Belmont at 150: expectations fully ‘Justified’

Sequicentennial event attracts a 90,000-plus crowd from around the globe


More than 90,000 exuberant spectators gathered in 80-degree weather to watch Justify thunder into the history books in a pole-to-pole outing that quashed any doubts about the champion’s strength and stamina.

Dressed to the nines and sporting everything from clown suits to period dress — and above all hats, hats and more hats — fans became increasingly vocal with each race on the afternoon’s undercard. After Justify’s compelling performance in the 12th, whoops and shouts could be heard throughout the clubhouse and surrounding grounds as fans voiced their approval.

Earlier in the day, alcohol compliance officer Mike Kennedy was stationed outside one of the clubhouse bars after the fourth race. Spectators are not allowed to bring their own alcoholic beverages into the park, but “the main thing” that he worries about is underage drinking, he said. Kennedy made sure bars were checking IDs, ready to step in if needed. A first offense earns a warning from Kennedy or his team. With a second offense, “we shut them down. They lose the whole day’s money and tips, so it’s pretty serious.”

Kennedy said he bets the long shots, but he noted, “I’m not really a gambler.”

Kennedy is a regular employee at the park, but many of the day’s workers were temps, brought in for the Stakes. “I’d say 90 percent of the people working today are temps,” said Howard, a white cap usher on the third level of the grandstands.

“Anna,” who declined to give her full name, was one of those temps. An usher on the second level, she worked the stands for the fourth straight year. “It’s such a beautiful day! I tell everyone they should come, everyone should experience it,” she said. “For people from the Caribbean, it’s the American dream.”

Anna doesn’t bet. Those who did ranged from the casual, like “Rob C.,” from New York City, to the more serious players who didn’t want to be identified even by shorthand.

Rob C. was joined by a group of friends from New York and Massachusetts who busily debated the merits of the various entrants in the afternoon’s main event. Rob said he didn’t believe Justify would have the stamina to go the full mile and a half, and he planned to bet a trifecta of less favored horses, although he declined to say which ones.

“He’s run five races in three months; the other horses are fresh,” he said of the undefeated Justify. His friend Christina Key, from Boston, admitted she knew little about horse racing, although she was a rider herself. It was her first time at a Triple Crown event. “I’m having a great time,” she said.

Laura Kaye, from Kings Park, and Iris Vanalderwerelt, from the Netherlands, echoed Key’s sentiment. The two, who were members of Yale University’s graduate rowing crew, were visiting for the day from New Haven, where Kaye studies medicine and Vanalderwerelt pharmacology. Neither had placed a bet, but Kaye said she hoped Justify would win.

As befitted a premier event, parking, food and souvenirs were expensive, and certain items were in short supply. “I wanted to buy an etched commemorative glass,” said Françoise Byer, who had traveled from Copaigue with her husband. “They ran out.” Byer had also looked forward to sampling the official drink of the event — the Belmont Jewel, made of equal parts whiskey and pomegranate juice, with a splash of lemonade and one of 7-Up. “They ran out of pomegranate juice and had to use cranberry,” she said. “It wasn’t even late in the day. You’d think they would’ve planned better.”

Some souvenir stands were more than adequately stocked, though. Stephanie Van Ecke and Keya Katz sold photos of famous horses, including Triple Crown champions Seattle Slew and Secretariat. According to Long Island native Van Ecke, herself a rider, 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh was the shop’s best-seller by far.

Traffic in and out of the park was brisk, but largely uncongested. Elmont Fire Chief Joseph Luckman has worked the Belmont Stakes for many years, including the last four as chief. “I haven’t seen a crazy amount of traffic,” he said. “The police handle it very efficiently.

Getting to and from the park by train was a mixed experience. “My husband works for the MTA, and I have a monthly pass, so the train was mostly free,” Byers said. “The train [from Jamaica to Belmont Station] was full, standing room only, but it was OK.” Once at the station, the race track was just a short walk, she said.

This could be good news for those looking forward to a new hockey arena where the blue parking field now stands. Beginning with a kick-off at King Umberto’s Restaurant in Elmont two days before the race, boosters of the project ranged from Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen to Elmont Chamber of Commerce officers Patrick Boyle Paul Sapienza to long-time community activist Patrick Nicolosi. All were unanimous in their hopes for both a successful and profitable weekend and for the revitalization of the community represented by Belmont Park Arena.

“Back in the day, when my family first moved here in the 60s, Belmont used to attact 35,000 people a day,” Nicolosi said. “Then, it went into a decline. I hope [the arena] helps that end of the community come back to life.”