as novice punters try to figure out the rules while the Minutes to Post clock ticks down. If you don't know how to bet, don't get in line.
If you plan to drive, don't think about parking at the racetrack as traffic will become ridiculous along Hempstead Turnpike, and parking charges range from $20 across the turnpike to $50 for lots close by, while premium spots are $100. Free parking in Queens Village can easily be found with the mile walk actually quite refreshing. If you have a car, this is the best option. Public transit users can take the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station, but expect this to be horribly crowded, with up to a 2-hour wait after the race. I recommend taking a bus from 179th Street, the terminus of the F subway line. There are a few buses that ply the route, including the n6 and the Q110, both of which will drop you right off in front of the park, although again traffic will probably have you jumping off a few stops early and walking the rest of the way.
Inside the track, lines for everything are long, especially the ladies' loo, which forced some female fans to scurry to the men's to avoid even more embarrassment. Food stands and betting windows can also take ages to get to, while walking around the interior grandstand can be a chore later in the afternoon when the place is nearly full. Benches are not plentiful enough should you get tired, but the west side of the third floor is the most likely spot to find one.
Despite all these problems, you can get in to see the Belmont Stakes for only $10, or $30 for the Clubhouse. It is a small price to pay for a chance to witness history. Even tickets acquired through the box office start at $20 and can be resold for a healthy profit on the secondary market should the Triple Crown be in contention. The full list of ticket prices can be found here, with those closest to the finish line obviously costing more than those down by the 1/8th pole.
Yes, food and drink is expensive, but you can avoid that with some smart planning. Considering the national attention the 2014 race received both before and after it was run, admission is a bargain, especially in New York City, where the Rangers were playing in the Stanley Cup Final the same night, with the cheapest available seats well over $1,000.
The aesthetically pleasing nature of the outside of the grandstand, with its ivy and arched windows, is worth a point here.
Inside the Clubhouse, you will find Woody's Corner, which commemorates Woody Stephens' five consecutive winners from 1982-1986.
A statue of Secretariat is in the center of the Belmont paddock. Also on display are four stone pillars found at the clubhouse entrance. These used to stand along Hempstead Turnpike and were donated to the racetrack by the Mayor and Park Commissioners in Charleston, South Carolina, where they had stood at the entrance of the Washington Course of the South Carolina Jockey Club, which ceased operations in 1882.
Binoculars can be rented for $2 should you forget yours or not own a pair.
This is a review of the Belmont Stakes that was held in 2014. Every year will be different, but the following should remain useful. If you actually want to see the race, you have two choices: 1) Get there very early, at least an hour before the first race, and stake out a standing spot in the lower grandstand and save it with a small chair or blanket; or 2) Buy grandstand or clubhouse seats from the box office as soon as they go on sale in late March. All three of the Triple Crown races are national events and sports fans should attend at least one, and the Belmont might be the easiest in which to gain admission. If you want to visit, take the advice offered herein and enjoy a full day at the racetrack.
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