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Belmont Park gets ready for big race

Doug O'Neill, trainer for Triple Crown hopeful I'll

Doug O'Neill, trainer for Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another, looks out to the racetrack during morning workouts at Belmont Park. (June 2, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

From managers to cooks to landscapers, the prospect of a Triple Crown winner in the Belmont Stakes next Saturday has whipped employees at the 600-acre Elmont track complex into a hot trot.

Jerry Davis, in charge of admissions and parking at Belmont Park, has been hard at it since I'll Have Another won the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on May 19.

"Pretty much as soon as I'll Have Another crossed the finish line, I started working 16- to 18-hour days," said Davis, who is hiring up to 400 people in addition to the 125 on staff to handle parking, tickets and programs for a crowd that could swell to 120,000-plus.

Reserved seats -- 21,500 of them -- are sold out. $10 grandstand seats remain, he said, and for a $10 general admission fee, people can sit at picnic tables or bring blankets and lawn chairs.

Executive chef Nigel Jackman is bringing in 85 to 90 more cooks to help feed 5,500 people at the park's five dining areas. Everyone else can eat at one of the 103 concession stands or bars served by 240 cashiers.

And then there's the food. The chef is ordering 19,000 hot dogs, 2,100 pounds of prime rib, 1,660 pounds of hamburger, and 1,500 pounds of vegetables. Drinks? 72,000 cans of beer and 19,200 bottles of water.

"You have to do your math," he said.

Hope race helps track

They are hopeful the race -- especially if it yields a Triple Crown winner, which would be the first since Affirmed won it in 1978 -- will give the track and the sport a boost.

The New York Racing Association, which runs the Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct racetracks, has been under a cloud for a decade after bankruptcy, bad audits and charges that $8.5 million in winnings was kept from bettors last year. Less than two weeks ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took power away from the board and created a temporary panel to run racing at the tracks for the next three years.

The number of visitors to Belmont has dwindled, too. In 2010, the year's attendance was 488,049 and the total wagered was more than $141 million, according to the New York State Racing & Wagering Board, a three-member panel that regulates NYRA. By comparison, in 2001 attendance was 684,961 and the total handle was more than $173.6 million, the board said.

That's been the trend at tracks across the country as other gambling venues and options have flourished, said John Sabini, chairman of the racing and wagering board.

"You can walk into the 7-Eleven and gamble," he said. "Every major city has a casino within two hours."

$2B for state's economy

Nevertheless, racing remains important to the state's economy, he said, fostering a growing horse-breeding program and jobs associated with the industry. According to NYRA spokeswoman Nailah Timberlake, the thoroughbred business contributes more than $2 billion annually to the state's economy.

And a Triple Crown race is good for business, Sabini said. "Any time you have a Triple Crown possibility, that attracts 100,000 people," he said.

Whichever thoroughbred and jockey cross the finish line first, the victorious horse will wear a blanket of 700 to 900 white carnations -- the track's official flower -- sewn that morning by Tony Green, the park's florist. Green also will sew another 500 to 600 carnations on a blanket to be draped on the statue of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat in the paddock.

That's in addition to making 200 to 300 centerpieces and filling each of 600 bud vases with three flowers -- a red rose for the Kentucky Derby, a black-eyed Susan for the Preakness and a white carnation for the Belmont.

Despite the long hours of work -- making the winning blanket takes up to five hours in one sitting, Green said -- he's not complaining.

"I love the whole Triple Crown experience," he said.

Placing judges Sonny Taylor, Ralph Theroux and Stephen Foster, who together have more than a century of experience at the track, feel the same. In what Theroux calls "a three-man ballet," they are the officials who, seated high above the track, clock the time and determine the order of finish in each race, day after day.

Taylor, 74, was the timer when Secretariat won the Triple Crown, finishing 31 lengths ahead of the rest of the field. The horse's time and margin of victory still stand as track records. "No one has come close," he said, shaking his head.

Treat big race as routine

How will they feel next Saturday, they are asked.

"We get excited, but we just have to stick to our routines," Theroux said.

So do Belmont insiders think I'll Have Another has a good shot?

"This horse has all the tools," said former jockey Richard Migliore, who is a co-host on NYRA's TV broadcast and runs the apprentice jockey program. Migliore rode in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont -- five times each.

"He'll relish the distance," he said, referring to the 1 1/2-mile track, the longest in the country.

Andy Serling, NYRA's handicapper and TV co-host, said his money -- he said he bets substantial amounts on the races he handicaps -- is on the chestnut. "There's no question I'll Have Another is the best horse in the race," he said.

But Serling said his greatest hope is that first-timers drawn to the track on Saturday will be as enthralled by the drama as he is, whatever the outcome, and come back to the park.

"All I'm trying to do is get people to see what I see," he said. "It's a great place."

Eating while they watch

The Triple Crown was last on the line in 2008, when Big Brown was the contender. The temperature rose into the 90s and the New York Racing Association said attendance at Belmont Park was 94,476. Here are totals of some items sold at the Elmont track that hot June day four years ago.

Souvenir Belmont Stakes programs: 39,620

Beer: 90,209 cans

Bottles of water: 18,802

Bottles of soda: 11,531

Hot dogs: 17,128

Burgers: 2,698

Source: New York Racing Association

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