Belmont Stakes excitement builds before big race

Rosie Napravnik cools down Power Broker after their Rosie Napravnik cools down Power Broker after their win in the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont Park. A few hours later, Napravnik rode Unlimited Budget in the Belmont Stakes, becoming the first female jockey to ride in all three Triple Crown races in the same year. (June 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Cigar smoke and beer, big hats and bright sundresses filled the backyard of Belmont Park Saturday afternoon.

Nearly 48,000 revelers came to the Elmont track even though a Triple Crown wasn't on the line, and despite having to dodge ponds and puddles left behind by post-Tropical Storm Andrea's deluge the night before.

Few seemed to mind the extra-tight security at the 145th running of the Belmont Stakes.

The crowd wasn't permitted to bring large purses, backpacks or coolers. New York Racing Association employees handed out clear plastic bags in the parking lot so people could carry cellphones, wallets and other small items with them into the park.

It was the latest popular event where security was ratcheted up after the Boston Marathon bombings in April, but Matt Briant, 23, of Astoria, Queens, wasn't bothered.

"We were going to come here regardless," he said. "This is such a great event -- rain can't hold anything back. And new security measures are expected . . . I feel safer. That's the bottom line."

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Kelly Goerke, 19, and April Iannetta, 20, both of Wantagh, pored over the race program with furrowed brows, picking their bets for the early races.

Goerke and her college friends, clad in sundresses and sandals, came to plunk down a couple of bucks. "We're trying to strike it big," she said.

But the overall experience is what keeps her coming back: the sleek horses, the excitement of the race, the feeling of celebrity the race brings to Nassau County.

"You feel very prestigious," Goerke said. "It's a great atmosphere. Everyone is happy; everyone is excited."

While it rained briefly during the afternoon, early concerns about a sloppy track and more driving rain disappeared. The sand track -- affectionately known as Big Sandy -- dried quickly, and by 4:45 p.m. the condition of the track had been upgraded to "fast."

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Organizers said attendance was 47,562, down sharply from last year's crowd of 85,811, drawn by a potential Triple Crown win.

Jenn Weigand, one of the owners of Uptown Charlie Brown, who ran in the Belmont Stakes three years ago, comes to the races, looking for breeding and ownership prospects.

"You never know when you're going to find that horse," said Weigand, of West Hempstead. "That superstar horse."

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