Belmont Park

From Academic Kids

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Secretariat's statue greets racing fans and jockeys in the paddock of Belmont Park. The Long Island racetrack was the site of Secretariat's greatest performance -- a 31-length romp in the 1973 Belmont Stakes to win the US Thoroughbred Triple Crown.

Belmont Park Race Track is a horse-racing facility located just outside New York City, in the adjacent Nassau County suburb of Elmont, Long Island. It is world-famous as the home of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. It first opened May 4, 1905.

According to June 2005 research of several sources, including the Daily Racing Form and Newsday, Belmont has the largest dirt racecourse of any Thoroughbred track in not only North America but the world -- a mile and a half. Woodbine Race Course in Toronto has a grass course of the same size. By comparison, the King Abdul Aziz racetrack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has a mile and a quarter main track, and Aqueduct is a mile and an eighth. (Other GRASS courses in Europe have been longer, and Saudi Arabian racing once featured a course in old Riyadh from nine to 12 miles in length.) Belmont also has the largest grandstand in the sport.

Belmont is known as The Championship Track because most every major champion in racing history since the early 20th century has competed on the racecourse -- including each of the 11 Triple Crown winners. In addition to its importance to racing, "Beautiful Belmont Park" is often called one of the best-landscaped venues in American sports -- especially because of the stately backyard park behind the grandstand, which includes the paddock in which the horses are saddled before each race. The backyard and backstretch are notable for their huge, attractive trees and landscaping, and the infield is dominated by two picturesque lakes.

With some of the elegant aura of its sister track, Saratoga Race Course, in a suburban setting, Belmont is known as one of the most gorgeous and accommodating racecourses in the world. Along with Saratoga, Churchill Downs in Louisville, and Del Mar and Santa Anita racecourses in California, Belmont is considered one of the elite racetracks in the sport.

The 430 acre (1.7 km²) racing, training and barn complex is located on the western edge of the Nassau County region known as the Hempstead Plains. Just a few miles east on the same plains, the first racing meet in North America was held in 1665, supervised by colonial governor Richard Nicolls.

The dirt racecourse — known officially as the Main Track and nicknamed Big Sandy by racing followers — has a circumference of 1½ miles (2,414 m); immediately inside of this is the Widener Turf Course (named after the Widener family that has a long and prestigious history in American horse racing) spanning 1 5/16 miles plus 27 feet (2,120 m), which in turn rings an Inner Turf Course 1 3/16 miles plus 103 feet (1,942 m) round. On the Main Track, it is 1,097 feet (334 m) from the top of the stretch to the finish line, and the segment between the wire and the start of the first (clubhouse) turn covers 843 feet (257 m) (this latter segment is shorter by approximately 165 feet (50 m) on both of the turf courses, in order to accommodate the two chutes that exist on the Widener Turf Course, from which turf races of one mile (1,609 m) and 1 1/16 miles (1,710 m) are started; an additional chute exists for 1 1/16 mile (1,710 m) races on the inner turf course).

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Horses race down the stretch on Belmont Park's main track, nicknamed Big Sandy by owners, trainers, jockeys and fans. The main track is the longest dirt racecourse in Thoroughbred racing -- at a mile and a half (2,414 m).

The Belmont Stakes was named after financier and sportsman August Belmont, Sr., who helped fund the race, and most sources say the racetrack itself was also named for him. Other sources say Belmont Park was named in honor of his son -- August Belmont II, a key member of the Westchester Racing Association, which established the racecourse.

The race was first run in 1867 at Jerome Park in the Bronx. In 1937, the wrought iron gates that bore an illustration of that first Belmont Stakes were donated to the track by August Belmont II's sole surviving son, Perry Belmont. The gates are now on the fourth floor of Belmont Park's clubhouse.

The Belmont Stakes have been run at Belmont Park since 1905, with the exception of the 1963-67 editions held at Aqueduct while the stands at Belmont Park were being reconstructed. The first post parade in the United States was at the 14th Belmont, in 1880.

Secretariat's final time in his 1973 Belmont victory (2 minutes, 24 seconds) set a record not only for the distance at the track and for the race itself, but was also a world record for the 1½ miles (2,414 m) on dirt, that still stands. Other memorable performances in Belmont Park history include the tragedy-marred victory of Foolish Pleasure over champion filly Ruffian in a 1975 match race (the latter broke down during the race and had to be euthanized), Affirmed's epic stretch duel with Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, a victory that gave Affirmed the Triple Crown; and Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew's defeat of Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup in September of that same year.

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The elegant, ivy-framed arched windows of the Belmont grandstand lurk behind the tote board in the backyard in this 1999 photo. The current grandstand, Thoroughbred racing's largest, was completed in 1968 after five years of renovations to the Belmont complex.

In addition to the Belmont Stakes, other major races held at Belmont include the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Woodward Stakes, the Suburban Handicap and the Memorial Day standby — the Metropolitan Handicap, also known as the "Met Mile." All of the above races are contested on dirt; notable turf (grass) races include the Bowling Green Handicap, Man o'War Stakes, and Turf Classic.

Belmont Park is operated by the non-profit New York Racing Association, as are Aqueduct and Saratoga Race Course. The group was formed in 1955 as the Greater New York Association to assume the assets of the individual associations that ran Aqueduct, Saratoga and the now-defunct Jamaica racetrack.

The original Belmont plant that opened in 1905 was not only unprecedented in its size, but also had the then-new innovation of a Long Island Rail Road extension from the Queens Village station, running along the property, tunneling under Hempstead Turnpike, then terminating on the south side of the property. The train terminal was moved to its present location north of the turnpike after the 1956 season.

Near the railroad terminal was yet ANOTHER track -- Belmont Park Terminal, a steeplechase course operated by United Hunts until the 1920s.

Another feature of the original Belmont Park -- one that remains today -- is the display of four stone pillars on Hempstead Turnpike, presented a gift from the Mayor and Park Commissioners of the City of Charleston, S.C. The pillars had stood at the entrance of the Washington Course of the South Carolina Jockey Club in Charleston, S.C., which operated from 1792 to 1882. The stone pillars are now found at the clubhouse entrance.

In its first 15 or so years, Belmont Park featured racing clockwise, in the "English fashion" --allowing the upper-class members of the racing association and their guests to have the races finish in front of the clubhouse, just to the west of the grandstand. (A "field stand," at what was then the top of the stretch, was located east of the grandstand). The original finish line was located at the top of the present-day homestretch. The old clubhouse was torn down in the 1950s, along with the Manice Mansion -- the turreted 18th-century homestead that served as the headquarters of Belmont's Turf and Field Club.

A later innovation was the creation of Joseph E. Widener, who took over track leadership when August Belmont II died in 1924. It was the Widener Course, a straightaway of just under seven furlongs that cut diagonally through Belmonts training and main tracks, hitting near the quarter-pole of the main track. It was removed in 1958.

Belmont Park was closed for replacement of its unsafe grandstand/clubhouse structure from 1963 until May of 1968, when the present structure was opened (the Inner Turf Course was also added during this time). The Belmont race meetings were moved to Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens, during that time. The Belmont grandstand has a total attendance capacity of 100,000, the largest in racing. The seating portion totals nearly 33,000. (Ironically, the smaller, more cramped Churchill Downs grandstand has more seats than Belmont, 51,000.)

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Horses march in the pre-race post parade at Belmont.

Racing at Belmont Park is conducted in two annual installments, or "meetings": The "spring-summer meeting," which usually begins on the second Wednesday in May and lasts through the fourth Sunday in July, followed by a "fall meeting" commencing on the Friday after Labor Day and ending the fourth Sunday in October. Racing is held at Saratoga during the time between these two meetings. Prior to 1977 a summer meeting was contested at Aqueduct from mid-June until Saratoga began; its abolition led to the Belmont spring meeting being lengthened to its present duration (and eventual renaming).

The autumn installment is known as the Fall Championship meet, since many of the eventual Eclipse Award title winners have earned key victories in some of the meeting's races -- such as the Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Before the advent of the Breeders' Cup series in the mid-1980s, the Belmont Fall Championship races themselves helped determine the divisional championships.

Belmont has been home to the daylong Breeders' Cup championship in 1990, 1995 and 2001, and will again host the event in fall 2005.

Belmont's backyard is well-known as a gathering place for racing fans to see their horses saddled before they hit the track. In addition it serves as a picnic area for the increasing numbers of fans who
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The "Woody's Corner" display in the first-floor clubhouse lobby commemorates the five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners trained by the legendary Woody Stephens from 1982 to 1986.
make Belmont Stakes Day — the Saturday that falls within the range of June 5 through June 11 — a tourist attraction. (Unlike Churchill and Pimlico, Belmont does not allow spectators to picnic in the infield.)

Officials of the New York Racing Association made a concerted effort to boost attendance on Belmont Stakes Day after the 1995 installment drew only 37,171. In 1997, NYRA and local officials put together the Long Island Belmont Stakes Festival -- featuring parades, food fests and other events in surrounding communities to promote the big race.

The effort succeeded in creating a buzz around the Belmont Stakes apart from the chance of seeing a Triple Crown. The 2000 and 2001 Belmonts -- both run when there was no Crown on the line -- drew announced crowds of 67,810 and 73,857. The Belmont Stakes Festival continues to be held in communities near the track, such as Floral Park and Garden City.

In addition to racing history, Belmont Park made history in another industry native to the Hempstead Plains -- aviation. Some 150,000 people were drawn to the track on Oct. 30, 1910 at the climax of the a Wright Brothers-staged international aerial tournament, which had started eight years earlier. The event came at the beginning of a period (1910, 1911 and 1912) in which racing was outlawed in New York State.

Eight years later, Belmont and aviation were reunited when the racetrack served as the northern point of the first US air mail route, between the New York area and Washington, DC.

The racetrack, grandstand, training and barn facilities are located entirely in the Elmont and Floral Park communities of Nassau County, New York, just outside the New York City limits. According to the City of New York's own map portal, the Long Island Rail Road station on the property, the ramp between the grandstand and the train station, and some of the adjoining parking fields straddle the Queens County line.

Because the property stretched slightly into Queens, bookmakers in the track's early days -- when bookmaking was illegal -- could escape arrest from one county's authorities by jumping over the border. It was once even believed that horses rounding the far turn crossed into Queens and then came back to Nassau for the stretch run.

After the 1956 season, the construction of a wider bus road beyond the main course's final turn forced the turn to be shortened. According to the Belmont publication commemorating the track's 1968 reopening, that move cut 96 feet off its circumference. The current layout has the entire racing course inside Nassau County.

That Belmont Park is located in Elmont is a coincidence. Contrary to popular belief, the western Nassau County hamlet is not named for the track's founding family. Residents decided to changed the area's name from Foster's Meadow to Elmont in 1882, 23 years before Belmont's inaugural. Probably since Elmont was a new, relatively unknown community, the Opening Day program in 1905 carries the legend "Queens, Long Island" -- for Queens Village, the established community closest to the property. Nassau County, in which virtually all the Belmont property is located, itself had just been established six years earlier.

Belmont Park celebrated its 100th anniversary on May 4, 2005.

Sources: New York Racing Association (NYRA), City of New York

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Belmont Park bugler Sam Grossman plays "Call to the Post," heralding the horses as they enter the track before a race.
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