Moderate rain didn't dampen the enthusiasm of fans at Philadelphia Park, the home of Smarty Jones, the morning of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). People began gathering at the gates to the picnic area at the Bensalem, Pa., racetrack at 5:30 a.m. EDT -- and remember, they can only watch the third leg of the Visa Triple Crown Challenge on television.
Such has been the case in the Philly area for the past few weeks. Bars and restaurants in the Delaware Valley have been advertising "Smarty Parties," either on their marquees or in newspapers. Smarty Jones merchandise has been selling at an amazing rate. And people are purchasing $2 win tickets on the horse in large quantities.
On June 3, two days before the Belmont, about 250 people were lined up on the first floor at Philly Park before 11 a.m. to advance wager on the race. Total Belmont handle through the Philly Park system that day was $280,000. On June 4, advance Belmont bets totaled a staggering $1.3 million, said Joe Wilson, vice president of operations at the track.
Smarty Jones figures to be a prohibitive favorite in the Belmont. But officials have said should he win, many of the win tickets would be saved as Triple Crown souvenirs and never cashed.
Live racing wasn't offered on either day, but the track was jumping. Lines at the Smarty Jones merchandise table were 30 people deep on a regular basis, and folks were waiting in line to enter the track at 9:30 a.m. June 5 to purchase caps and shirts.
"For a track like this, it has just been fun," said Hal Handel, chief executive officer at Philly Park. "It's different from what we normally do around here. Whether it has been the media attention, the crowds of people at the morning workouts, or helicopters flying over the track, everyone from our staff to the horsemen has just enjoyed it."
Handel said Philly Park ordered a special 13-foot-by-17-foot video wall to put in the picnic area so the patrons outside can watch the Belmont and other races. Two stakes were carded for the live program: the $100,000 Greenwood Cup and the $50,000 Lyman Sprint Championship for Pennsylvania-breds.
Through June 4, merchandise sales at Philly Park had produced about $100,000 for the local backstretch fund.
The local media has been all over Smarty Jones. Every television news report has featured updates on the colt for days. Delaware Valley radio stations have been playing "Triple Crown" sets. The two major newspapers in the metro area, the Philadelphia Inquirer
and Daily News
, printed special sections on Smarty Jones and his connections.
"Locally, it's really rivaling a Super Bowl," Handel said. "I can't imagine what the TV ratings will be in this market."