Belmont shrinks crowd to ease race day chaos

May 31, 2015, 9:48 AM
FILE – In this June 8, 2013 file photo, fans cheer race horses as they near the finish line a...
FILE - In this June 8, 2013 file photo, fans cheer race horses as they near the finish line at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. Spectators are being promised big changes at Belmont Park this year when American Pharoah attempts to break a 37-year Triple Crown losing streak. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Big changes are coming to Belmont for American Pharoah’s attempt to break a 37-year Triple Crown losing streak.

One of them: a smaller crowd.

Track managers put an attendance cap of 90,000 on the event after a chaotic experience last year. The 102,000 spectators who came to see California Chrome’s triple try suffered through long lines at betting windows and bathrooms. Concession stands ran out of refreshments. Many spent hours jockeying for space on commuter trains or in jammed parking lots going home.

“It was brutal; close to a little dangerous,” recalled Frank Bellizzi, a San Francisco entrepreneur who owns a Napa Valley winery and attended last year’s race. “I would not come back. I have not been to a major sporting event with that level of ineptitude.”

The New York Racing Association has also hired a former FBI official to coordinate security, added more concession stands and staff, reconfigured parking lots and scheduled a post-race rock concert to slow the exodus. The Long Island Rail Road is also pouring $4 million to upgrade the Belmont Park station.

Christopher Kay, NYRA’s chief executive officer and president, said complaints after last year’s race “broke my heart.”

“We looked at the experience last year and realized there were too many people on the property,” he said.

Because of the attendance cap, Kay said he expects tickets to be sold out days in advance of the June 6 race. The prospect of a Triple Crown winner has traditionally spiked attendance at Belmont. The record for a Belmont Stakes race was set in 2004, when 120,139 people jammed the park to see Smarty Jones’s try for the Triple Crown.

Earlier this year, NYRA hired George Venizelos, who ran the FBI’s New York office, as head of security. Kay noted Venizelos has experience with large events like the 2014 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. The NYPD, the Nassau County Police, New York State Police will all be under Venizelos’s direction on race day.

To address food shortages, Kay said NYRA is adding two food truck “villages,” with 15 trucks at each location, and increasing concession stands by 30 percent and supervisors and wait staff by 60 percent.

Parking lots are also being repainted and reconfigured and efforts are being made to increase the number of temporary bathrooms, though Kay conceded long lines were still likely.

NYRA has booked the Goo Goo Dolls to perform a post-race concert at the track in an effort to ease the crunch of 90,000 people attempting to leave all at once.

At the train station, a new, longer platform constructed by race day will allow 10-car trains to stop there instead of the eight-car trains used in the past. Also, officials have devised a new routing system for trains that will allow for faster entry and exit.

“There will be some delays, just like when you leave Yankee Stadium,” Kay said. “But we’re doing everything in our power to make this a great event for our fans. People should plan to come early and stay late.”

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Belmont shrinks crowd to ease race day chaos