It's hard to believe, but 10 years ago the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) attracted just 37,171 people, a pitiful turnout for what is annually one of American racing's biggest days.
There was no Triple Crown on the line in 1995, and the morning-line favorite, Preakness (gr. I) winner Timber Country, had been scratched the night before the race, foiling a rubber match with Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner and D. Wayne Lukas-trained stablemate Thunder Gulch.
There were 144,110 at Churchill Downs to see that year's Derby. The Maryland Jockey Club reported attendance of 100,818 for the Preakness. But the New York Racing Association had not yet figured out how to generate interest in the Belmont Stakes when there was no Triple Crown on the line.
It was easy in 2002-2004 when NYRA rode a wave of momentum created by War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones. The Triple Crown hopefuls attracted 100,000-plus crowds to the Long Island racetrack.
Now, NYRA is figuring out how to draw a crowd when the Triple Crown is not on the line. As NYRA senior vice president Bill Nader said to The Blood-Horse
's Lenny Shulman, "It's now more than the Belmont Stakes. People who have come out the past few years I think realize it's a great day, not just a great race. They've been caught up in the fun and entertainment value Belmont Stakes day offers in one of the most beautiful settings in New York, especially when it's crowded and jumping. This is a day that's on people's calendars now."
For that reason, Nader is looking for a crowd of 75,000 or higher for the June 11 Belmont Stakes, which is expected to feature Kentucky Derby victor Giacomo against Preakness winner Afleet Alex. That would make it the highest attendance for the classic race when no Triple Crown was on the line. The crowd count was 73,857 in 2001, when Preakness winner Point Given romped by 12 1/4 lengths, leaving Derby winner Monarchos in his wake.
The following year, when War Emblem's Triple Crown attempt was spoiled by Sarava, attendance soared to 103,222. In 2003, on a miserable, rainy day, 101,864 fans watched Empire Maker snatch Funny Cide's Triple Crown glory. Last year, an all-time record 120,139 saw Smarty Jones suffer his first career defeat at the hands of Birdstone.
"We're fortunate the floor has been raised over the past several years and our foundation is that much higher," Nader said.
Belmont tickets, even with increased prices, sold out in advance of this year's Preakness. "It's the biggest sporting event day in New York for the summertime season," Nader said.
The nature of Afleet Alex's Preakness victory should help raise awareness for this year's Belmont even more. The athletic recovery from potential disaster at the top of the Pimlico stretch put the son of Northern Afleet on virtually every newscast and enhanced his name recognition and popularity. So does Afleet Alex's connection with Alex Scott, the courageous young girl who opened Alex's Lemonade Stand to help fund the battle against the cancer that took her life at age eight last year.
NYRA's advertising will focus on the Giacomo vs. Afleet Alex rivalry as well as the incident in the Preakness when Scrappy T nearly knocked Afleet Alex to the ground. "That image," Nader said, "the athleticism and acrobatic response the horse and rider had is something that's been played and played and played, and casual fans are blown away by the accomplishment. We're pushing that hard."
America's oldest classic, scheduled for its 137th running, has come a long way in the last 10 years. If this year's crowd totals 75,000 it will double the attendance from 1995 and exceed the number who watched Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed win Triple Crowns in the 1970s.