Historic Saratoga takes its place at center of horse racing world when Belmont Stakes comes to town

FILE — Horses are spread across the track shortly after the start of the Whitney Handicap horse race at Saratoga Race Course, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., July 28, 2007. Venerable Saratoga Race Course adds to its mystique and tradition by hosting the Belmont Stakes for the next two years. The track that predates the end of the U.S. Civil War has never before hosted a Triple Crown race. (AP Photo/Reid Burchell, File)(AP/Reid Burchell)

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) — Health, history and horses are the three H’s carved into the welcome sign when travelers venturing into New York’s Adirondack Mountains reach Saratoga Springs.

Horses have always been the main event here, where the oldest active sporting venue in the country, the Saratoga Race Course, stands at the heart of the town of 30,000.

Saratoga has seen upsets since opening before the end of the Civil War, including Upset defeating decorated Man o’ War and Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh slipping up against Keen Ice in the Travers.

For the first time, the Saratoga Race Course will have the best 3-year-olds in the world duke it out in a Triple Crown race when the venerable track hosts the Belmont Stakes on June 8.

“I mean, this has been a rumor for a couple of years regarding the Belmont in Saratoga,” Mayor John Safford said. “The fact that it actually came about is just exciting.”

The excitement is palatable every year. Once July rolls around, Saratoga becomes a full-force race town: parked cars align the streets, fans flood the sidewalks walking with coolers, kids yell, “Get your $1 water here!” the smell of cigarette smoke and horses fills the air and the downtown restaurants pack in guests.

Racing is the fifth season of Saratoga. A town that revolves around a 1 1/8-mile dirt track for two months of the year and has been for just under 160 years since John Morrissey wanted a place to gamble during the day in 1863.

Rumors of the race coming to Saratoga emerged when the New York Racing Association scheduled $455 million renovations for Belmont Park in 2024-25 and needed a new place to host the final leg of the Triple Crown. NYRA President David O’Rourke sent the invitation to Saratoga, one of the most historic horse racing cities in the world and home of the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

In October 2022, Saratoga Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus received word that if the funding for the renovations got approved, Saratoga would host the Belmont in 2024 and 2025.

“I can tell you everybody in the room wanted to hug David O’Rourke for the opportunity to host this,” Shimkus said. “We’ve been anticipating this for almost two years now and can’t wait.”

This is not the first time the race, ordinarily run at 1 1/2 miles, is taking place somewhere other than Belmont Park. Aqueduct in Queens had it from 1963-67 while Belmont underwent renovations.

National Racing Museum historian and long-time horse racing writer Mike Veitch doesn’t know why closer Aqueduct was passed over so quickly but understands why Saratoga was the pick.

“Clearly, Saratoga is popular and clearly a lot of people are going to be here, so I get that,” Veitch said. “I think that NYRA probably knows that there’ll be a big crowd here, which there will be.”

NYRA has capped the Belmont Stakes in Saratoga at 50,000 fans, which is right at capacity. Veitch, along with locals, is skeptical an event of this size can happen in Saratoga logistically.

The city is prepared, and the Belmont is far from the first large event to come to Saratoga. The Grade 1 Travers Stakes is the peak of the track’s annual summer racing, with crowds upwards of 40,000.

Last year, Phish played a sold-out 27,000-crowd concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center the night before the Travers. The Travers then had a crowd of 47,000 the next day.

The one-day attendance record at Saratoga is 72,745 in 2007, far above the 50,000 Belmont cap.

“It’s 50,000 people here on Saturday, June 8, that is unprecedented,” Shimkus said. “We’ve never had that many people here on a June 8 in the history of Saratoga Springs. But 50,000 people come here often over the summer.”

Whether historians and locals like the Belmont coming to Saratoga or not, the estimated $50 million revenue boost, along with the exposure for the town is tough to pass down, and that’s even with Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan losing in the Preakness to eliminate the chance of a Triple Crown being on the line at the place affectionately known as the Spa.

“It is sure to be an incredibly exciting weekend,” O’Rourke said. “We are thrilled to be able to add this chapter to the long and storied history of thoroughbred racing here in Saratoga.”

There is still another year for that possibility, and Safford wondered about even a third — depending on the speed of the renovations downstate.

Regardless, Belmont’s reconstruction has allowed Saratoga, a pillar of horse racing from its beginnings, to get another major addition to its remarkable resume.

“We’ve been racing horses here for almost 160 years now,” Shimkus said. “This is a major destination in a city of 28,000 people. That story gets told as a result of the Belmont Stakes being here.”


This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of David O’Rourke’s name.


AP horse racing: https://apnews.com/hub/horse-racing

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