And they’re off! A guide to Belmont Stakes Day

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Yeah, that didn’t happen. Photo via Belmont Stakes.

Visiting the Belmont Stakes has long been a bucket list item for me. R and I have talked about going before, but we tend to wait until it’s too late. This year, I took matters in to my own hands and bought tickets for his birthday. Fortunately, I bought the tickets when they went on sale in March, because after the Preakness, it was nearly impossible to get tickets.

Ticket prices were reasonable this year – $10 General Admission, with Grandstand seats starting at $20. I bought seats in the upper level of the Clubhouse, which were still reasonable at $50. For the last race of the day, we went down to the General Admission benches along the track, and it was a complete mess. I really appreciated our seats, and would definitely go the Clubhouse route again next time.

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Our seats were in the last row of section 3BU and I was really happy with them. Photo via the NYRA

I’d been to a couple of steeplechases as a kid, but I’d never been to a proper horse race. The Belmont Stakes website is a little vague on what to wear or what the experience is like (what exactly is “appropriate attire” and “no abbreviated wear”?), and most of the blogs out there are dedicated to the Kentucky Derby. I asked a friend of mine who went to Belmont Stakes Day last year, and her response was “I would not recommend women going by themselves” which still did not tell me what to wear.

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This is going to be long…

I plan to go into detail about the day, mostly as a journal for myself, but also if anyone else is interested about the experience.

If you just want quick details, here are my tips for Belmont Stakes Day:

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For the pinners. Photo of the last race of the day.

  • Buy Grandstand/Clubhouse seats in advance. If you wait until after the Preakness, there might be another Triple Crown bid and you will have a hard time finding tickets.
  • Drive if you can; public transportation is a nightmare.
  • Wear a sundress and comfortable shoes. Hats aren’t as popular as they are at the Kentucky Derby (I’m assuming – attending the Derby is also on my bucket list), but you’ll want a sun hat if you don’t have a reserved seat. General Admission areas are all in the sun with limited shade.
  • Get the Belmont Jewel.
  • Bet on the horses!
  • Bring your own binoculars if you have them. You have to turn in your ID to rent them at the Park, and you might get carded later at the bar or betting windows.
  • Don’t forget sunscreen!
  • Follow the rules of the banned/permitted items (they’re strict at bag check). Sadly, Belmont Park does not allow cameras with detachable lenses, so I had to leave my nice camera at home. It was almost a relief, though, because I didn’t have to fuss with my equipment all day.

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How we got there

LIRR has a train that goes directly to Belmont Park, and there are several Subway/Bus options to get there as well. We did talk about going the public transportation route, but in the end we thought driving would be the best option for us. Because it was a Triple Crown Bid, and attendance was expected to be high, we got to the park right when the gates opened at 8:15, and had a decent spot in the $10 parking lot – right in front of the shuttle stop.

My parents took the LIRR out to the Park, the train was standing room only, took almost an hour to get through bag check, and they nearly missed the first race of the day. The line to leave at the end of the day was more than two hours long, so we ended up giving them a ride back to their hotel.

If you have access to a car, I highly recommend driving to Belmont Park, as it ended up being the better choice.

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A gorgeous day at the races! 

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What I Wore

I decided I would wear one of my Butter dresses, since I basically live in those during the summer. I chose to wear this navy blue wrap dress, even though I wear it to almost every wedding I’m invited to. It’s comfortable, slimming, and I get lots of compliments on it. It’s fancy enough for a formal event, yet feels casual because the material is so soft. Since I didn’t know what “appropriate attire” was for Belmont Stakes Day, this was a safe bet. (And I got a lot of compliments on it, so it worked out!)

R wore a seersucker shirt, a straw fedora, and a bow tie. He fit in perfectly. My dad wore a purple shirt and green tie (California Chrome’s colors), and he looked nice, too.

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Photo by my dad!

I know the Kentucky Derby is known for its fancy hats, but I wasn’t sure about Belmont. I decided on a feather headband (the seller was horrible, so beware if you buy the same one). It was a nice mid-way point between a fancy hat and wearing no hat. There were some women with big fancy hats, some women who wore no hats, and some women wore beachy sun hats. General Admission viewing areas along the track do not have shade, so you’ll at least want a sun hat if you don’t have reserved seats in the Grandstands.

Most women wore brightly colored sundresses, or khaki pants with a fancy top. My mom wore black pants with a fancy yellow blouse with a matching hat, and she looked nice. I saw a few women (and men) dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts, and they looked out-of-place. So, really, no matter what you decide to wear is probably fine.

I also saw a lot of women in high heels. Maybe I’m old but they looked incredibly uncomfortable. We had a reserved seat, but General Admission area benches are first come. We did quite a bit of walking/standing so I recommend wearing flat shoes like summery sandals or low wedges.

One of my favorite things about this day were the guests who dressed to represent California Chrome for his Triple Crown bid.

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I realize it’s a horrible photo, but my favorite was the third photo. there was a group of five girls all in purple dresses decorated to look like California Chrome’s silks

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Even I joined the fun and represented California Chrome. purple and green manicure, racehorse & horseshoe bracelets from Alex and Ani, chromie bracelet from Mystigail, California Chrome necklace from Etsy.

Unfortunately, none of our good luck charms brought luck for California Chrome.

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Food & Drink

Food and Drink choices at Belmont Park are similar to food options you’d find at any typical sporting event: hot dogs, sausage & peppers, cheese steak, fried dough, etc. Obviously, for a fee you can attend the fancier buffets and luncheons, but for those of us on a tighter budget, the food options were limited. We had reserved seats in the Clubhouse, but did not have any of the fancy lunch reservations. On the third floor, there was a food stand with “catering boxes” which contained a sandwich, chips, and a beverage for $20. We decided to head to the backyard area to get cheaper eats, but it was hot, crowded, long lines, and after fighting our way  to the food area, we had wished we had just forked over the $20 simply for the convenience factor. We ended up missing the 4th race due to waiting in the food lines, but were able to watch a replay on the paddock screen on our way back to our seats.

One thing I was most looking forward to (other than the races) was the Belmont Jewel, the official drink of the Belmont Stakes. It was $15 for 16 ounces of bourbon and juice (and ice), and came with a souvenir glass. Considering we are just outside of NYC, I found this to be reasonable. Also? It was delicious.

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Sweet nectar of the NY horse racing gods. 

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The Races

There were 13 races for Belmont Stakes Day, with the actual Belmont Stakes as Race 11. R was most excited to bet on the races, and I joined in. I’ve never bet on a horse before, and I have pretty much zero idea how to read the odds.  I’d like to give a huge thanks to the staff of Belmont Park, who were extremely patient with me and explained the different ways to bet. I’m not one to take huge risks, so I decided to bet for the horses to “Show”, which means I bet the horse I chose would come in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place. I also decided to choose what horse to bet on based on their names, because that was more fun than trying to figure out the odds.

The first horse I bet on was Wabbajack, which was fun to say. R and I joked that maybe his fans are called Wabbajackeys and the wondered if the guy who rides Wabbajack calls himself a Wabbajockey. (This was before we had Belmont Jewels, sadly.)

I was a little worried when just before the race the announcer said “We are waiting on Wabbajack”, but I was jumping out of my seat when my horse finished first!

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Hard to tell, but this is my winning ticket on Wabbajack. Proud to say I’m now a Wabbajackey. I decided it’s a thing.

I decided to continue my method for the remainder of the day.

(Sweet Reason, Sweet Whiskey, and Tiz So Sweet)

For the third race, I had three horses I wanted to Show, and R convinced me to do a Trifecta. “It’s the same thing!” he said. “It’s the same price!” he said. It was the same price, yes, but it is not the same as betting on three horses to Show. A Trifecta meant I was betting on all three horses to get 1st, 2nd, AND 3rd place. Two of my horses showed. The third did not. Had I bet on the horses to Show? I would’ve won. Because I bet the Trifecta, I lost. R still hasn’t heard the end of this.

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My winning tickets. I won money on every race except for Race 3 (I blame R), Race 5 (didn’t bet – stuck getting food), Race 11 (Belmont Stakes). 

R got a betting card which allowed him to bet at machines instead of talking with a cashier. This ended up being a good idea because the further along in the day, the busier the betting windows. Sometimes the lines were so long, I ended up giving R money to put my bet on his card. I originally thought that you couldn’t get a receipt if you bet at the machine, which is why I didn’t want the card in the first place. This was not the case, and now that I see how easy it was, I’ll get a betting card next year.

I absolutely recommend betting on the horses. The minimum bet is $1 and the races are much more exciting when you’re cheering on a horse with a fun name.

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California Chrome

Of course, we all know that California Chrome ended his Triple Crown bid with a dead heat for 4th place. While this was quite unfortunate for everyone (except for maybe Tonalist), just being there for this day was an experience in itself.

I loosely follow the Triple Crown races every year, but since I knew I was going to the Belmont Stakes this year, I followed the Kentucky Derby and Preakness more closely. Once I realized I’d be witnessing a Triple Crown Bid in person, I got really excited.

A perk of this year was Belmont’s Triple Crown bonus activities. California Chrome and Triple Chrome posters were being distributed around the Park, Breathe Right had a promotion, and there was an autograph session with the jockeys for Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. I am assuming they do not do these things every year.

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Ron Turcotte (Secretariat), Jean Cruguet (Seattle Slew), and Steve Cauthen (Affirmed) sign autographs

Belmont Park had been buzzing all day, but as soon as California Chrome hit the track, the stands came alive. The energy was so big and loud and strong, I could feel it my bones. My heart was pounding and a man standing next to me was shaking. There aren’t words strong enough to describe the excitement in the building.

I was the will-he-or-won’t he. Will he be on a list with Secretariat, or Smarty Jones? Will he make history or succumb to the fate of the twelve other Triple Crown bids since Affirmed. You could not check TMZ or Reality Steve for spoilers. It was pure unknowing excitement.

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I could have lived in the excitement of this moment forever.

The horses ran right in front of us at the start of the race – I’m surprised I even got this photo considering I was shaking at this point.

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The final moments of the will-he-or-won’t-he excitement.

I couldn’t hear the announcer for the entire race, but as soon as the horses came around the final turn, the crowd realized we were not going to witness a Triple Crown. It was as if the entire arena was deflated. BUT. It was a great race, and an amazing moment to experience.

I heard the official attendance count was 102,199. That’s a LOT of people. Especially considering (and I can’t remember where I saw this so I can’t find the link) last year’s attendance was around 45,000.

While, as I mentioned, the energy was amazing and wonderful, I would like to see Belmont Stakes on a non-Triple Crown Bid year. My mom and I tried to go to the Paddock before the second race, but we couldn’t get close. In fact, we nearly missed the race because the line for the escalator was so long. Not to mention I waited more than 25 minutes for the restroom, and then the whole mess trying to get lunch during the 4th and 5th races.

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Pass The Coffee. The closest I got to a racehorse all weekend.

All that being said, I truly enjoyed the adventure. For my first Belmont Stakes Day, I got to witness a Triple Crown bid with a horse from my home state. I met legendary Triple Crown Jockeys. I left $25 richer. I witnessed Palace Malice become the first horse in more than 50 years to win the Met Mile after winning the Belmont Stakes the previous year.

Sure, it was a bummer that California Chrome didn’t win. But I checked something off my bucket list, and had a lot of fun in the process.

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Race watchin’.

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Penultimate race of the day. 

Who’s joining me next year? 

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