Checking the Long Island Rail Road web site to obtain train times to Belmont Park in advance of my visit to see the races Sunday, I learned the LIRR isn’t running service to the track for the entire 2021 fall meet.
No problem, I said to myself. I left early. I jumped on the F to Jamaica, got off at Parsons Blvd. and took the Q110 bus which runs down bustling Jamaica Avenue before veering onto Hempstead Avenue. It takes a long time – about an hour and 45 – but it saves the steep LIRR fare and offers the scenery and excitement that is downtown Jamaica.
The Q110 route terminates on race track property making its final stop just across from where the LIRR trains would normally let out. Just me and an old, broken down horseplayer got off the bus. I was in a hurry to get in to see the first race so I raced across the pedestrian bridge only to find all of the doors on the west side of the grandstand locked. On both the first and second level, there was no way in. No signage, no personnel.
A large opening on the apron granted access but there was no admission barrier – nor did it appear to be a formal entrance – but I walked through it not seeing any other way in.
What happened next was textbook NYRA customer relations. A stocky NYRA “Peace Officer” lumbered over to me out of nowhere and gruffly asked me what I was doing.
“I’m here to see the races,” I said.
“You can’t come in this way. You can’t sneak your way in here!” he said with a mean streak and a thick local accent.
“Just tell me where to go, will ‘ya,” I said, aggravated by his accusatory tone. “I’m not trying to do anything other than go to the races. The bus dropped me off in the usual spot and I’m trying to enter in the usual spot.”
“You gotta get outta here,” he said. “You gotta enter via the clubhouse side.”
“How do I do that?” I said. “Everything is fenced off!”
“Figure it out,” he said.
Construction of the new hockey arena on track grounds has produced fencing all around the facility with no signage offering guidance to the loyal patrons who want to see horses run. The NYRA web site offers no heads up to public transit users on how to enter the track. A map of the grounds posted on the NYRA web site currently includes an illustration that would suggest the West entrance is not sealed off.
Normal paths to the clubhouse were cut off from the bus drop-off point so I walked along the road that is a turn-off from the Cross Island and made a left onto Hempstead Turnpike. Sidewalk continuity is spotty with more fencing and construction barrels forcing pedestrians onto either the shoulder of the Turnpike or the Turnpike itself. It’s incredibly dangerous. An accident waiting to happen, not to mention an insult to the sport’s older, mobility-limited fans given the track’s clear ability to accommodate people via entrances on the west side of the facility.
Pedestrians have no good way in via the Turnpike other than a hole in the fence where track customers park their cars. Google Maps suggests entering via gate 5 but that would force those on foot to share the street with cars.
Once inside the track (admission is five bucks), the new arena again reminds you quickly that it owns the day – not the brilliant and very special race track that’s been in existence for 116 years.
The primary reason everybody calls Belmont Park “Beautiful Belmont Park” is because of its barkyard area adjoining the paddock. It’s a space that families and large groups of buddies have congregated in on race days for a long time. That is ruined at the moment with max encroachment from a facility emblazoned with the name of a Swiss bank. The noise, the dust, the construction equipment and supplies staged in the backyard don’t coalesce with the presence of horse saddling in what once was one of the prettiest and most tranquil of spots to see and feel that majestic activity in the entire world.
I guess race fans must wait and see what it all looks like after the arena is done. What’s known and what’s permanent makes it clear to me that the backyard is ruined.
A new train station dubbed “Elmont” will be a ten minute walk from the arena/track and is located directly on the Hempstead branch as a new station. The railroad is saying the eastbound platform will be functional in time for the first Islanders home game on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. It’ll be another year before fans going back to Manhattan can board at that station on the way home – so the plan is to run trains on a spur from the track’s old station to Jamaica in the meantime. The bottom line on trains is that what’s good for hockey fans will be good for horse racing fans via the better, more reliable service on the Hempstead branch.
My beef (before actually seeing it and confirming my fear on Sunday) was that the state and NYRA and the people who should be protecting the rare and historically significant Belmont Park let the track’s best part get ruined by an arena project that could have found better patches of land elsewhere. Why not on the track’s vast backside expanse? Anywhere. Anywhere but a chunk of real estate that represents a truly unique parcel of sporting heaven to generations of fans who will now quit on the tradition of bringing a lawn chair and a cooler to sit alongside the participants in a 9 or 10 race card. The sight of that arena and the space it gobbled up is gonna make a lot of people sick.
Echo Zulu won the 74th running of the Frizette, a grade 1, $400-grand race for two-year-old fillies in a romp. The daughter of the great Gun Runner is undefeated and will next run in the Breeders’ Cup on the first weekend of November pending continuing good health. Notable from Sunday’s win was the call of NYRA track announcer John Imbriale who mispronounced the filly’s name in her previous two races at Saratoga. Somebody must have said something, because this time Imbriale called her Echo Zulu (ZOO-LEW) instead of Echo (ZOO-LOW).
The Giants, Jets and Yankees games (all thrillers) were on monitors in the indoor area just above the apron where a large group of boisterous regular patrons huddle – and routinely make both New York tracks a fun place to be. The buzz and excitement created by these fans over the course of a racing day more than offset the repellent NYRA routinely applies via the shoddy communication and services offered at both Belmont and Aqueduct.