It was enough to turn the most rabid horse racing fan into a naysayer.
The 2014 Belmont Stakes provided a Triple Crown of post-race ineptitude: Not enough trains, not enough staff, not enough planning. The result: Tens of thousands left stranded for hours after a 21/2-minute horse race.
Last year’s debacle convinced many fans to plan on staying home this year despite American Pharoah’s bid for immortality and promises of improved service and other Belmont upgrades.
“It was like ‘Survivor: Belmont’ out there,” recalled Sherry Ross, the New Jersey Devils color commentator and horse-racing fan. “And that played into my decision not to go this year. I’ll watch it on TV. I don’t want to deal with all that again.”
It was no easy choice for Ross, a long-time fan who was at the 11/2-mile track when Affirmed swept to the last Triple Crown in 1978. But she wasn’t the only early scratch for this Saturday’s race following last year’s debacle.
Phil Toscano, 33, of Hoboken, recalled standing helplessly last June as his 33-minute train ride to Penn Station morphed into a stressful three-hour ordeal.
“It was almost like they weren’t expecting a record crowd,” said Toscano, who waited with four friends amidst a swarm of 36,000 riders. “It was unbelievable. I kept thinking, ‘If something goes wrong here, people would be crushed.’ “I won’t go back again if there’s a Triple Crown threat. Any other day, Belmont is a perfect place.”
Joe Clancy, 50, of Fair Hill, Md., remembers standing with his 79-year-old father and three sons in a train line so long that its start and finish were indiscernible. His plan to catch an 11 p.m. Amtrak at Penn Station, a full four hours after the race ended, went from sure bet to longshot to out of the money.
“Finally, they started putting people on buses,” he recalled. “So we got on a bus, and everybody was asking, ‘Where are we going?’ Nobody was sure.”
The Clancys eventually reached Manhattan at 11:20 p.m. The hungry clan shared a meal at the Tick Tock Diner on Eighth Ave., found a hotel room, and left for home a day late.
Clancy is coming back — but not via the Long Island Rail Road. He’ll drive this time from Maryland to the Elmont, L.I., track.
His dad is sitting this one out.
Racing officials and the LIRR promised no repeat of the 2014 horror show, with its long lines at bathrooms and betting windows and concession stands running out of food and drink.
It was crush hour for frustrated fans at LIRR’s Belmont station after last year’s big race.
Ross recalled track officials seemed overwhelmed by the turnout despite expectations of a massive crowd. “I wasn’t surprised by the number of people,” she said. “I was surprised by the lack of preparation.”
This year should be different. Officials announced several steps to insure the 147th Belmont is remembered more for what happens at the racetrack than the railroad tracks.
The number of tickets was capped at 90,000, a significant reduction from last year’s unruly crowd of 102,199.
The LIRR invested $ 4.26 million on improvements to the Belmont station. New platforms will increase train capacity from eight cars to 10, and a new operating plan will move trains out of the station faster than ever.
“We’re not saying there’s not going to be a wait,” said LIRR spokesman Sal Arena. “But the hope is we’re not going to have anything like three hours.”
A post-race concert by the Goo Goo Dolls was scheduled in hopes of keeping some fans in their seats instead of in line for the LIRR. But two post-Belmont horse races intended to do the same thing last year were a dismal failure.
“The term ‘fiasco’ is what comes to mind,” said William Willer, 51, of Leesburg, Va., who was stuck in the parking lot last year with his fiancee. “I was incredulous. I think it was eight o’clock when we got in the car. And we didn’t get to our hotel in New Jersey until 1 a.m.”
Willer is debating a return trip to see American Pharoah.
But Rob Westervelt, like some some horse-crazed Gen. MacArthur, will unquestionably return this Saturday.
Last year, Westervelt recalled, the 10-minute car ride to his Douglaston home took three hours. He remembers the day as “a complete mess.” And he remains undaunted.
“I guess I’m a glutton for punishment,” he laughed.
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