If the Belmont Stakes are held somewhere other than Belmont Park, what is the event called? (Probably still the Belmont Stakes, since the winner is presented with the August Belmont Trophy.)
The third jewel in racing’s triple crown (scheduled for June 8) will be hosted at Saratoga Race Course in 2024 while the event’s longtime venue undergoes much-needed renovations.
The move has reportedly been expected for some time since the $455 million Belmont Park project was unveiled by the New York Racing Association (NYRA), according to The Associated Press.
The Stadium Business notes, “The centerpiece of the reimagined Belmont Park will be a new building that will completely replace the existing grandstand and clubhouse. The new grandstand will dramatically increase the amount of parkland available to fans throughout the year by expanding the current backyard. New vehicular and pedestrian tunnels allowing access to the 45-acre infield will also provide fans and the surrounding community with more open space than before.”
New York Governor Kathy Hochul, in a statement to the press, noted that a budget passed earlier this year included a proposal for NYRA to build new thoroughbred racing facilities at Belmont Park:
“This project will upgrade the 117-year-old track, bringing the modern hospitality offerings fans expect while generating $1 billion in construction-related impacts, 3,700 construction jobs, $155 million in annual economic activity and 740 new full-time jobs. Upgrading Belmont will also secure the future of the sport of horse racing, which sustains 19,000 jobs across the state and a $3 billion annual economic impact.”
For 2024, the prize purse is also changing to $2 million, up from from $1.5 million. Interestingly, another track in the Triple Crown, Maryland-based Pimlico, the scene of the Preakness Stakes, is also badly in need of renovation; with the recent news about the Belmont, there may be more news on this front in the coming months.
But back to New York. The Belmont Stakes will probably be held at Saratoga in 2025 as well.
“This is likely a two-year endeavor,” NYRA president and CEO David O’Rourke told reporters at The Niagara Gazette last week. “We’re going to get it right, and we’re going to improve on it each year.”
According to the Stadium Business News, the race has found a permanent home at Belmont Park since 1907; however, it is no stranger to temporary moves to accommodate reconstruction and refurbishment of the track. (For example, it was housed at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens from 1963 to 1967 when Belmont Park last underwent significant renovation work.)
But, of course, with every relocation comes challenges, and the 2024 event is no exception. Outside of the logistical (relocating horses, jockeys and other personnel), The Daily Gazette noted, the race will require a few manipulations. Chief among these is the length of the race (one and a half miles) and the length of Saratoga’s track (one and one-eighth miles):
“…To preserve the Belmont distance, the race would have to start on the grandstand turn. That would create a disadvantage for some horses based on post position, so the Belmont will be scaled back to a mile and a quarter, pending approval by the American Graded Stakes Committee on Dec. 14. Big races like the Travers and Alabama are run at a mile and a quarter at Saratoga.”
Maybe it's not ideal and maybe it flies in the face of tradition, but as Hochul told reporters at The New York Post, a far worse option would have been to cancel the race entirely: “It’s good we have at least an alternative. Instead of shutting down Belmont completely, we can take the races elsewhere in the state.”
Outside of that, Gazette reporters say, there are a few other considerations:
“Staffing other segments of the venue, like food and drink service, ushers, security and mutuel clerks to handle 50,000 fans on a spot basis, will present a challenge. [Plus,] June is supposed to be the calm before the storm around here, a time to prepare for the intensity of two months of a racing season. With the Belmont in town, the first full week of June will be a storm unto itself. That means law enforcement agencies will need to be prepared for an unusually large influx of people looking for a good time. Hotels and restaurants will need to think about how their staffing levels probably should reflect what they use during the meet, if just for a week. An unprecedented Belmont at Saratoga likely will garner extra national media attention. So, Saratoga Springs and the Capital Region will need to be ready for their close-up.”
Saratoga is a good choice for the race rather than moving it out of state for other reasons, including the attendance load. NYRA limits paid admission to 50,000 not only for the Belmont Stakes, but for the two biggest attendance days at Saratoga, the Whitney and Travers. (The Gazette notes, “NYRA instituted that policy at Belmont two years ago due to the New York Islanders’ UBS Arena gobbling up half of the backyard. It’s reasonable to believe that NYRA will stick to 50,000 for a Belmont at Saratoga, if for no other reason than staffing the grounds will present challenges.”)
Of course, interest in (and attendance at) the Belmont is largely driven by whether there is a Triple Crown at stake. Gazette reporters note that when American Pharaoh ran in the 2015 Travers (having already won the Triple Crown), “an estimated crowd of 15,000 showed up just to watch him gallop through a ho-hum workout on the day before the race.”
And in the final analysis, whether a Triple Crown is possible will depend on the work done by a demographic that does not place bets, does not read magazines (or anything else) and has absolutely no interest in economic impact: the horses. Stay tuned for their input in the coming months.