BY DAN TORDJMAN
You pretty much have to be there to believe it
Experiencing Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes day is the equivalent of being at the Vatican on Easter Sunday. The only difference is that attendance at Belmont is capped at 90,000, while Saint Peter’s Square only holds 80,000. When there’s a Triple Crown on the line — like there is this year with Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify vying for greatness — the energy at Belmont can literally make the ground shake.
Since the majority of reserved seats were scooped up within hours of Justify crossing the wire first at Pimlico in the Preakness, the only tickets available for weeks have been general admission. If you were one of the many who was left with only one option for attending the Belmont Stakes, don’t fret. In a lot of ways, the experience at Belmont Park might even be enhanced by the ability to move around from the track’s backyard, to the historic paddock and to the grandstand for the closest view you could possibly get of the races. You can do all of that with a general admission ticket.
As a native New Yorker who has attended the Belmont Stakes nearly a dozen times, the best bit of advice I could offer is to get to the track early, like really early. Yes, it’ll make for an extremely long day (the actual Belmont Stakes doesn’t go off until after 6:30 p.m.) but I have gotten to Belmont as early as 6:30 a.m. on Belmont Stakes day. The reason is simple: there are a limited number of “free benches” available on the grandstand apron and there’s always a mad rush for those premium spots once the gates open at 8:30 a.m. Trust me, people will be lining up well before then.
If you can’t get to a bench or a rail spot near the finish line, I’d recommend trying to situate yourself near the “top of the stretch” where the horses turn for home at “Big Sandy” (Belmont’s nickname for its large and deep, sand-like makeup). The view of the horses turning for home is breathtaking, and as they come off the turn you’ll benefit from an optimal view of which horses are starting to tire and which ones are just beginning to hit their best strides.
Once inside the track, you should make it a point to walk around the facility, preferably earlier in the day. Belmont Park opened in 1905 and throughout the cavernous racetrack (which spans 430 acres when you include the barns and surrounding infrastructure), images of heroes past are ubiquitous — from the 12 Triple Crown winners who made history there, to the jockeys, trainers and owners who walked the same path that Justify, Mike Smith, Bob Baffert and the team behind the horse will pass through on Saturday.
Without a doubt, the most striking visual attraction at Belmont Park is the paddock, where the horses are saddled and paraded in front of thousands of fans before heading out to the track. Aside from the horses, you’ll also find the iconic tree that has been part of the Belmont Park logo for half a century. The tree, known as “The White Pine”, predates the track itself and is estimated to be about 200 years old.
From outside the paddock, you’ll also have a prime view of the ivy-covered exterior of the track’s central building, which houses the majority of the betting windows. Speaking of, remember to get in line well ahead of “post time” for each race, especially the featured Belmont Stakes.
Since the crowd will be large and many beginners will be learning to bet as they go, there tends to be a lot of congestion. There’s nothing worse than getting “shut out” of making a bet, only to see the horse that you were planning to bet win the race.
Assuming everything has gone to plan, you’ve arrived early, secured a bench spot trackside and you’ve taken all the selfies anyone could ever want with The White Pine as a backdrop, there’s one more thing to remember: hunker down in your preferred viewing spot about an hour before the Belmont Stakes. If you leave your bench or any spot near the rail, you’ll have a hard time pushing your way back to your location because everyone will get the same idea, at the same time, to relocate as close as they can get to the action. If you leave your spot 15 minutes before the race — and this has happened to me — you will lose your spot.
Somewhere along the way, be sure to eat well and drink well. There isn’t a signature dish at Belmont Park but there’s plenty of variety in the form of concession-style food. When it comes to enjoying an adult beverage, seek out a “Belmont Jewel” a mix of bourbon, lemonade and pomegranate juice. From there, get your bets down and settle in for what could be a historic edition of the Belmont Stakes. If Justify can cross the finish line first, like the last Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015, the ground could again shake and it might — dare I say — feel like a religious experience.
Racing fan and New Yorker Dan Tordjman is a correspondent for America’s Best Racing, founder of the racing website danonymousracing.com and a co-founder of the fan-centric racing convention Equestricon.