Belmont Buzz Hits Saratoga

Saratoga | Sarah Andrew

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – While most of the racing world was focused on the 150th GI Kentucky Derby run last Saturday at Churchill Downs, the final stop on the Triple Crown series–the 156th GI Belmont S., some six weeks hence on June 8–is already at the top of the charts for plenty of people in this horse-centric upstate city.

In order to accommodate the massive makeover of Belmont Park, New York Racing Association officials decided last year to stage the 2024 and 2025 runnings of the Belmont S. at Saratoga Race Course, the oldest and most popular track in the country. NYRA has scheduled the Belmont Stakes Festival, which will feature 24 stakes races with purses totaling $10.25 million, for June 6-9 at Saratoga.

Even though Thoroughbred racing has been conducted at the Spa since 1863 and its world-renowned summer meet features the $1.25-million GI Travers S., the addition of the Belmont S. is nothing short of enormous. The daily limit of 50,000 admission tickets and seating sold out at Taylor Swift concert-level speed, as did hotel rooms and short-term rentals in the city and region.

“We're used to the Travers,” said Jack Knowlton, the Saratoga resident and businessman who heads Sackatoga Stable. “I say that the Belmont at Saratoga is going to be four days of the Travers on steroids. We have our Travers and it's a big deal every year, but if there's a big horse, or, on the rare occasion where there is a Triple Crown, it's absolutely crazy. That's what this is going to be.”

Knowlton has more than a casual connection to the sport. Sackatoga's Funny Cide (Distorted Humor) won the Derby and GI Preakness S. in 2003 and its Tiz the Law (Constitution) prevailed in the 2020 Belmont and Travers. He compared the anticipation for the Belmont to 2015 when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah came to Saratoga for the Travers and was upset at the fabled “graveyard of favorites” by Keen Ice.

Sending the Belmont upstate instead of staging it at nearby Aqueduct Racetrack, which no longer has the seating to accommodate a major event, has provided a multi- million-dollar package for the region.

Marianne Barker is in her 46th season operating the Impressions of Saratoga gift and souvenir shop on Broadway and said the news of Belmont at Saratoga has been good for business for months.

“Because it's so novel, that none of those races have ever been here before. Just the fact that it's something new and pretty monumental,” she said. “Yeah, people are really excited. Even if they're just here for a long weekend, I'd say that every other person that comes into the store is like, 'So, are you guys ready for the Belmont? What's it going to be like? Is it going to be crazy? Are you going to be nuts?' We're like, 'Well, we sure hope so.'”

Among the merchandise that Impressions has carried since deep winter has been a Belmont at Saratoga poster created by local artist Greg Montgomery, famous for his distinctive Travers posters.

Barker and her partner in Impressions and The Dark Horse Mercantile, Maddy Zanetti, know that the news of the temporary relocation of the Belmont has registered well beyond the Capital Region of upstate New York.

“We were in Maine for a small tradeshow about a month and a half ago and even people there were like, 'Oh my God, you guys, it's going to be great for you,'” she said. “The buzz is out.”

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, located across Union Avenue from the track, is at the forefront of a community-wide embrace of Saratoga's Belmont S.

“It certainly is everywhere,” said museum director Cate Masterson. “The New York Racing Association has been visiting Saratoga quite regularly since their announcement and with the Chamber of Commerce, Discover Saratoga, the Downtown Business Association, they've included, not only all the non-profits, but also the businesses. They've done regular meetings to just see what can happen and the buzz is there. Everyone's talking about it.”

The museum, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2025, has developed a program of special events for the festival. It includes an evening of Belmont stories from retired NYRA track announcer Tom Durkin; the Belmont Gala at the Canfield Casino that will benefit the museum and Hall of Fame; a morning tour of the Old Tavern Farm; a Saturday Morning Social at the museum; and a Handicapping 101 evening organized by retired jockey and television personality Donna Barton Brothers that will benefit Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga.

“It's an extremely exciting time because it's historic,” Masterson said. “We're thrilled. The community has definitely, I would say, rallied around the fact that the race is coming. And the four-day Belmont Stakes Festival is really nice.”

The Discover Saratoga tourism organization has been working on the Belmont-at- Saratoga project for months and it has a prominent position on its website. Among the elements being discussed are watch parties.

“We want to create events, not only for our visitors, but also our locals,” said Darryl Leggieri, the Discover Saratoga president. “We want them to feel like they're a part of it, too. Creating free events, a festive atmosphere in downtown, trying to engage all of our members, all of our restaurants and retailers and have some live entertainment and just really making it fun so that people have a great experience in Saratoga Springs.”

NYRA's original plan was to start the Belmont Park tear-down and rebuild immediately after the 2024 Belmont S., move the race to Saratoga for 2025 and have Belmont Park ready for the 2026 race known as “The Test of the Champion.” At the end of the last summer's Saratoga meeting, NYRA CEO David O'Rourke said that the Belmont was likely to be held in Saratoga in 2024 as well, providing a bigger window for the work at Belmont Park.

In early December, the switch was made official.

“I can just tell you that my phone has been ringing off the hook for the past like six months about reservations,” said Pennell's Restaurant owner Bruce Cerone. “I'm at the point I can't even take any more reservations for that weekend.”

Cerone's popular restaurant, a fixture in Saratoga for a century, has a strong year-round business. The Belmont at Saratoga festival is a present for the already vibrant economy of the city and region.

“Honestly, for myself, it's a great thing,” he said, “but people were going crazy about it, especially the rental market in my neighborhood. It's definitely a bonus for everybody.”

Siro's Restaurant, which has operated on a seasonal basis next to the track since 1945, will have its outdoor facility of a bar, raw bar and live music open throughout the festival.

“We can fit 1,500 to 2,000 people and we will have the inside bar open, too,” Siro's general manager Kevin Decker said. “We're the first stop after the track. It's going to be very exciting and we're looking forward to it.  All of Saratoga is.”

Decker said his newest venture, as a co-owner with Lucas White, The Wild Horse bar, on Caroline Street downtown will be open with entertainment for the festival.

Barker said she fully expects the Belmont at Saratoga memorabilia sales to surpass the Travers in her shops.

“I do just because it's so unique. It's on track for doing better than Travers,” she said. “Travers is huge, needless to say, but being that this is only going to happen twice and how Saratoga is excited about history and history-making events, I think it's going to be gigantic.”

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