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.
The park itself is dressing up, with a temporary area on the first floor being converted into the $300-a-head Champagne Room, where former Yankee Bernie Williams will play classical guitar.
Thousands will jostle 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 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, though 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 preparations for Saturday had begun in January.
If nothing else, Saturday will be a compelling day of racing for 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. The $8 million in purses makes it a very rich day of racing.