O'Rourke: Shift to Saratoga Brought Energy to Belmont (2024)

The smile on DavidO'Rourke's face the day after the Belmont Stakes (G1) andSaratoga Race Course became a coupled entry for the first time told the story of a weekend that for the most part exceeded grand expectations.

The herculean task of uprooting operations and moving back-and-forth from Long Island to upstate New York for four days of racing (June 6-9) at Saratogaproved to be highly worthwhile with key increases in attendance and wagering, safe and high-quality racing, and a novel experience fans seemed to embrace.

"Everyone had a great time. The racing was phenomenal. It was a safe weekend. There was such a great excitement level. There's something special here at Saratoga because of the fans. They are core fans," said O'Rourke, the CEO and president of the New York Racing Association. "The Belmont belongs downstate but to bring the race to this fan base and to have them bring the energy they did to the event, that was really something great. I was in the winner's circle for the Belmont and I never felt energy like that before."

O'Rourke credited all ends of the NYRA operation for their tireless efforts in working through what loomed as a logistical nightmare.

"I give all the credit to the team here. We have a good crew," O'Rourke said in a June 9 interview. "We have been planning this for a while. Some people, like James Dillon (NYRA's senior director of operations), have been up here essentially since last year and did a great job."

O'Rourke: Shift to Saratoga Brought Energy to Belmont (1)

There were, of course, some glitches, but O'Rourke said they have been noted and will be addressed, in some cases before the Aug. 24 running of the Travers Stakes (G1).

"The lines for the bathrooms have never been an issue before, but that's an easy fix. Maybe we'll try some staging for the Travers Stakes and bring in nice facilities. It's something we'll look at and improve," O'Rourke said. "There were some density issues. When you were standing in certain areas there was an imbalance in terms of room, and we'll work on that. The beer concessions can be improved and become more efficient. There were kinks, but we will work them out for next year. There's a long list of things we can do, but as everyone walked away, the feedback seemed to be that everyone had a great time and that gives you a good baseline to bring to another meet."

One successful addition was the redesigned area for the Jim Dandy Bar on the first floor of the clubhouse which drew large crowds.

"The Jim Dandy was a highly popular venue. It was jammed," O'Rourke said. "That is the core area of the track and the improvements were well-received."

A capped crowd of 50,000 jammed the Spa for the 156th Belmont on June 8, which saw Dornoch spring a 17-1 upset victory. The electricity in the crowd was matched by a record-setting all-sources wagering handle of $125,748,941 for a non-Triple Crown year. It marked a 6.3% increase of the previous mark of $118.2 million set last year.

Having the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival at the Spa also provided a big handle boost on its first two days, June 6 and 7. For the Thursday card, attendance was 22,072 as opposed to less than 3,000 for a typical Belmont Week Thursday in Elmont, N.Y.

All-sources wagering was $18,168,565, shattering the previous Thursday mark of $10.3 million from the Thursday card in 2017.

On Friday, there was a crowd of 27,529 and a handle of $38.5 million. Wagering last year at Belmont Park was $26,078,400.

"The wagering was really strong, but we expected that. It's the power of the brand," O'Rourke said.

The local community also enjoyed a bonanza with racing bringing tens of thousands of visitors to the area who paid top dollar for amenities and reveled in the unabashed love for racing you will find at Saratoga.

"The community has been wonderful. They embraced the concept from the beginning and there's no way it could have gone off as well as it did without their help and cooperation," O'Rourke said. "The experience here is not just the racetrack and the racing, but the entire Saratoga experience."

The positive response to the move has raised some conjecture that NYRA might consider shifting the Belmont to the Spa on a regular basis, but O'Rourke quickly dispelled that notion. He said once the construction ends at Belmont Park and the Elmont, N.Y., track re-opens its refurbished doors,the Belmont will return home for good.

The reconstruction of Belmont, financed by a $455-million loan from the state, is expected to be completed in the spring of 2026 at the earliest with the 2025 Belmont also slated to be contested at the Spa.

"It's the Belmont Stakes. It belongs at Belmont Park," O'Rourke said. "But there could not be a better place to run it than Saratoga without a race-ready facility."

O'Rourke also said there were no plans to revamp the four-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival format for next year.

The blockbuster weekend of racing also received a thumbs up from some horsem*n and featured the typical Saratoga fare of serving as both a showcase for future champions and a demanding proving ground where champions like Just F Y I and Idiomatic went down to defeat.

"NYRA did an excellent job here at Saratoga," said KenMcPeek, trainer of Kentucky Derby (G1]) winner Mystik Dan, who was eighth in the Belmont. "The whole vibe was fantastic for racing."

Total all-source handlefor the four-day festival at Saratoga was $197,426,085.

O'Rourke: Shift to Saratoga Brought Energy to Belmont (2024)
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