By Joseph Staszewski
The race to the exits was just as fierce as the one down the stretch at the Belmont Stakes last year. MTA officials are confident they are better prepared for the heavy rush to Belmont Station this time after American Pharaoh tries to claim the Triple Crown Saturday.
“It will be a much easier place for people to come and go from,” said MTA Long Island spokesman Salvatore Arena.
Around 36,000 passengers used the Long Island Railroad to travel to Belmont Park last year, and many were left waiting for trains more than three hours after the stakes race’s conclusion, according to Arena. Leaving the parking lot for the crowd of 102,000, the third largest ever, also was not easy as wait times hit up to an hour.
The normal wait time for the LIRR in the past following a Triple Crown race was around two hours at most, but about 8,000 more people than expected chose to use the LIRR to go to the race in 2014.
To combat this issue, the MTA and LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski poured $4 million from their operating budget into upgrading Belmont Station. The improvements include two new raised platforms, new staircases and a handicap-accessible ramp, among other things.
The longer platforms give the LIRR the ability to hold 10 trains in the station instead of eight and an improved transit plan will make it easier to get trains in and out of the station more quickly. The expectation is that the measures will lower the maximum wait time back to the normal level of approximately two hours if roughly the same number of riders choose to take the train.
“All of these things together should improve departure times over last year,” Arena said.
In the past, only one train could enter or leave Belmont Station at a time because there was just one track connected to the main line that leads to Jamaica. The railroad chose to use a nearby eastbound track this year to store empty cars, making it easier to move new trains to Belmont.
Another large crowd is expected this Saturday as trainer Bob Baffert’s American Pharaoh attempts to claim the elusive Triple Crown. It marks the 14th time a horse will come to Belmont with the chance to become the first horse to do so since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978. Jockey Victor Espinoza will be taking his third crack at the historic feat. With Espinoza in the saddle, California Chrome followed victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness last year with a fourth-place finish at Belmont, after stepping on the horse next to him at the start.
American Pharaoh will have some serious competition in the mile-and-a-half race among the field of just six challengers after Todd Pletcher’s Carpe Diem and Ken McPeek’s The Truth or Else withdrew from the race. Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve is again expected to be a threat. Frosted and Materiality, which both skipped the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, have the next best odds to win the race after American Pharaoh.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Baffert after American Pharaoh won the Preakness. “I know everybody right now is sharpening their knives getting ready.”
Fans will flood Belmont Park in hopes of finally seeing history after 36 years of disappointment. American Pharaoh and the MTA both hope to send them home happy.