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Sellout crowd to converge at Belmont Stakes for Triple Crown try

Horse racing fans gather for the 147th running

Horse racing fans gather for the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, Saturday June 6, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Long Island Rail Road trains on Saturday brought 10,000 fewer passengers to Belmont Park -- 25,583 compared with 36,000 last year when the system was overwhelmed as fans tried to leave after the Belmont Stakes, officials said.

"The trip out here came very smoothly," Long Island Rail Road spokesman Salvatore Arena said Saturday evening, shortly before the big race.

Waves of fans had made their way to Belmont Park on Saturday in hopes of seeing American Pharoah make horse-racing history by winning the Triple Crown

Still, some were planning to leave before the Belmont Stakes, which has a 6:50 p.m. post time.

"I don't want to wait the whole two hours to get on the train," said James O'Brien, 25, of Plainedge, who was among the 90,000 likely to attend, as he rode a morning train to Elmont.

For those who stayed the whole day, officials said, trains were scheduled depart every 15 minutes after the stakes.

Nick Wagner, 26, of Bushwick, said raceway authorities seemed to have taken last year's chaotic lessons to heart -- starting with NYRA workers who directed racegoers Saturday, a feature absent last year.

"When you got here, it was chaos. Long delays. A lot of people just didn't really know what to do," Wagner recalled. "This year, they had people directing people. It's a lot better this year." Last year, after California Chrome failed in his Triple Crown bid, the Long Island Rail Road was overwhelmed by an estimated 36,000 riders leaving the racetrack at the same time. Some waited up to 3 1/2 hours to board a train.

Others waited in parking lots, stuck in their vehicles hours after the race ended.

This year, the LIRR spent $4 million and the New York Racing Association spent $1 million more to upgrade the Belmont Park train station, increasing passenger capacity and to move trains more efficiently.

The LIRR's upgrades, paid for by the railroad's operating budget, included the construction of elevated train platforms, new staircases and a handicap-accessible ramp, extension of tracks to allow for trains with 10 cars instead of eight, and new signs and public-address systems.

The $1 million from NYRA was used to refurbish the aging transit rotunda on the grandstand, including a pedestrian bridge temporarily shut down after last year's race because of concerns about its structural integrity.

NYRA said shortly before 11 p.m. Friday that the last of the available tickets had been sold. Fans cannot buy tickets at the park on race day.

NYRA capped Saturday's attendance at 90,000 -- down from the roughly 102,000 who showed up last year -- and added a post-race concert by the Goo Goo Dolls in hopes of staggering the after-race exit of spectators.

And the concert works for Tyler Haggarty, 22, of Setauket, who doesn't expect American Pharoah to win the Triple Crown but wants to be at the track for the major event.

And with the Goo Goo Dolls playing afterward, he's not concerned about the ride home, because he's planning on staying late for the concert.

Most fans are likely to stick around for the entire race card, which features the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes.

American Pharoah is bidding to make history as the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

If he succeeds, American Pharoah will join a list of thoroughbreds who have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, three races run over a span of five weeks every spring.

Since Affirmed's triumph 37 years ago, the Triple Crown title has eluded 13 other 3-year-olds who won the first two races in Kentucky and Maryland, only to fail on the mile-and-a-half Long Island track known as the Big Sandy.

The lure of witnessing history is why Dan Franks, also 25 and from Plainedge, and a friend of O'Brien, plans to stay the entire day -- despite the six hours it took him to get home after last year's race.

"It took four hours to get on the train and then we sat on the train an hour before it started moving," he said.

"I really want to see the Triple Crown, if it happens," he said. "I just like sporting events that don't happen often."

As for O'Brien's concern for history, he said he'll wager a small amount on American Pharoah and keep the ticket to commemorate history.

Throngs of racegoers -- some dressed in fancy duds and bow-festooned hats -- lined the paddock entrance, including Bob Gemignani, 49, of Ocean Township, New Jersey, and his son, Luke, 15, both wearing seersucker suits and hats.

The elder Gemignani said compared with last year the drive to Belmont was easy. "It was a mess last year," said Gemignani, who plans to wager $100 to $200 on the favorite, American Pharoah. "We couldn't even get parking. This year, there was no traffic. It was good."

Nassau County Police Deputy Insp. Gary Shapiro said from his command post on the western edge of Belmont that police are on high alert.

State Police troopers on bicycles and ATVs were on patrol, along with Nassau police.

Access to the park was "pretty easy," Shapiro said. "The telltale thing is what happens later when everyone's trying to leave."

Despite heavy police presence, ticket scalpers were out in force in the parking areas and just outside entrances.

One self-professed scalper from North Carolina, who asked that his name be withheld, said he had about a dozen grandstand tickets he bought for $10 that he was selling for $25, plus a handful of clubhouse tickets for $175.

He handed out his business card to customers, too.

"This is what I do for a living," he said.

On Lau, 55, of Brooklyn, bought one of the grandstand tickets for $25. Just his luck. "I didn't know you could buy here. I thought I couldn't buy here," Lau said.

LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said Saturday that more than 1,500 people were on the first train into Belmont from Penn Station, including LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski.

Even with the improvements, the LIRR said that wait times could reach two hours.

In the parking lots, traffic patterns have been adjusted to keep traffic flowing more smoothly, Nassau County police said. Parking lots will have directed exit routes that will guide drivers to specific roadways, and the traffic pattern of the Cross Island Parkway will be altered to allow drivers to more easily merge on after the event.

In an effort to reduce the number of cars clogging local roads, off-site neighborhood bus shuttles will run about every 20 minutes between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. in Floral Park and Elmont to encourage nearby residents to leave their cars home if they are going to the track.

Rich Verni, 44, of Patchogue, is attending his first Belmont Stakes, and he plans to stay till the end. He thinks American Pharoah will win, too. He picked the horse to win each of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, even though he knew nothing about horse racing.

He said he's got "a feeling that the horse is going to win."

As for waiting to get home? He's not going to stress about it.

"They did improvements from last year," he said. "With all the money they invested in trains, it should be better."

With Matthew Chayes and Gary Dymski


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