Belmont Buzz in the Air as Triple Crown Bid Nears

by Dan Lauletta
Even as activities proceeded as usual at Belmont Park, the unmistakable buzz in the air continued to grow. It comes around only when a 3-year old has a shot to win the Triple Crown.

The June 8 Belmont Stakes could well turn out to be the highest-attended sporting event in the history of New York. The New York Racing Association was already prepared for a large crowd--73,857 came in 2001, a record for a non-Triple Crown year--but since War Emblem's victory in the Preakness, NYRA believes attendance may top the Belmont record of 85,818 for Charismatic's foiled Triple Crown attempt in 1999.

"If we get a break in the weather, then we anticipate a record crowd," said Bill Nader, senior vice president for NYRA. "Our message to New York is, 'Where else would you rather be on June 8 than at Belmont Park?' "

Silver Charm's near-miss bid for the Triple Crown in 1997 helped to reinvent the Belmont Stakes, which had hit a snag of sorts with average crowds in the mid-1990s. With Real Quiet and Charismatic having invigorated the race with similar chances over the next two years, the Belmont now stands as one of Long Island's premier events.

"I can't emphasize enough how much that three-year run helped us," Nader said. "We really benefited. Probably the most exciting race I ever saw was the race with Real Quiet (losing the Triple Crown by a nose to Victory Gallop)."

An additional benefit to NYRA this year is the lack of a Mets-Yankees baseball game, which has competed against the Belmont every year since 1997. In 1999, a Knicks basketball playoff game at Madison Square Garden spread local attention even thinner.

The lead-up to race day will plant the specter of the Belmont Stakes firmly in the faces of NYRA's target audience. Most of the advertising focus will shift toward War Emblem and the Triple Crown, though some like the billboard outside of Madison Square Garden were not able to be altered following the Preakness.

"We're always ready to shift out advertising message," Nader said. "We will now focus on War Emblem and the opportunity that awaits him. If you ask anyone at NYRA who we like in the Preakness, I think that is answered after the first Saturday in May when the Derby winner crosses the wire."

Racing personalities will make appearances Belmont week at high-profile places such as the New York Stock Exchange and the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium.

In terms of security, NYRA will take measures similar to those at the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships last fall, "give or take some modification," Nader said.

Coolers will be allowed in the outside areas in front of and in back of the stands, but not in the building, and all bags and coolers will be subject to inspection. And despite the recent surge of government-issued terrorism alerts and the presence of War Emblem's Saudi Arabian owner, Prince Ahmed Salman, NYRA is confident Belmont Day will remain safe and secure.

"I give New Yorkers a lot more credit than that," Nader said. "New York is such a melting pot. It comes down to the love of the horse. It will be one of the great moments in sports if War Emblem is able to win the Triple Crown."