When the horses reach the starting gate Saturday for the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes, the crowd will be smaller than last year. That's not because the public is less interested. This year's race, as last year's did, offers the prospect of the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
It's because 2014's big day, with about 102,000 on hand, was plagued by problems. And it's because this year, the New York Racing Association is limiting attendance to 90,000 and won't sell tickets at the gate.
Yet last year's crowd was nowhere near the record. In 2004, more than 120,000 saw Smarty Jones miss his Triple Crown bid by a length. So is limiting the crowd another sign of NYRA dysfunction, or a smart move by an organization finding its way? Time will tell, but as problems mount, it's hard to give the organization the benefit of the doubt.
This week, NYRA chairman Anthony Bonomo, appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in April, announced a face-saving leave of absence. He is chief executive of an insurance company accused of providing a no-show job for Adam Skelos, who is under indictment with his father, former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. For now, Cuomo has put confidant Michael Del Giudice in charge of NYRA.
In other setbacks, the re-privatization of NYRA planned for this year was shelved and the current "temporary" management structure -- created on an emergency basis after NYRA was hit by scandals that included huge financial losses, underpaying bet winners and overpaying staffers -- was extended. A plan to modernize the entertainment, food and ambience at the three state-owned tracks has not materialized. And development of 36 acres adjacent to the track at Belmont, central to the future of Elmont, has gone nowhere.
Arguing that progress has been made, chief executive Christopher Kay said NYRA actually earned $1.7 million in 2014, the first profitable year since 2000. But NYRA staffers say 2015 may not be profitable. And limiting attendance at NYRA's signature moneymaker won't help.
This year's Kentucky Derby, with 170,000 at Churchill Downs, and the Preakness Stakes, where 131,000 filled Pimlico, set attendance records. Both tracks have tunnels that let them use their infields for big crowds. But parklike Belmont has 1 million square feet of enclosed space that itself can hold 100,000 people, even without the infield in play.
Nobody wants a repeat of last year, when food, drink and bathroom lines were unmanageable, and 36,000 riders swamped the Long Island Rail Road after the race. This year, the LIRR is warning that it could take two hours for everyone to get a train, but seems to have a much better plan. The LIRR has put $4 million into station improvements and says it did not ask NYRA to limit the crowd. So why fewer people? Belmont is New York's jewel in the Triple Crown, and New York is the world champion of crowds.
NYRA needs a smooth run, particularly since it isn't trying to provide for all comers, as it should have. In the future, it should provide a great time for even bigger crowds. And it needs to get its books, redevelopment plans and future in order. Whether American Pharoah wins the Triple Crown or not, Belmont is too important to be an also-ran.