With Belmont in Saratoga, Horse Racing’s History and Hope Are Linked

In 1863, John (Old Smoke) Morrissey, seeing promise in an upstate town with natural springs and access to the wealthy and foolhardy from New York to Boston, held the first race meeting in Saratoga Springs. Morrissey’s résumé foretold his vision: Old Smoke was a boxing champion, gangster, casino owner, gambler and future United States congressman.

Ever since, horse players from around the world have made Saratoga a summer sojourn, knowing that their souls, their livers and their bank accounts were certain to take a beating because of the happenings at the track.

Saratoga’s past has always been tethered to its future. The Battle of Saratoga was pivotal to the American Revolution. The potato chip was born here. And a horse named Upset handed the immortal Man o’ War his only loss in 22 races, earning the country’s oldest racetrack its nickname: the Graveyard of Champions.

On Saturday, when 10 horses line up for the 156th running of the Belmont Stakes, history and hope will be linked once more. The most storied track in America is hosting the third leg of the Triple Crown at a time when progress around safety and increased capital investment seems to be lifting the prospects of a battered old sport.

The move was necessitated by a $455 million makeover and modernization of Belmont Park, a grand old racetrack on Long Island, which is scheduled to reopen in 2026. But it also offers the opportunity to end what has been an exciting and casualty-free Triple Crown series on a graceful note.

This time last year, that was hard to imagine. On the heels of a doping scandal that sent more than 30 people to jail and the failed drug test and disqualification of a former Kentucky Derby winner, a dozen horses suffered fatal injuries in the days around the Derby. Two weeks later, on the undercard of the Preakness Stakes, another colt was euthanized on the track, further eroding the public’s confidence in the safety and integrity of horse racing.

“This is a big stage and chance to showcase the power of big events in racing,” said David O’Rourke, chief executive of the New York Racing Association. “This may be our polished gem, but it also is an opportunity to show how the sport of horse racing is evolving.”

To celebrate this year’s 150th running of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs unveiled a $200 million paddock that was much more than a saddling ring. Luxury suites, reserved seats and bars, even a speakeasy, are part of its design, making a day at the races a must-have hospitality event for high rollers. It helped draw the race’s largest television audience since 1989: The average viewership for NBC’s broadcast was 16.7 million, up 13 percent from last year’s 14.8 million.

Last month, Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland signed a bill passed by the state’s General Assembly that set aside $400 million in state bonds to rebuild Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness. At Keeneland, another of America’s premier racetracks, in Kentucky, a $93 million reimagining of its paddock is underway to expand dining and viewing options.

“Our sport is taking the steps that major sports do to prove that they deserve a spot on the world stage,” said Shannon Arvin, chief executive at Keeneland, which is based in Lexington and is also an auction company.

Decades ago, Red Smith memorialized Saratoga as a horseplayer’s Brigadoon with an offhand answer to a simple question: How do you get there?

“You drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist.

Victorian houses swathed in pastels and belted by wraparound porches evoke the timelessness of Saratoga — or the Spa, as it is commonly known. Racehorses clip-clop across Union Avenue each morning on the way to the track, where mist rises in the morning and shrouds them as they circle as if they were gliding on clouds.

In recent years, however, Saratoga Race Course has undergone a subtle but thoroughly modern makeover. While picnic tables still anchor the backyard for the cooler-toting $2 bettors and day trippers, the racing association has spent $113 million since 2016 creating various experience options in the hope that it becomes a destination for a wider variety of sports fans.

The 1863 Club ($32.9 million), for example, offers fine dining and a clubby atmosphere for the horse-owning set or those pretending to be. The Post Bar and Paddock Suite ($3.6 million) host corporate events. The Finish Line Bar and Grill ($1.7 million) brings in the shot-and-beer crowd.

Along with the renovations, the racing association leveraged what O’Rourke calls its “intellectual property” and, in 2016, launched its own online wagering site, NYRA Bets. At the same time, it collaborated with Fox Sports on “Saratoga Live,” resulting in 80 hours of live coverage. The network’s coverage of horse racing has grown every year since. In 2023, it broadcast 934 hours of racing — 225 of them from Saratoga — and the Belmont Stakes for the first time.

Both bets are paying off.

Ever since the upgrades began at Saratoga, the annual July through Labor Day meet has exceeded one million in attendance, excluding 2020, when it was closed to the public during the pandemic. Last year’s average daily attendance of 27,000 for the 40-day meet made it one of the best-attended sports venues in New York, eclipsing the home dates of the Knicks, the Rangers and the Bills.

Better, the increase in television coverage and expansion of NYRA Bets into new markets has increased revenues. In 2016, $306 million was wagered on the platform; last year that number increased 127 percent to $695 million. And despite 32 fewer race days, the total amount of money bet at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga last year increased to more than $2.2 billion.

The track has not been immune to the problems facing the industry at large. Last summer, 13 horses suffered fatal injuries at Saratoga — two of them at the finish line of nationally televised stakes races. For weeks now, state veterinarians have worked alongside peers from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, the federal regulatory agency, to examine horses and medical records. The aim is to ensure that only sound competitors make it into the starting gate.

“HISA has a year under its belt,” O’Rourke said, referring to the regulator. “We’ve got more bodies up here. Everyone is focused.”

For Chad Brown, the trainer of the 9-5 morning-line favorite, Sierra Leone, this edition of the Belmont Stakes offers an opportunity for him as well as the sport overall. Brown has been named champion trainer four times but is looking for his first Belmont Stakes victory.

“It could be really huge for us,” Brown said of a possible Sierra Leone triumph.

But he also knows that there are bigger stakes. Brown grew up in nearby Mechanicville, N.Y., and lives as much as he can in Saratoga. He is out in that mist most mornings and knows the Spa’s charms. He is eager for a new audience to fall under the spell of his town, his sport.

“I got into horse racing just from going to Saratoga Race Course with my family,” Brown said. “I think everyone’s really anticipating this being really a historic and exciting weekend.”

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