When the gates open on the spring/summer horse racing meet at Belmont Park next week, fans will finally be able to see the thoroughbreds run in person for the first time in more than a year.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced late Thursday that horse racing venues will be able to allow fans into their facilities at 20% capacity beginning on April 22 — the same day that the spring/summer meet opens at Belmont Park, the massive 1 1/2-mile race track sitting on the Queens/Nassau border.
Much like the reopening of sports arenas, including Citi Field and Yankee Stadium for their home openers early this month, fans heading to the races will need to practice proper safety protocols.
All attendees will need to provide proof that they’re fully vaccinated, or had a recent negative COVID-19 test. They’ll also be required to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and pass a basic health screening.
At the moment, it’s not clear exactly how many fans will be allowed to return to Belmont Park on opening day. Dave O’Rourke, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association (NYRA), said the gaming outfit would “announce ticketing options for fans once we further review the guidelines and protocols set forth for thoroughbred tracks in New York state.”
“NYRA has dearly missed the passion and excitement that fans bring to the sport of thoroughbred racing,” O’Rourke said in an April 14 statement. “Today’s announcement by the governor is one more indication that we are collectively moving toward a return to normalcy.”
NYRA operates Belmont Park as well as upstate Saratoga Race Course and Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, which is wrapping up its spring meet this weekend. Fans were last allowed to set foot in a NYRA track in early March 2020, during Aqueduct’s winter meet, just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York.
All racing operations were suspended until early June, when Belmont Park was permitted to run an abbreviated racing meet without fans. The fan ban continued through the Saratoga summer meet, Belmont’s fall campaign and back to Aqueduct — though a limited number of horse owners and connections were allowed to attend later in the year.
Belmont Park’s marquee race — the Belmont Stakes, traditionally the third leg of racing’s Triple Crown — was run without live spectators on June 20, two weeks later than its original schedule, and shortened from its classic 1 1/2 miles distance to 1 1/8 miles because of racing interruptions across the country.
Last year’s Belmont also wound up being the first leg of the Triple Crown — as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes were postponed last year to September and October, respectively. But the Triple Crown races are back to their traditional May-June schedule, and this year’s 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes is scheduled to run on June 5.
For recent runnings of the Belmont Stakes, the track has been able to accommodate upwards of 100,000 people during years in which a Triple Crown sweep is on the line; the 2004 running had a reported attendance of 120,000. In 2014, NYRA imposed an attendance cap on Belmont Stakes Day of 90,000.
Using the cap as a guide, it’s conceivable that Belmont Park could welcome up to 18,000 spectators on Belmont Stakes Day, under the 20% capacity limit.