The only smoke hovering over Belmont Park Saturday afternoon came from the barbecues and cigars.
Thousands of racing fans arrived under mostly clear skies for the 155th running of the Belmont Stakes after thick smoke from Canadian wildfires threatened to postpone the final leg of the Triple Crown. The air quality in Elmont was listed as moderate when the race began, slightly worse than it had been earlier in the day but easily within the parameters set earlier in the week.
The familiar pageantry returned as fans dressed in festive outfits celebrated the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s historic victory on June 9, 1973.
Just past 6:50 p.m., the crowd burst into a singalong of “New York, New York.” As the horses made their way to the starting gate, fans perched on top of benches, coolers and any available object to stretch for a view of the track.
Moments later, Arcangelo — at 8-1 odds — raced to victory in front of the boisterous crowd.
Val Long, 61, of Pennsylvania, said she had been glued to the TV monitoring the weather in the days leading up the race. She said her husband charters a bus for horse races and they traveled with a group of more than 50 people.
She said she was flooded with emails from members of the group asking if the trip was still on.
“We were nervous,” she said.
By Friday, as the smoke over New York began to clear and racing resumed at Belmont, Long said she was confident the trip could proceed.
In the outdoor backyard area, fans posed for photos in front of a massive monument of Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte.
The Street Beat Brass, a New Orleans-style brass band from New York City, performed nearby.
Tom Paladino, 41, of Rockville Centre watched the musicians as his two children, Olivia, 5, and Jack, 3, enjoyed vanilla ice cream cones.
He said they had been stuck inside for a few days due to the smoke.
“It’s nice to get out of the house,” he said, adding that the kids were enjoying their time at the track. "You got to bribe them a little bit with ice cream, then Daddy can gamble a little bit with the horses."
Giulia Puccini, 21, of England, was purchasing a Secretariat picture as a surprise for her boyfriend. She said she works in racing and they planned the vacation around the Belmont Stakes. It was her first visit to New York.
When the smoke descended on the area earlier in the week, she unknowingly assumed it was a typical occurrence.
“Everyone told me no, that’s not normal here,” she said. “It was crazy. It looked apocalyptic.”
Erin Daly-Spano and her husband, Carlo, each wore a black top hat outfitted with Secretariat memorabilia. She said she typically makes a hat when it’s a Triple Crown race.
“We’re a little crafty,” she said. “We’re honoring Secretariat today.”
Daly-Spano, 59, who lives in Lindenhurst, said she’s attended the Belmont Stakes since she was a kid.
Tootie Burge, 60, of Louisiana completed her own Triple Crown Saturday. She had previously been to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before making it to New York this year.
“That was on our bucket list,” she said.
She said it was important to make it for the Secretariat anniversary. An avid horse racing fan, Burge said she’s studied and read about Secretariat — “the greatest horse ever.”
As she looked up at the Secretariat monument, she paused and held her hand over mouth.
“Speechless,” she said.