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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Belmont’s Boost

The first Saturday in May is an important one for thoroughbred horse racing fans; that’s when the Kentucky Derby is run every year.

The first of the Triple Crown races, the Saturday, May 7, Derby features the top three-year-old horses in the country vying against one another. Most of them will then compete in Maryland’s Preakness Stakes on Saturday, May 21, before traveling to Elmont on Saturday, June 11 for the Belmont Stakes.

Belmont Park began its spring season on Friday, April 29, and the horses will be running there until Sunday, July 17, when the action moves to Saratoga, New York.

Two somewhat surprising events have conspired to boost Belmont’s attendance in the coming months. The first was the late 2010 demise of New York City’s Off-Track Betting (OTB) Corporation and the second was the New York Racing Association’s (NYRA) announcement last month that it would allocate an unreported sum to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), an act which prompted the LIRR to revive its regular service to Belmont Park. The LIRR discontinued its Belmont Park trains in 2010, even though they have a station there, as one of a number of service reductions implemented by the LIRR to address the MTA’s budget shortfall.

Belmont is a magnificent venue, which comparatively few New Yorkers have ever visited, and that goes for horseplayers, too. I could not understand how anyone derived enjoyment from spending any time in an airless, amenity-free New York City OTB parlor on a weekday afternoon. But it seems as though a sizable number of these OTB denizens were, in fact, true racing aficionados. This assertion can be supported by the 48 percent spike in on-track attendance at Aqueduct Race Track in Ozone Park, Queens, between January-April 2011, as compared to the same period a year earlier. The big difference: New York City’s OTB was operating in early 2010, and had closed its doors by early 2011, prompting thousands of thoroughbred racing fans to jump on the A train, or drive, to a place they’d probably only seen on TV until this year.

The joint NYRA-LIRR announcement about Belmont was unveiled at an April 26 press conference, and the benefits to both parties are readily apparent. NYRA gains access to a broader audience of potential patrons not only from Long Island but Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, as well. For its part, the LIRR reopens a revenue stream that had disappeared in 2010 with NYRA seemingly paying much of their operating expenses.

The one-way trip to Belmont Park from the LIRR’s Jamaica, Queens station takes less than 15 minutes, and the round-trip tickets are reasonably priced from Nassau’s Zone 4 ($12 per person) and Nassau’s Zone 7 ($14 per person).

My one complaint is that weekly and monthly LIRR ticket holders can only use their passes for travel to Jamaica and must then pay an additional $10 to cover the round-trip fare between Belmont Park and Jamaica. To my mind, these ticket holders are paying an unnecessary surcharge, having already paid to travel within the zones covering eastern Queens and western Nassau.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: