Racing fans hoping to see American Pharoah capture the Triple Crown on Saturday should plan for delays of as much as two hours leaving Belmont Park, despite the completion of millions of dollars in upgrades to add capacity at the racetrack's Long Island Rail Road station.
The LIRR spent about $4 million and the New York Racing Association spent $1 million on the nine-month-long renovations meant to ease the massive congestion the railroad faced last year when an estimated 36,000 racegoers left the Elmont track at once after the Belmont Stakes. Many waited more than three hours for a train.
"There's always been a wait at Belmont [on Belmont Stakes day], but last year was extraordinary," LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said, adding that a news conference to unveil the renovations will be held this morning at the Belmont Park station.
"The only thing we can conclude is that a lot more people are more mass transit-oriented these days -- the younger generation especially -- and the numbers obviously surprised us last year, so we had to pull all these things out of the drawer here to get ready."
The upgrades, paid for by the LIRR's operating budget and using its own crews, included the construction of elevated train platforms, new staircases and a handicapped-accessible ramp, extension of tracks to allow for trains with 10 cars instead of eight, and new signs and PA systems. The $1 million from NYRA was used to refurbish the aging transit rotunda on the west end of the grandstand, including a pedestrian bridge temporarily shut down after last year's race because of concerns about its structural integrity.
Because the Belmont Park station is a single-track operation, the LIRR for the first time will also use the Hempstead branch to bring empty trains into Belmont Park from the east as one pulls out westward. Previously, inbound trains have had to wait until an outbound train cleared the track.
"Our guarantee is we will run trains as long as people are there and need to go home, and we expect that to be all cleaned up by 10 p.m.," Arena said.
Also for the first time, in an effort to stagger the mass exodus from the racetrack, NYRA will host a post-race concert Saturday night by the Goo Goo Dolls. The racing association has also capped paid attendance at 90,000 people -- last year, more than 102,000 showed up to see California Chrome's failed bid to become the first horse to win horse racing's Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
Last year, clogged parking lots full of confused drivers, and a lack of traffic control, also led to hourslong waits to leave by car, a chaotic scene that should be not be repeated this year, said Deputy Inspector Gary Shapiro, commanding officer of community affairs for the Nassau County Police Department. Belmont Park staff will direct traffic in the lots after the event, he said.
"Traffic patterns have been adjusted in an attempt to keep traffic flowing," Shapiro said in an email. "Parking lots will have directed exit routes that put motorists on specific roadways, and the [Cross Island Parkway] will have the traffic pattern altered to allow easy merge from the event."
Off-site neighborhood bus shuttles will run about every 20 minutes between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. in Floral Park and Elmont in an effort to lessen the number of cars on local roads.
Shapiro also said some traffic light cycles will be adjusted on roadways near the park "to insure free-flowing traffic."
Lessons were learned from last year, Shapiro said, and there has been communication and training among Nassau police, NYRA and other agencies involved so Saturday's exit will go more smoothly -- but that said, he encouraged those headed to the races to carpool or use mass transit.
What you need to know about going
American Pharoah is seeking to win horse racing's Triple Crown at the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes. Here is race day information for those looking to attend:
DATE: Saturday, June 6, 2015
TIME: Gates open at 8:30 a.m. First race at 11:35 a.m. The Belmont Stakes is the 11th of the 13 races Saturday. Post time for the Stakes is 6:50 p.m.
ADMISSION: General or grandstand admission is $15 and must be purchased ahead of time at Ticketmaster.com. No tickets will be sold at Belmont Park on Saturday. Clubhouse, reserved seating and box seats are sold out. Paid attendance will be capped at 90,000.
LIRR: Expanded service, with trains arriving at the Belmont Park stop about every 30 minutes. More information is available at mta.info/lirr or 718-217-LIRR (5477). Immediately following the Stakes, trains will depart approximately every 15 minutes to Jamaica, Brooklyn and New York. Racegoers may still have to wait up to 2 hours to board trains after the races.
DRIVING: Exits 26B or 26D off the Cross Island Parkway south, and exits 26A or 26B off the Cross Island north.
From west of Belmont: Take the Grand Central Parkway east to the Cross Island Parkway, then the parkway south to either Exit 26B or 26D. Or take the Belt Parkway east to the Cross Island, then the parkway north to either Exit 26B or 26D.
PARKING: Gates open at 8 a.m. Blue and green parking along the backstretch is $20. Yellow and pink parking, across Hempstead Turnpike from Belmont Park, is $30. Preferred parking (red, beige and silver) near the grandstand is $60. Clubhouse parking near the clubhouse entrance (purple and gold) is $125.
ON-SITE SHUTTLE BUSES: Shuttle buses will be provided for those in outlying parking lots at Belmont (Pink, Yellow, Blue and Green). Shuttles will take guests to three specific drop-off points: main Clubhouse entrance, main Paddock gate, west Paddock gate.
OFF-SITE SHUTTLE BUSES: Neighborhood bus shuttles will run about every 20 minutes between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. in Floral Park and Elmont. The Floral Park Shuttle will stop at Atlantic Avenue Extension and Tulip Avenue, adjacent to Lion's Park. It will make a second stop at the Nassau County bus stop in front of 90 Jericho Tpke. The final stop will be at the Nassau County bus stop at Floral Park Place and Floral Terrace. The Elmont Shuttle will stop at each Nassau County bus stop along this route: from Belmont Park south on Plainfield Avenue across Hempstead Turnpike and on to Elmont Road. Turn east at Dutch Broadway, north on Meacham Avenue and across Hempstead Turnpike to continue on Covert Avenue. At Tulip Avenue, turn west and return to Belmont Park.
The courtesy shuttles will stop at each of the Nassau County bus stops along the route.
FOOD AND ALCOHOL: Coolers and outside alcohol are not allowed. Personal food and non-alcoholic beverages in clear, see-through plastic containers are permitted. No glass.
GRANDSTAND RULES: Lightweight aluminum or plastic folding chairs are allowed only in the backyard. No open flames, canopies, tents or tailgating allowed. No selfie sticks.
ATTIRE: Men should wear suits or sport coats, and ties are required. Women should wear appropriate attire. No shorts, T-shirts, jeans or abbreviated wear are allowed.
WEATHER: Cloudy to start the day, then mostly sunny by afternoon and evening with highs in the mid-70s, according to the National Weather Service.
RACE DAY: The Belmont Stakes, which carries a $1.5 million purse, is one of 10 stakes races on the schedule for Saturday and is the 11th of 13 races.