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Party on: Belmont Stakes draws throngs of horse racing fans

Fans packed the stands at Belmont Park in Elmont on June 10, 2017, despite the absence of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners. Sun dresses and fedoras abound on the sunny day. (Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger)

Pomp and pageantry were surefire bets at the 149th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

The race drew throngs of flamboyantly dressed revelers and their elaborate hats, confident gamblers and horse race aficionados to Belmont Park on a warm, cloudless afternoon.

Nearly 58,000 people attended the event, race organizers said. The turnout was smaller than figures reported in years past, as no horse was competing for the Triple Crown. But the crowd was no less boisterous shortly before 7 p.m. as 11 horses competed in the Stakes — a 1.5-mile dash that was the climax of the day of races.

Bob Bernhardt of Massapequa Park looked on in excitement, then dismay, as a horse he wagered on fell out of first place in the last stretch of the Stakes.

“Well, back to the old drawing board!” said Bernhardt, 58.

But he wasn’t too disappointed. The annual race has become a reunion of sorts for Bernhardt and dozens of friends and family members. “I love coming here,” he said.

The departing crowds had minor transportation headaches immediately after the Stakes, with traffic slow to get out of parking lots and small lines at the neighboring Long Island Rail Road station.

Around 500 law enforcement officers from a variety of agencies were on hand for the event, according to New York Racing Association communications director Patrick McKenna.

For some in attendance, the festivities surrounding the event were as much a draw as the race itself.

Edwin Collazo of Brooklyn makes his own intricate racehorse hats each year; he has one inspired by the Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, another by California Chrome.

This year’s model included a motor that spun a team of plastic horses around a miniature track.

“This is my third year out here,” said Collazo, 56. “I come just for the fun of it.”

Candace Kouzoukian arrived around 1 p.m., confident in the bets she planned to place.

“You can tell which horses are exceptional,” she said. “Their ears pierce back.”

Kouzoukian, of Queens, has attended the annual race regularly since she was a child.

“Belmont is an amazing place,” she said. The Preakness Stakes and other major races may be bigger parties, but this one attracts a more sophisticated crowd, she said: “horse people.”

Mark A. Keeton counts himself among that bunch.

Keeton only broke even with his bets on the first five races Saturday, but a certain horse running in the sixth made him feel more optimistic.

“I’m gonna go with number 2, Disco Partner,” Keeton said as he stepped up to a betting window in the early afternoon.

Why?

“I feel like I’m in a disco outfit.”

Indeed, Keeton, an actor who lives in Long Island City, was wearing a bright red suit over a red shirt and red bow tie, with red roses pinned to his lapel and fedora — also red.

“I would never wear this in public normally, but I enjoy peacocking” at the Stakes, said Keeton, smiling as two passers-by complimented his get-up.

Shaun and Randi Takkinen flew in from Orange County, California, for the race.

“We’re big horse followers, and we go to all the big races,” Shaun Takkinen said, as his wife showed off a bejeweled hat accented by a plume of peacock feathers.

“This is toned down for us,” he said.

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