While it boasts architectural and historical marvels at virtually every corner, there’s a significant element of New York City where function trumps form. Subway cars, hot-dog carts, pizza joints, and Madison Square Garden — none of these iconic slices of the Apple are particularly pretty. Same with Belmont Park; you want bow ties and buskers, head to Saratoga Race Course.
Dubbed “Big Sandy,” Belmont, like the metropolis to its immediate west, blows you away with size. Run at 1 1/2 miles (the precise distance of the enormous dirt track), the Belmont Stakes is not only the longest leg of the Triple Crown, it’s the longest race most of its 3-year-old participants will run in their careers, period (unless they switch to turf). Like New York itself, it poses challenges unrivaled in America. But if one can conquer them, the spoils that await are equally unparalleled.
Whether there’s a Triple Crown at stake has a profound impact on how many people show up in person to witness the Belmont Stakes. Either way, the track’s “backyard” is sure to be packed with picnickers in pastel shorts. While it’s more pronounced at Saratoga, Belmont has a rich tradition of racing fans paying to enter the track yet never setting foot in the grandstand. A paradoxical dynamic is at play here: While, as at most big-time sporting venues, food and beverages cost a pretty penny, New York tracks allow fans to tote in their own coolers of chow and booze. Who needs a Heineken bottle when you can suck down a half-rack of Natty Light for the same price?
If you’re committed to eating and drinking inside, the third-floor Heritage Club Food Court offers a meaty behemoth called the Belmont burger—if you’ve never topped a patty with pastrami, here’s your chance—for $10, while a nice selection of draft microbrews is available at the adjacent bar. Bars can be found throughout the facility, which, on Belmont Stakes day, pour a healthy amount of Belmont jewels (bourbon, lemonade, and pomegranate juice).
When it comes to live racing, few tracks have the good fortune of holding as many marquee stakes races as Belmont. There are five Grade 1 races on the Belmont Stakes undercard alone, highlighted by the Ogden Phipps Stakes and Met Mile, while the July 7 Stars and Stripes day, a recent addition to the track’s calendar, draws top-flight foreign horses with two Grade 1 turf races (the Belmont Derby Invitational and Belmont Oaks Invitational), as well as the Suburban Handicap and Dwyer Stakes. The Jockey Club Gold Cup, a key Breeders’ Cup Classic precursor, is a highlight of the fall meet, which runs from Sept. 7 to Oct. 28. (The spring/summer meet typically lasts from late April to mid-July.)
Where to Eat, Drink, and (Never) Sleep
New York hotels are notoriously expensive, making it the perfect place to seek out Airbnb or off-market lodging options. But if you plan on winning big, the Lucerne on the Upper West Side will make you feel as though you actually live in the city, while the Carlyle on the Upper East Side has a cafe where Woody Allen’s Dixieland jazz band gigs regularly, and a bar, Bemelmans, where you can slurp down pisco sours and tuna crudo while Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali converse in front of cameras nearby, surrounded by whimsical wall drawings created by Ludwig Bemelman of “Madeline” fame.
In SoHo and the immediate vicinity, Botanica Bar on Houston Street is a great subterranean watering hole that falls on the hipper side of divey, while Tom & Jerry’s and Toad Hall are cool without coming off as pretentious. Meanwhile, Greenwich Village (or, more accurately, its East and West “suburbs”) boasts three classics: the White Horse Tavern, McSorley’s, and Corner Bistro. The first of these, a hangout of famous writers which dates back to 1880, is where the poet Dylan Thomas drank himself to death (please don’t follow his lead). The even-older McSorley’s, which didn’t welcome female customers until 1970, covers its floors in sawdust, serves a cheese platter with saltines and raw onions and offers but two types of draft beer, McSorley’s Light or McSorley’s Dark. At Corner Bistro, featured in a well-known episode of “How I Met Your Mother” and one of the West Village’s last bastions of bohemia, the deliciously simple burgers are the draw; a second location recently opened en route to Belmont in Long Island City.
Dining options closer to the track include Italian throwbacks like King Umberto and Don Peppe. The latter is actually closer to Aqueduct, while the former is within walking distance of Belmont. Jameson’s, a lively Irish pub in Floral Park that serves a fine plate of Shepherd’s Pie, is also reachable via shoe leather. But simply strolling off Belmont’s massive parking lot is a chore unto itself; imagine walking off JFK’s runway, and proceed in desolation.
As with Gulfstream Park, any East Coast trainer or jockey worth his or her salt typically competes at Belmont. While Nick Zito and his favorite rider, Edgar Prado, gained considerable notoriety for dashing Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown dreams aboard Birdstone in the 2004 Belmont (drawing a record crowd of over 120,139 to the track), their stars have faded a bit over the last decade, giving ground to stalwart saddlers such as Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, as well as jockeys like John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Irad Ortiz Jr., Jose Ortiz, and Joel Rosario.
One needn’t be above ground, gaping at the Manhattan skyline, to get a keen sense of how much grander a scale New York City operates on than any other American city. Both Grand Central and Penn Stations are like subterranean municipalities unto themselves, with hundreds of trains arriving and departing during a given minute at each terminal. Avert your eyes from the ant-like swarm of people, and there are very clear directional indicators for where to go; it’s not nearly as intimidating as it seems, once you take a deep breath.
Despite the region’s affinity for train travel, Belmont has a massive parking lot for what used to be good reason—it once was fairly inaccessible by rail, except for a special train on Belmont Stakes day and a smattering of other high-traffic dates. But the Long Island Railroad’s Belmont Special, originating from Penn Station (located directly underneath Madison Square Garden), was recently expanded to serve the track on every day of its spring/summer meet, making automotive travel an afterthought for anyone within striking distance of Manhattan. If you opt to hop aboard, be sure to stop by the Blarney Rock for a pre-trip Guinness.