For more than a century, Belmont has been the stage for many of racing’s greatest legends, showcasing legends such as Man o’ War, Curlin, Beldame, Rachel Alexandra, Seabiscuit, Cigar and many others. It began in 1902, when a syndicate headed by August Belmont II and former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney sought land on Long Island to build the most elaborate track in America, one modeled after the great race courses of Europe. They found what they were looking for on the border of Queens County and Nassau County. Originally known as Foster’s Meadow, the 650 acres of land included a turreted Tudor-Gothic mansion owned by William de Forest Manice, which was to serve as the track’s Turf and Field Club until 1956.
The grand opening of Belmont Park on May 4, 1905, attracted more than 40,000 fans who witnessed August Belmont II’s Blandy, at 7-1, hold off 100-1 shot Oliver Cromwell in the $1,500 Belmont Inaugural. Later, James R. Keane’s Sysonby, who would be ranked No. 30 on the Blood-Horse Magazine’s top 100 horses of the 20th century, made his 3-year-old debut against the super filly Beldame, another of Belmont’s charges. In the stretch, Sysonby got unexpected competition from 20-1 Race King, and the two hit the wire in a dead heat.
Closed in 1963 due to structural defects, Belmont Park was rebuilt and re-opened in 1968. Since 2012, numerous improvements have been made to enhance the guest experience while preserving its historic architectural elements, including the installation of hundreds of HD televisions across the property and new video display boards in the Paddock, installing Trakus technology for horseplayers and enhancing and expanding the Belmont Cafe and the Top of the Stretch picnic area. In 2015, $5 million in improvements were made to the transit rotunda on the west end of the Grandstand, as well as new rail station platforms, which increased the Belmont Station train capacity to 10 cars and improved egress from the track on major racing days.
By Paul Moran
The heart of American racing, more than a century old, beats hard against the western edge of New York City, a modern-day Circus Maximus that became the nation’s most important racing venue on the day it opened and remains without peer. But Belmont Park is more. It is the place at which the sport’s past, present and future intersect; the stage upon which the greatest of the sport’s stars, hooved and human, have shined for more than 100 years. This is home to The Test of the Champion. This is where immortality in racing is achieved, or denied.
The legends of the American turf, horses and humans, have woven a lush tapestry that remains tantalizingly incomplete as it was on the spring afternoon on which August Belmont II and his partners, in what remains the most ambitious development of a shrine to the thoroughbred horse ever undertaken on this continent, unveiled the result of their collective vision. They watch Sysonby, who would be Horse of the Year in 1905, and whose skeleton was later displayed at the American Museum of Natural History, and Race King reach the wire simultaneously in the Metropolitan Handicap, a one-mile race now one of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious races. The thread of racing history on the Hempstead plain, often frayed, remains unbroken.
In maturity, Belmont Park is iconic, unique, a monument to a gilded age, something that could have happened only in New York at a time that was very right, a product of a new American aristocracy that emerged from the Industrial Revolution with what was then new money, some of which was spent on thoroughbred horses.
The construction of Belmont Park, which began just after the turn of the last century, was a watershed in the development of racing in New York and the nation. From concept to completion in its original form, the new racecourse that would be named Belmont Park in honor of the first August Belmont, was a project by, of, and for the American aristocracy, which was defined strictly by wealth, position and lineage. Joining Belmont in the movement to shift the Westchester Association’s operations to Long Island included James Keene, William C. Whitney, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Hitchcock and William K. Vanderbilt.
Post time on May 4, 1905 was 2:30 p.m. By Noon, what is believed to have been the first traffic jam on Long Island developed, the roads leading to the new track choked by a combination of horse-drawn and horseless carriages, the status symbol of the era. Most arrived on the Long Island Railroad trains that pulled into a newly built terminal. By post time, more than 40,000 had made their way to the countryside for the first day in what has become more than a century of racing at Belmont Park that remains a work in progress.
More than a century after its opening, Belmont Park remains the keystone of thoroughbred racing in North America; hallowed ground on which every great American thoroughbred has claimed its place in history. It is racing’s Broadway, destination of the immortal and merely great, a place defined not by its founders, but the horses who have run there—from Man o’ War, Colin, Count Fleet, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway and Citation to Jaipur, Buckpasser, Kelso, Fort Marcy, Arts and Letters, Key to the Mint and Native Dancer. Their spirits live in the very winds that sweep the Hempstead Plain.
The history of the Triple Crown, which is central to American racing, is written in a century of defining moments in the Belmont Stakes, the Test of the Champion: Secretariat’s epic tour de force in 1973, Seattle Slew’s 1977 sweep of the series while still undefeated, Affirmed’s survival of Alydar’s last desperate onslaught in ’78, and nine others who have won the most rare of America’s sporting titles.
The place echoes with the thunder raised in salute to memorable, charismatic horses who have been embraced by the racing fans of New York—Dr. Fager, Ruffian, Bold Forbes, Forego, John Henry, Lady’s Secret, Easy Goer, Personal Ensign, Go for Wand, Sky Beauty, Cigar and a legion of others. On this lush, verdant expanse, almost every American champion of the last century and several from abroad have chiseled their legends into the bedrock of racing history.
Belmont Park, like the great city to its west, provides the ultimate test, exposes every flaw of the imposter. It is also a refuge for those drawn to the horse, entirely detached from human strife when important issues are settled by the best thoroughbreds of the day, cloistered from the world beyond the Charleston piers on those days when nothing matters except the horses and the test at hand—things judged exclusively within the context of a century of history, horses measured against those who have traveled this ground en route to residence in the pantheon of legend and whose auras linger in the ether.
The late Paul Moran earned two Eclipse Awards for outstanding coverage of thoroughbred racing during his tenure at Newsday, from 1985 to 2007. Moran also covered racing for espn.com and The Associated Press.
By Bob Ehalt
The distance is officially listed as a mile-and-a-half. Yet for 150 years now, each one of those of 7,920 feet traveled in the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets has been more akin to the vastness of a light year in separating some of Thoroughbred Racing’s most famous stars from others hoping to achieve a measure of greatness.
No other race in the United States can match the formidable challenge and grand tradition wrapped into the race synonymous with Belmont Park. Young 3-year-olds, untested at the demanding 12-furlong distance, are asked to face the best horses of their generation in a battle of speed, courage and stamina that could serve as their coronation into racing royalty or relegate them to obscurity.
It is the Belmont Stakes that unlocks the door to Triple Crown glory. Only the best Thoroughbreds have stood tall after facing the unrivaled test of a one-lap journey around picturesque Belmont Park’s sweeping turns and just 13 of them had the heart of a champion, allowing them to become Triple Crown winners by adding a historic victory in the Belmont to Kentucky Derby and Preakness triumphs.
While the Kentucky Derby starts the quest and the Preakness can continue it, there is nothing else that can match the drama and electricity of June afternoons at Belmont Park with crowds of more than 90,000 turning out for a Triple Crown bid in a historic, 151-year-old race best known as “The Test of the Champion.”
“When there’s a Triple Crown at stake in the Belmont Stakes, it brings our sport to the very highest level and becomes the most exciting sports event arguably that there is,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, the all-time leader in earnings with more than $361 million and a three-time winner of the Belmont (2007, 2013 and 2017). “It puts us right on par with the Super Bowl and the World Series. The Belmont on its own is a tremendous event and a tremendous race, but when there’s a Triple Crown at stake, to me there’s nothing like it.”
On June 9, 2018 in the 150th Belmont Stakes, the undefeated Justify became that 13th Triple Crown champion through a 1 ¾-length victory for his ownership group of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing, and Head of Plains Partners. Every seat—in a grandstand as long as the Empire State Building is tall and filled as a capacity crowd of 90,327—celebrated with a deafening roar when Justify triumphed and Bob Baffert became just the second trainer of two Triple Crown winners, joining the legendary “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons (1930, 1935).
A day later, the 65-year-old Hall of Famer spoke with reverence, not for his accomplishment, but for the tremendous champions Justify joined and his gratitude that fans could see just the second Triple Crown winner in 40 years.
“I look at the Triple Crown as that horse getting his name up there on that banner,” Baffert said while pointing to banners of the 12 previous Triple Crown champions hanging in Belmont Park’s clubhouse, “and the pressure is letting down all those fans who come to see history. They’re watching, screaming, be it at Belmont Park or on television, enjoying this horse with me. America gets enthralled with horses like this in the Belmont Stakes and that’s what racing is all about.”
That list of Triple Crown winners started with Sir Barton in 1919, whose sweep came 52 years after the race was first contested at Jerome Park in 1867 and 14 years after it found a home at Belmont Park.
Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and Citation (1948) joined him, and more recently it was Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), and Baffert’s big two, American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), who proved their mettle over Belmont Park’s hallowed main track and etched their names among the sport’s best and brightest stars.
Each gave racing something special in the Belmont Stakes.
No one may ever match Secretariat’s 31-length margin of victory and world-record time of 2:24.
Seattle Slew and Justify provided a taste of perfection with their unbeaten records. Affirmed defeated his nemesis, Alydar, by a head after racing side-by-side for seven furlongs in an epic duel that many observers still regard as the sport’s most intense battle between two rivals.
Zayat Stables’ American Pharaoh, the first Triple Crown winner in the digital era, went viral after ending a 37-year drought and proving that a great, modern-day champion could handle the grueling challenge of the Belmont Stakes with the same flair as horses from four decades ago. Beyond them, the roster of Belmont Stakes winners, including famed stars such as the filly Rags to Riches, Point Given, Easy Goer, Riva Ridge, Arts and Letters, Damascus, Gallant Man, Nashua, Native Dancer, and Man o’ War, reflects powerfully on the special talent needed to win such a prestigious race.
In an equally telling comment, the magnitude of winning the Belmont Stakes is also reflected in the way California Chrome, Smarty Jones, Sunday Silence, Alysheba, Spectacular Bid, Canonero II and Majestic Prince all found the 1,097-feet of Belmont Park’s stretch to be too demanding and were thwarted in their bid for a Triple Crown and denied a spot among racing’s immortals.
For them, the difference between victory and defeat was a light year, not a mile-and-a-half, in a race that has no peer in crowning champions.
Bob Ehalt has been an avid fan of Thoroughbred racing since the day in June of 1971 when he and his father walked from their Queens Village, N.Y., home to Belmont Park to see Canonero II fall short in his bid for the Triple Crown. A veteran sports writer and correspondent for Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, BloodHorse and America’s Best Racing, Ehalt has twice won NYRA’s Joe Hirsch Memorial Writing Contest, recognizing the best in print and internet coverage. Ehalt, who covered his first Belmont Stakes in 1985, has also won five “Top 5” awards in the Associated Press Sports Editors national writing contest and has owned Thoroughbreds since 1995.
A salute to some of the giants of the announcer’s booth, who have conveyed the magic and pageantry of racing at NYRA tracks for more than 90 years.
“(He was) a joyous, jovial, verbose and vibrant man who was absolutely certain that he was the best broadcaster of horse races who ever lived. He would have resented being called an egotist. In his ebullient way, it never occurred to him that he could be wrong about anything. Usually, he wasn’t.”
– The New York Times on NYRA’s 1930s-era race caller Bryan Field in a 1968 tribute –
Bryan Field was a sportswriter covering boxing, baseball, and track and field when The New York Times named him its turf writer in 1928. Knowing little about horse racing, he caught on quickly by taking a second job as a stablehand, arriving each dawn at the track to groom and hot-walk horses. By 1931, Field had mastered racing well enough to launch a broadcasting career—calling the races at Belmont Park and other New York tracks, and eventually broadcasting the Triple Crown, on radio and then television, through 1962.
Fred “Cappy” Capossela
“I try to avoid hysteria. My job is that of a reporter.”
– Fred “Cappy” Capossela –
Legend has it that in 1991 Fred “Cappy” Capossela said to his son, “It is now post time,” and died a short time later. How fitting that Capossela used the signature phrase he made famous as NYRA’s head race caller for 37 years and as the “Voice of the Triple Crown” from 1950 to 1960 on CBS Television and Radio. Capossela’s commanding knowledge and cadence were standards at NYRA tracks from the 1930s through his retirement 1971; so were his prodigious memory and unerring accuracy. Capossela said he never called the races by numbers, but by memorizing the colors of the silks—thousands of them each year.
“They’re on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along. The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine. Secretariat by 12, Secretariat by 14 lengths on the turn! Sham is dropping back. It looks like they’ll catch him today, as My Gallant and Twice a Prince are both coming up to him now. But Secretariat is all alone! He’s out there almost a sixteenth of a mile away from the rest of the horses! Secretariat is in a position that seems impossible to catch!”
– Chic Anderson calling the 1973 Belmont Stakes, won by Secretariat –
Charles “Chic” Anderson, the voice of NYRA from 1977 until his untimely death in 1979, was the voice of the Triple Crown and generally acknowledged as the best race caller of his time. Before joining NYRA, Anderson called races at Churchill Downs, Santa Anita and Oaklawn, among others.
“And down the stretch they come!”
– Dave Johnson –
Dave Johnson’s signature call during his tenure as NYRA race caller from 1972 to 1977 was straightforward and dramatic, and is still among the most recognizable calls in sports. Johnson portrayed himself as Belmont Park’s race caller in the 2007 film Ruffian.
“Headed into the stretch … Conquistador Cielo has complete control of this field by about five lengths. Linkage (is) on the outside, High Ascent on the inside, those two now heads apart. Gaining ground on the rail is Illuminate. On the outside, here comes Gato Del Sol. But they’re far as Conquistador Cielo (has) complete control of this Belmont Stakes (and) has the field by 15 lengths, maybe 20 lengths! Gato Del Sol is second.”
– Marshall Cassidy calling the stretch run of the 1982 Belmont Stakes –
Throughout the 1980s, Marshall Cassidy was the silky-smooth voice of NYRA, noted for his accuracy and even-keeled delivery. “There is a lot of emotion of what he is seeing,” Cassidy once said of the typical racing guest. “He doesn’t need to hear a cheerleader whooping it up for horse he hasn’t bet on.” Cassidy later worked as a racing steward.
“Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000! But Birdstone is gonna make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It’s been 26 years; it’s just one furlong away! Birdstone is an unsung threat! They’re coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone! Birdstone surges past! Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes!”
– Tom Durkin calling the 2004 Belmont Stakes –
It was said that Tom Durkin’s calling was calling races. While there isn’t much debate that Durkin is among the best race callers in history, race fans prefer to discuss their favorite Durkin call.
Some cite the famous Belmont Stakes 2004 stretch run, referenced above. For others, it’s the call describing Rachel Alexandra’s stirring victory in the 2008 Woodward Stakes. Or it’s “Arrrrrr”—the name of a horse and not a misprint. Or it could be “Yakahickamickadola” from a 1989 Durkin call at Hialeah Race Course—the pronunciation changes throughout the race—which became a YouTube hit.
According to estimates, Durkin called 80,000 races in his 43-year career, 24 of which he spent at NYRA. From 1984 to 2005, Durkin called races at the Breeders’ Cup, and from 2001 for the next decade, gained further fame as the voice of the Triple Crown. Less known was his long-term commitment to the Backstretch Employees Service Team as a board member, fund raiser and regular bingo-night caller. For his career-long dedication, Durkin was awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit in 2015.
“They’re into the stretch, and American Pharoah makes his run for glory as they come into the final furlong. Frosted is second. With one-eighth of a mile to go, American Pharoah’s got a two-length lead. Frosted is all out at the sixteenth pole. And here it is! The 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!”
– Larry Collmus calling American Pharoah’s 2015 Belmont Stakes victory to become the 12th Triple Crown winner –
“He’s just perfect! And now he’s just immortal! Justify is the 13th Triple Crown winner! Justify has done it!”
– Collmus calling Justify’s 2018 Belmont Stakes victory to become the 13th Triple Crown winner –
NYRA’s race caller from 2014 to 2020, Larry Collmus is the voice of the Triple Crown on NBC. An NBC Television audience of 22 million caught his epic call in the 2015 Belmont Stakes in which American Pharoah captured the first Triple Crown in 37 years.
“In a sense, this is a job for which I’ve been preparing for years. I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by incredible race callers during my career. I learned from all of them and these lessons live with me to this day.”
– John Imbriale on being NYRA race caller and track announcer in January 2020 –
Horse racing does not have a sixth man award like the NBA, but if it did NYRA would have named it after John Imbriale. Starting at NYRA to 1979 when he won a New York Daily News contest which gave him the opportunity to call a race and work with the NYRA press office, Imbriale has been an invaluable jack-of-all-trades.
Imbriale became Tom Durkin’s backup in 1990 and has since been part of NYRA’s race-calling team at all three tracks ever since. Along the way, the Queens native took on other responsibilities at NYRA, working with Harvey Pack on the popular Inside Racing program, and also behind the scenes in a variety of roles within NYRA TV, most recently as NYRA’s Director of Television Production.
“Frank Wright, Charlsie Cantey, Harvey Pack, Marshall Cassidy, Tom Durkin … I learned from all of them,” said Imbriale. “Tom taught me that the race makes the call. It’s not the other way around. He also told me not to listen to him calling a race because he believed it was important for a race caller to have his own style.”
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