Attendance at this year’s GI Belmont S. will be capped at 90,000, the New York Racing Association announced on Wednesday.
The cap was revealed by NYRA chief executive officer and president Chris Kay at the tail end of a superlative-laden media teleconference to outline the details of the inaugural Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, which is being billed as a three-day “mega event” at Belmont Park June 4-6.
Kay did not revisit specifics about the logistical difficulties that have plagued Belmont Park in recent years when a Triple Crown has been on the line. Instead, Kay chose to underscore the proactive plan for this year, explaining that NYRA chose its 90,000 cap as a “means for everybody who is here to have an enjoyable day.”
At first blush, it would seem that a 90,000-fan precaution is moot if GI Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) either loses the GI Preakness S. or doesn’t show up for the 1 1/2-mile classic with the Triple Crown on the line.
But announcing an attendance cap one month before the Belmont could turn out to be a stroke of marketing genius for NYRA: The limited supply of admission tickets could drive up demand, as racegoers will be forced to make buying decisions much earlier in advance than usual.
“We’re going to follow the lead of other major sporting events in New York,” Kay said. “You may not be able to walk up on Belmont S. Day and just buy a ticket. They may all be sold in advance.”
So NYRA could be setting itself up for a win-win hedge: If American Pharoah heads to Belmont Park with a Triple Crown sweep on the line, NYRA can say it took reasonable precautions to maximize guest comfort.
On the other hand, if a crush of customers buy Belmont tickets in the next 10 days without knowing the outcome of the Preakness, and it then turns out a Triple Crown is not in the cards, NYRA has cleverly locked in revenue from tens of thousands of customers who would otherwise have passed on attending.
Kay said that in 2014, NYRA sold out grandstand, clubhouse and all dining seating before the Preakness was even run (but even on race day, fans could still buy general admissions that did not guarantee a seat). “This year our ticket sales are running ahead of last year’s pace,” Kay said. “Those tickets are flying.”
Limiting attendance is just one way that Thoroughbred racing has sought to emulate other major sports in recent years. It’s quite a departure from the inclusive mindset that prevailed in earlier decades, when marketers often trumpeted the fact that racing was the only sport where an average Joe could walk up to the admission booth on the day of a Triple Crown event and pay just a few bucks to potentially witness history.
But even within the context of recent civil unrest and rioting in Baltimore, capping the crowd not something officials at the Maryland Jockey Club have considered at Pimlico Race Course for the May 16 Preakness.
“No, no, no,” said MJC vice president and general manager Sal Sinatra when asked about a Preakness attendance cap. “When we’re sold out [is when] we’re sold out.”
Sinatra said he does not expect police and armed services presence to spike above the norm for this year’s Preakness: “It’s been relatively calm and quiet lately. This event, for the people of Baltimore, it’s a huge deal. I don’t think they’re looking to use [Preakness Day] as a stage of any sort.”
Churchill Downs officials did not respond to phone and email requests about whether an attendance cap has ever been considered for the Kentucky Derby.
In 2014, with California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) gunning for the Triple Crown, 102,199 Belmont Park customers were forced to endure long betting and bathroom lines, concession stands that ran out of food and water by late afternoon, and utterly chaotic parking and transportation strategies that were compounded by a mass post-race exodus.
Comparatively, attendance at the Belmont S. has paled in years when no Triple Crown is up for grabs, like in 2011 (47,562) and 2013 (55,779). The 2012 attendance of 85,811 was somewhat of an anomaly, because I’ll Have Another was poised for a Triple Crown win but was retired the day before the Belmont after developing tendinitis.
The Belmont attendance record is 120,139, set in 2004 when Birdstone denied Smarty Jones a sweep of the Triple Crown. War Emblem’s failed Belmont bid in 2002 drew 103,222.
Aside from the crowd cap, NYRA genuinely seems to have put some thought into better moving people in and out of Belmont Park on the only day of the year when the cavernous racetrack approaches capacity.
This year, both Friday’s and Saturday’s racing programs on Belmont Stakes weekend will be followed by winner’s circle concerts that are included in the price of admission. Friday’s band will be O.A.R. On Saturday, the Goo Goo Dolls will headline.
The musical acts, which Kay said will last about an hour, are designed to both entertain and mitigate crowd flow.
“I know in the past some people make a mad dash for the cars or the trains after the Belmont Stakes has been run,” Kay said. “What we’re doing this year is providing incentive and a reason and entertainment for you to stay… so there’s no reason to feel you have to bolt out of here.”
Other tweaks for Belmont S. Day announced at the teleconference included:
• If any of the 90,000 admission tickets remain to be sold on race day, fans must purchase them from kiosks outside the track. In an effort to speed up the admissions process, no cash will be accepted at the actual track entrances.
• Grandstand and clubhouse points of sale for concessions, hawkers, managers and waitstaff have all been increased, and will remain in place through the conclusion of the early evening concert.
• Two new “food truck villages” will be set up in the backyard and at the top of stretch.
• Cellular phone network capacity for the premises has been quadrupled, and wireless access has been boosted 75% across the property.
• The nearby Long Island Railroad station has undergone $5 million in upgrades since last year’s Belmont S., including a platform extension that will increase boarding capacity from eight to 10 cars at a time.
“We’re working very closely with the state department of transportation this year to enhance our traffic flow both leading to and from Belmont, and it’s something we’re taking extremely serious,” said NYRA vice president of security George Venizelos. “When you have 18,000 parking spaces, there’s going to be traffic. It’s going to take time, so we’re going to ask for patience. It’s not going to be in and out.”
On the racing side, NYRA announced that it will offer new owner, trainer and jockey awards to recognize top performers at the three-day festival.
Based on 5-3-2-1 point totals for a combined 30 races, points will be awarded to the top four finishers for the eight scheduled races on June 4; the 10 scheduled races on June 5, and the first 12 races on Belmont Stakes Day.
There will also be new post-race trophy presentations to owners of the second- and third-place Belmont S. finishers.