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Marshall: Finally, a return to Belmont

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo during a visit to

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo during a visit to the Belmont Park site in Elmont on Wednesday. Credit: Gov Cuomo's Office

Why did Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announce that fans could come to Belmont Park during the upcoming racing season just hours after he held an event at Belmont Park?

It was an event during which the governor talked about a host of other topics, from vaccination and hockey to construction, taxes and the environment, but made no mention of horse racing.

Belmont’s season starts next week and, as of the Wednesday event, there hadn’t been any public announcement on whether fans would be allowed at horse or auto racing facilities this year.

After Cuomo’s appearance at Belmont ended, The Point asked about the racing capacity issue, and was told that the governor was expected to announce a plan that would permit 20% capacity in outdoor spaces and 10% capacity in indoor spaces at horse and auto racing tracks.

That announcement came Wednesday afternoon. During a conference call, Cuomo noted that face masks and distancing, along with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, would be required of racing fans, as they are at other sporting venues.

The governor’s announcement was good news for the New York Racing Association and horse racing fans, who have been awaiting information even as every other sport in New York had received capacity guidelines. Belmont Park was the first sports venue to hold live sporting events after the shutdown began, as racing began in June, and the Belmont Stakes was held – without fans – on June 20. Its new season is scheduled to begin April 22.

The capacity regulations will take effect the same day, a Cuomo spokesman said. In a statement, NYRA Chief Executive Dave O’Rourke said NYRA would announce ticketing options after reviewing the state’s guidance, adding that the decision to allow fans "is one more indication that we are collectively moving toward a return to normalcy."

The capacity limits translate into about 7,000 fans allowed outdoors at Belmont, which means the park could attract a crowd that’s about the same size as it is on some non-Belmont Stakes weekends. Weekday racing often attracts an even smaller crowd.

NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna told The Point Wednesday that the association had worked "closely" with the state to get the necessary approvals and finalized rules so fans could come back to Belmont – and Saratoga, too.

"As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, we are optimistic that capacity limits will increase in the coming months," McKenna added.

No one from the racing community or NYRA spoke at Cuomo’s Belmont gathering, which was not open to the press and instead featured Northwell Health’s Michael Dowling, union leader Matthew Aracich and New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky.

Could it be that the racing plan needed a little prod as it came down the stretch?

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