Belmont Park made an event that was entertaining for everyone in the family. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
It wasn’t the horses that brought me to Belmont Park this past Saturday. It was the ponies. The pony rides, to be more exact. Debating what to do on a beautiful afternoon with the kids, I suggested to my wife that we head out to Belmont where, “for some reason they’re having pony rides and bouncy castles for kids!”
PONY RIDES WERE A HIT AT THE TRACK
We packed up the car with our lawn chairs, a blanket and some snacks and set out from Brooklyn for Long Island. When we got to the track we were shocked.
What was going on? Ten thousand spectators? Twenty food trucks? Look at this program! Five stakes races? Two different million-dollar races? What are all these horses from Europe doing in here? Where are the six-horse, state-bred claiming races? Where are the maiden claimers?
As it turned out, Saturday was Belmont Park’s inaugural Stars and Stripes say. This was the second effort by the New York Racing Association to fiddle with the Belmont calendar (the first being Belmont Stakes day) and stack top-shelf races together.
FOOD TRUCKS OFFERED FANS A VARIETY OF CHOICES
To accomplish this, it required a little bit of smoke and mirrors. Two inaugural Grade 1 races on Stars and Stripes day - the $1-million Belmont Oaks Invitational and the $1.25-million Belmont Derby Invitational - were actually recycled from later in the calendar. The Grade 1 Jamaica Handicap and the Garden City Stakes were renamed and had their purses beefed up. This allowed NYRA to keep the Grade 1 classification despite essentially being brand-new races. The result? A slew of quality horses entered, including four shippers from across the pond. And three other near-capacity-field stakes races rounded out what was as close to a Breeder’s Cup or Triple Crown day card as you’ll get at any track in America.
The action-packed card was backed up with plenty of activities in the backyard for families, including the aforementioned pony rides and bouncy castles, entertainers, karaoke, a food-truck rally and a petting zoo. During the afternoon, we ran into friends of ours who we didn’t ever expect to run in to at a racetrack. When I asked why they decided to come, they said they got free tickets with their seats they bought for the Belmont Stakes.
An ingenious marketing plan! NYRA started promoting Stars and Stripes day to their gigantic Belmont Stakes day crowd. And despite only about 10-percent of that crowd showing up on Saturday, those fans were treated to horse racing at its best - quality horse racing and a relaxed-and-fun atmosphere. None of the logistical nightmares that plagued Belmont Stakes Day’s near-record crowd were present.
While NYRA perhaps was disappointed at the attendance of 11,184 on Saturday, they can take some solace that folks who showed up are very likely to come back for more. Not to mention, a year ago on July 7 the attendance was less than half of that!
The racing lived up to the hype, even in the “undercard” to the two big races. In the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes, a race that saw a number of Grade 1 winners face off, it was Clearly Now who beat the field of nine. Not only that, Clearly Now set a new track record for seven furlongs with a 1:19.96!
For horse racing die-hards, Stars and Stripes day presents something to be thankful for - one more bite at the Big Apple before everyone heads upstate to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. A day of racing at Belmont with all of the drama of the Belmont Stakes day card but without all the hassle. And to think there’s still one more week of racing to go before Saratoga!