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Garden City Belmont Festival Continues To Gallop Along

Annual village event rides into its family-friendly fifteenth year.

According to, horse racing in the United States and North American continent dates back to 1665, when a course named Newmarket was established on a section of the Hempstead Plains that crossed over into what is now East Garden City. Fast forward nearly 450 years later, and between the upcoming Belmont Stakes and the Garden City Belmont Festival, the horse racing connection remains as vibrant as when New York’s then-colonial governor Richard Nicolls presided over that first race.

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary that the Garden City Belmont Festival is being held. What started out as a parade, has more recently evolved into a family-friendly event held on the eve of the third leg of the Triple Crown. When it started in the late 1990s, this affair was inspired by a similar gala thrown in another New York State racing mecca—Saratoga.

“[The Garden City Belmont Festival started out as] a partnership put together by Bob Schoelle, the village administrator and Ed Lewi, who runs a promotional/marketing company up in the Saratoga area and works with the New York Racing Association (NYRA),” explained Mary Dolan Grippo, chairperson of the Belmont Festival in Garden City. “It was based on an event they do up in Saratoga during their Saratoga meet called Hats Off to Saratoga. So [Ed] came to the village saying he had a great idea for an event and wanted to know if we’d be interested in putting it together. Bob Schoelle was very supportive and thought it was a perfect fit for the village, so we put a team together.”

The first and largest sponsors were and continue to be the Garden City Hotel and NYRA. Initially, a parade was held with the biggest attraction being the inclusion of the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, enormous draft horses that occupied the rear of the marchers, not unlike the place Santa Claus occupies in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The expected participants were part of the festivities and included numerous local fire companies, high school marching bands and sponsor contingents with banners. More notable were a number of horse racing-related pieces of the processional like various equine enthusiasts groups along with carloads of jockey and their families, all sandwiched by Sammy the Bugler, who replicated his “Call to the Post” used to announce the start of the Belmont Stakes, and the actual starting gate from Belmont Park. (The gate continues to be used, propped up in the front of the Garden City Hotel before being moved on the day of the Belmont Festival and placed at the end of Seventh Street.)

Due to the increased popularity of the Budweiser Clydesdales and the subsequent demand for personal appearances by these hoofed giants, the Garden City Belmont Festival committee transitioned the vent from being a parade into more of a carnival starting three years ago. Despite the change, the festival continues to be a well-attended event that attracts roughly eight thousand people according to Grippo. Within the past three years, organizers changed gears to accommodate the shift by adding live music and the availability of a number of carnival games.

This year’s festivities kick off on Friday, June 8 from 6 to 10 p.m. on Seventh Street. Bands scheduled to perform include the Fivestone, Jerry & the Newcomers, the New Vintage Orchestra, Speak Easy and the Village Music Makers. Fans of tripping the light fantastic will be regaled by Garden City’s Broadway Bound Dance Center and Step Dancers from the Fitzpatrick Academy of Irish Dancers.  

One of the more savory events is a competition between restaurants vying for the crown of Garden City Chicken Wing Champion. For a minimum contribution of five dollars, attendees get a ballot and plate of wings to sample from. The Wing Off takes place from 6:30 to 9 p.m. during which local restaurants will compete to be named Garden City’s chicken wing champion. Seven restaurants are currently confirmed to take part in the competition: Rein at the Garden City Hotel; Walk Street; J.P. McGeevers; Lani’s Marketplace; Pop’s Wings; Famous Dave’s and Murphy’s Bar and Grill. The winner will be announced at 9:30 p.m. The general public will judge the contest as any passerby can get in on the action for a minimum donation of $5, which includes a plate of wings and a ballot. All proceeds benefit Nassau County Firefighter’s Operation Wounded Warrior project, which provides needed items for injured United States military personnel.

Kids in the village also get to flex their creative muscles via an art competition open to Garden City students.

“Patrick Longo from Sunflower Fine Art puts together the poster contest every year,” said Grippo. “He came to us with this idea and it’s been a huge success for the school kids. He has them make posters and we put them in the storefronts along Seventh Street for the week leading up to the Belmont Festival. There are first, second and third place prizes awarded.”

Still going strong after a decade plus, the Garden City Belmont Festival continues to enjoy ongoing popularity, something that doesn’t surprise Grippo. “It’s always been such a wonderful, family-oriented event and I know because I live in the village. People look forward to it and are looking out for the date every year and always ask when the parade and/or festival are being held. People love to come, kids love to come and the parents love to come as much as the kids. It’s one of those events that are not just for the kids. It’s for everybody.”