History of Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack Photo: Brian Kachejian 2015

Usually the only time of year that Belmont Park Racetrack makes any news is during the Spring when the track is utilized as the third leg of Horse Racing’s Triple Crown Series. However late in 2017 Belmont Race track was consistently in the news because of the bidding that multiple parties were making for use of the wide open parcels of land that have been so underused over the past 40 years at Belmont Race Track. If you have ever visited Belmont Racetrack in the past thirty to forty years, you will have noticed how empty the racetrack was on a daily basis. However in the 1950’s and 60’s the racetrack was always booming with racing fans.

Horse racing has a rich history in the State of New York. The area’s three major racetracks, Aqueduct Racetrack located in South Ozone Park, Queens, Belmont Racetrack located in Elmont, and Saratoga Racetrack in upstate Saratoga Springs, New York thrived tremendously during the 1950 and 1960’s.

OTB, The Meadowlands and Atlantic City

When OTB (Off Track Betting) opened in 1973, attendance at New York’s racetracks began to decline immediately. No longer did horse players have to travel to the track to place a bet. Horse players could than walk into a local OTB branch office and place a bet on a race at Belmont. In the early days, OTB did not show the races on television monitors. Horse players listened to the call form an audio only broadcast. The broadcast was often hard to hear because of the horse players insane screaming at their horses during the race. Smoking was allowed in all OTB branches. When you walked into an OTB, it was like walking into a giant ash tray. OTB had evolved dramatically over the years, but in the 70’s and 80’s it was not a place for anyone looking to lead a healthy life.

The opening of the Meadowlands Race Track in 1976 also took its toll on Belmont Park Racetrack. The Meadowlands was a beautiful modern day racetrack. It was the first racetrack in the Metropolitan area that featured Thoroughbred racing meets and also the trotters in separate meets. Not only did the Meadowlands steal many horse players from the New York tracks, they also stole many Thoroughbreds by offering high purses to their owners.

The Meadowlands was not the only New Jersey racetrack to threaten New York’s Horse Racing Industry. In the mid 1980’s Garden State Park Racetrack was a New Jersey Racetrack that had just reopened. The owner of the track offered the 1985 Kentucky Derby Winner Spend A Buck a two million dollar bonus if the horse ran in the Jersey Derby instead of completing the last two legs of the Triple Crown.  The owners of Spend A Buck took the money, won the Jersey Derby, and therefore denied Belmont Park Racetrack the opportunity to possibly host the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Further competing for the dollars of the horse player was the opening of the first Atlantic City gambling casinos in 1978. Resorts opened in 1978 soon followed by Ceasers and Balleys in 1979. Atlantic City had a long history as a beach boardwalk resort dating back to the 19th century. However in 1976 when the people of New Jersey voted for legalized gambling in the city, Atlantic City was turned upside down.

In the late 1980’s the competition for the gambling dollar began to really wreak havoc on live horse racing. Declining attendance took its toll on the trotters when the fan favorite Roosevelt Raceway was closed. The arrival of the internet and online betting has also stolen money away from the NYRA. The New York Racing Association had looked to fight back against its competition. In 2006, slot machines were installed at Yonkers Raceway. Hailed as Empire City Casino, the utilization of slot machines proved incredibly successful at the racetrack. In 2013, Resorts World New York City Casino opened up at Aqueduct Racetrack.

In 2010 New York City OTB was officially shut down by the State of New York.The generation of horse players who had shifted from the tracks to the OTB parlors had begun to age and no longer frequented the parlors in the numbers they used too. The closure of the New York City OTB’s helped the New York Tracks a little, but in the end it was the casinos that were attracting a new crowd to Yonkers and Aqueduct. Belmont Park Racetrack still continued to become more of a ghost park because nothing new was being built there.

In 2016, Belmont Park Racetrack once again faced new competition for the gambling dollar. Jake’s 58 became the first stand alone casino to open on Long Island. Hailed as saving Suffolk County OTB was bankruptcy, Jake’s 58 was an instant success.

In the end, when people visit Belmont Racetrack and observe miles of open unused space and an empty grandstand, they have no idea that at one point in time, Belmont Racetrack was a thriving track that attracted thousands of horse players on a daily basis. However during its heyday the track never faced the competition it began to face starting in the 1970’s.

The Origins of Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack first opened its gates on May 4, 1905. The park was built by a group of investors including August Belmont, Jr. and William Collins Whitney. A few years later, the horse racing industry was severely threatened by a law that outlawed wagering in the State of New York between the years 1911 and 1913. The law known as the Hart-Agnew bill was instituted by New York Governor Charles Evans Hughe. The law had originally been introduced in 1909 but racetracks tried using oral betting to get around the law. Eventually the State threatened that racetrack owners would be held liable for any sort of gambling on their premise. For three years racing at Belmont Park came to a halt. Racing resumed in 1914 as the first World War began and government turned its focus onto the world stage rather than being concerned with horse players and race tracks.

My father John Kachejian and his brother Harry Kachejian were very much involved in playing the horses. The two brothers spent a great deal of time at the race tracks in the 50’s and 60’s. They had hundreds of stories. There were always the typical horse player stories but they also shared vivid descriptions of how packed the tracks were, especially Belmont. Belmont Park was a racetrack that attracted most of its players from the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Belmont Park had public train transportation that dropped horse players off right at the front door. Playing the horses was a way of life for so many in the early 20th century up until the mid 1970’s.

It’s difficult for any visitor in recent years to understand how popular horse racing was in New York during the first half of the 20th century. When the Belmont Park Racetrack first opened in 1905. Thomas Edison sent his film crew to the track to document the opening. The Thomas Edison Film Studio created over a thousand short films documenting events. It’s extraordinary that we are able to peek into the past through the utilization of these Thomas Edison films. After the first minute of the film , the camera pans towards the crowd. It’s an incredible visual that proves just how popular the sport of horse racing was.

The 1960’s and beyond at Belmont Park Racetrack

In 1963, the old grandstand at Belmont Park was torn down due to structural issues. A new grandstand was built and Belmont Park reopened in May of 1968. When the park reopened in 1968 it had the distinction of being the largest race track grandstand in the nation.

Over time the NYRA has tried to attract more than just the horse player to the racetrack. In the late 1970’s, Belmont Park Racetrack began holding concerts in the picnic areas. I saw Blondie perform there during the summer of 1979. Most of the fans that attended the concerts paid no attention to the race track. The track discovered that rock and roll fans were not the type to bet on horses.

The Grandstand and Clubhouse

The Grandstand is the largest section of the track. The track is split between the Clubhouse and the Grandstand. The Belmont Park Grandstand is usually more crowded than the Clubhouse even though the difference in price of admission is usually just a couple of dollars. There are three levels to the Grandstand and Clubhouse. In the Clubhouse, there is a fourth level that hosts the Garden Terrace Dining room. Reservations are required to sit in the dinning room. If you don’t have a reservation, Belmont security will not let you in. They also request that you dress in proper attire which pretty much excludes the typical horse player at the track.

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack Grandstand: Photo: Brian Kachejian

The Paddock and Picnic Area

The Belmont Park Racetrack Paddock Area is located behind the Grandstand. The Paddock offers horse racing fans and families the opportunity to get up close to the horses that are preparing to race. In the middle of the Paddock stands a beautiful statue of Secretariat. The Paddock is large, wide open and one of the great attractions of Belmont Park Racetrack.

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Paddock. Photo: Brian Kachejian 2015

The Paddock stands at the beginning of the picnic area at Belmont. The picnic area allows families to bring in their own coolers, although barbecuing and tents are prohibited There are many outdoor concession stands in the picnic areas. On certain Sundays, I have seen petting zoos set up for the young children. It really is a wonderful experience to bring a family to Belmont Park. I have brought my kids there for years and we have always had a great time, especially in the picnic areas. There are also betting windows available in the picnic area, as well as screens to watch the races and check the odds.

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Picnic Area. Photos: Brian Kachejian 2015

The Belmont Stakes

The World Series of Horse Racing is the Triple Crown. In Horse Racing, game seven is always played at Belmont Park or so to speak. The first of a three leg race starts in Kentucky at Churchill Downs. Leg two is presented as the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. The final leg is the Belmont Stakes which is presented at Belmont Park Racetrack. If racing is going to anoint a Triple Crown Winner, it’s always celebrated at Belmont Park Racetrack, although It’s not a common occurrence. Since 1875, there has only been 12 Triple Crown Champion Horses. The 1940’s and 1970’s were the mos popular decades for Triple Crown winners as each of those decades crowned three Triple Crown Winners. The longest gap between Triple Crown Winners was between the crowning of Affirmed  in 1978, and American Pharoah in 2015. The most wonderful aspect of the Belmont Stakes is that for at least one day a year the track is transformed back into the past with a sellout crowd of over one hundred thousand people.

Breeders Cup

Belmont Park Racetrack has also served as the home for the  Breeders Cup several times during the tracks history. Belmont Park Racetrack has hosted the Breeders Cup in 1990. 1995, 2001, 2005. The Breeders Cup is a Grade 1 Thoroughbred Championship Series of competitive races between the best horses in the United States and any other county that chooses to participate. The stakes are extremely high as The Breeders Cup foundation awards just under thirty million dollars in Stakes Winnings for the two-day event. It’s a series of races in which the awards for each race average between one and two million dollars. The Breeders Cup Classics that have been hosted at Belmont Park Race tracks have been the second most popular horse racing event next to the Belmont Stakes to occur at the track.

The Future of Belmont Park Racetrack

If there was even any doubt about the future of Belmont Park and the possibility of closing down the racetrack, that has all been erased by recent announcements. In December of 2017, the New York Islanders won a bid to develop 45 acres of unused space at Belmont Park to be transformed in a multi-entertainment complex. The New York Islander group will invest one billion dollars in the project and pay New York State 40 million dollars in rent. With that amount of money being sent to the New York State and invested in the property, it looks like fans will be enjoying Belmont Park for years to come. Looking back at the history of development on Long Island, the Belmont Park project stands as one of the most important development deals since the days of Robert Moses. The horses are at the gate!

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack

Belmont Park Racetrack

All Photos: Brian Kachejian 2017

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