By Karen M. Johnson
Big Brown has delivered big time for the New York Racing Association as he enters the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr.I) as a potential Triple Crown winner.
It will be the first year since 2004 that NYRA has hosted a Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line. That year, Kentucky Derby (gr.I) and Preakness (gr.I) winner Smarty Jones fell short by a length to Birdstone in the Belmont, and NYRA entertained a record crowd of 120,139 at its Elmont, N.Y., facility on a cloudy and cool day.
This year’s Belmont Stakes will allow the embattled NYRA to put its best foot forward after a tumultuous few years that saw the association, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, enter bankruptcy, fight hard to secure the racing franchise for the next 25 years, and to shake off the image of improprieties in managing its tracks. Recently, a federal court approved NYRA’s reorganization plan to emerge from bankruptcy.
For NYRA’s president and chief executive officer, Charles Hayward, it will be his first Triple Crown on-the- line scenario since accepting his position with NYRA on Nov. 4, 2004.
Hayward, who was at Pimlico to witness Big Brown’s Preakness win May 17, drove back to New York the following morning with NYRA’s racing secretary and director of racing, P.J. Campo.
“We are very, very excited about the Belmont,” Hayward said May 18. “What an explosive race (Big Brown ran). This gives us a big-time opportunity to have a Triple Crown horse, and the Belmont is shaping up to be an interesting race with other horses, as well. This is really special for me because I wasn’t working here for Smarty Jones in 2004.”
As of late afternoon on May 18, the other early players considered for the Belmont Stakes were Casino Drive, Tale of Ekati, Denis of Cork, Anak Nakal, and Tomicito. NYRA stakes coordinator Andrew Byrnes has listed Icabad Crane, Macho Again, and Behindatthebar as possible starters.
Hayward said NYRA already has had one Belmont planning meeting pre-Preakness, with a playbook created by Hal Handel, NYRA’s executive vice-president and chief operating officer, addressing the possibility of Big Brown entering the Belmont as a Triple Crown contender.
“We’ll have another meeting (May 21), and go through the whole drill with our food services, customer service, and everything else,” Hayward said. “We have had the opportunity to host (six) Triple Crown scenarios (since 1997), and this is something we are well-equipped to handle. Obviously, we anticipate a big crowd, but how big, will depend upon the weather.”
Reserved seating was expected to be sold out by the end of business May 18, according to Jerry Davis, NYRA’s director of admissions and parking.
In total, Davis said Belmont has “just under 22,000” seats in the grandstand and clubhouse, not including seats in the dining rooms. Only 5,500 grandstand seats were still available May 18. Clubhouse seats were previously sold out in a lottery draw before Big Brown’s Preakness win.
“The interest in this year’s Belmont is similar to when Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby, and everyone thought he would win the Preakness,” Davis said May 18. “The faxes are coming in left and right, and we have people at locations at the track today accepting applications.”
A win by Big Brown in the Belmont for his owners, IEAH Stable and Paul Pompa Jr., and trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., who are based in New York, would be one for the home team. The last New York-connected horse to make a run for the Triple Crown was Funny Cide in 2003. Beaten five lengths by Triple Crown spoiler, Empire Maker, the gelding failed to make history when he finished third over a sloppy track.
Ironically, Big Brown will be housed in Empire Maker’s old stall at Belmont’s Barn 2 as he prepares for the Belmont Stakes. The barn is the home to the horses of Empire Maker’s trainer, Bobby Frankel, who is friends with Dutrow.
Big Brown is not the only intriguing storyline in the Belmont. The drama is heightened by Japanese invader Casino Drive, an impressive winner of the Peter Pan (gr.II) at Belmont May 10, who will try to make history as well.
Casino Drive, a son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft , is a half-brother to the past two winners of the Belmont, Jaziland the filly Rags to Riches.
It has been 30 years since a Triple Crown win was witnessed at Belmont. Affirmed capped his famous rivalry with nemesis Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes with a head victory.