We have to tip our big, fancy, floppy Triple Crown hats to Belmont Park, the New York Racing Association and the Long Island Rail Road for their success this past weekend. After a Belmont Stakes that was close to disastrous for many racegoers in 2014, Saturday was a delightful improvement. It helped that American Pharoah won, breaking a 37-year Triple Crown drought and giving everyone what they wanted. It also helped that NYRA limited the crowd to 90,000. Even with 12,000 fewer visitors than last year, the park was crammed. Without opening up the infield, 90,000 might be as many guests as can be transported and accommodated enjoyably.
NYRA and the LIRR accomplished that Saturday. Train waits were reasonable thanks to station improvements, more and longer trains, and a crowd that hung around to celebrate American Pharoah's victory and watch a popular rock band. Angry, stranded crowds waiting to catch trains were the biggest problem in 2014.
Parking lots were not chaotic, thanks to more staffing and police. Racegoers were mostly under control, if tipsily so. Food and bathroom lines were long, but no more so than at any other huge public event. Wi-Fi and cellphone service were spotty and NYRA must redouble efforts to address that with portable cell towers.
So now that NYRA has solved the issues troubling the Belmont Stakes, all we have to do is solve the issues troubling NYRA. Plans to improve and reorganize the three state-owned tracks -- Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga -- supposedly can't be pursued until a new NYRA board is created. That won't happen until Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature reprivatize NYRA, a move that was supposed to happen this year after three years of state control.
State control was put in place to overcome the stigmas NYRA brought entirely upon itself -- huge losses, stiffed bettors and management that used racing as its own playground and piggy bank. But the privatization was put off another year in the state budget, putting everything on hold. With new leaders in both chambers of the legislature, big moves on racing and the tracks weren't a good bet this year.
But planning by NYRA should go forward, even if final decisions have been pushed off. In the long run, downstate racing should move entirely to Belmont. That would mean big opportunities for the huge property at Aqueduct in Queens, but this would require major infrastructure upgrades at Belmont to accommodate more horses and winter racing. Belmont also needs better food and entertainment additions, as other sports now provide, to attract crowds more than one day a year. Crucial, too, is a strong plan to redevelop 36 acres adjacent to Belmont in a way that jump-starts the Elmont area. A minor league soccer stadium and a few restaurant and retail locations, the proposals currently on the board, are unlikely solutions.
All of this needs to be done right, but it also needs to be done soon.
The 2015 Belmont Stakes was a professional, modern and enjoyable event. It showed a lot of people how much fun the sport and the track can be. NYRA must build on that momentum.