09/05/2013 4:04PM

Belmont Park: Fan-friendly improvements to debut at fall meet


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ELMONT, N.Y. – After spending the better part of the last seven weeks celebrating 150 years of Saratoga history, the New York Racing Association enters a new era on several fronts when Belmont Park opens its 37-day fall meet Saturday.

Beginning Saturday, the NYRA has switched to a new tote system, with AmTote replacing United Tote. There will be a new pick-five wager, with a low 15 percent takeout. Later in the meet, NYRA will become the latest racing association to utilize Trakus, a racehorse tracking system that bettors have found useful in other jurisdictions.

This, plus 31 stakes – 21 graded – during a seven-week meeting that kicks off with a 10-race card Saturday. First post is 1:05 p.m. daily, before switching to 12:50 in October.

The pick-five wager was one NYRA was hoping to introduce at Saratoga, but some red tape delayed its debut. On Thursday, the wager was officially approved after the stewards signed off on a few provisions involving races that switch from turf to dirt after wagering has closed. If only one race switches, then it’s regarded as an “all-win” and the entire pool is distributed. If more than one race switches to the dirt after wagering closed, those races are regarded as “all-win” but only that day’s pool – but not any carryover – would be distributed. There will not be a consolation payout in the pick five.

The pick five will be offered on races 1 through 5 at least for the Belmont meet. The bet will cost a minimum 50 cents and have a 15 percent takeout.

David O’Rourke, NYRA’s vice president of corporate development, said the wager is being offered so early on a card “to stay away from the late pick four. There was a lot of conversation with a lot of people on that. We’re going to hold to that at least through Belmont. We might revisit it after Belmont.”

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The AmTote system actually debuted for simulcast players on Tuesday at Aqueduct and Belmont. There are kiosks at Belmont and Aqueduct to help bettors learn the new machines, which will accept the same NYRA Rewards card that the old machines did.

“The terminals we had were eight years old, and we needed to upgrade that,” O’Rourke said. “I believe the self-service terminal is a good terminal. I like the amount of real estate on the screen. The interface is well thought out.”

Later in the meet – by Jockey Club Gold Cup Day on Sept. 28, if not earlier – NYRA will unveil Trakus to its customers. Trakus, first introduced in North America in 2006 and used at tracks such as Keeneland, Gulfstream, and Del Mar, should allow handicappers to better follow all the horses during the course of a race. Graphically, O’Rourke said it is NYRA’s intent to keep the running order of the top-four horses on the screen, slightly above the “floating chicklets,” as they’ve become to be known, that represent all the runners in a race.

“It allows people to understand their positions,” O’Rourke said Thursday at Belmont. “It’s good here; it’ll be good at Aqueduct, especially in inclement weather when you can’t see the other side of the track.”

O’Rourke said the delay in employing Trakus is so NYRA could work out any potential problems.

Not everything will be new at Belmont. The stakes schedule remains virtually the same as last year with 31 stakes, 21 of which are graded, worth $9.5 million being offered throughout the season.

The biggest day of the meet will be Sept. 28 when Belmont hosts six stakes, five of which are Grade 1’s topped by the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup. That race, a key stepping-stone to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 2, is expected to include defending Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, two-time defending Gold Cup winner Flat Out, Whitney winner Cross Traffic, Kentucky Derby winner Orb, and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice.

That day’s card also includes the Grade 1, $400,000 Beldame Invitational, which could see a match-up between two-time Eclipse champion Royal Delta and the reigning 3-year-old filly division leader Princess of Sylmar. The $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, the $600,000 Flower Bowl, the $400,000 Vosburgh, and the Grade 2, $400,000 Kelso Handicap also are on that program.

The following Saturday, Oct. 5, spotlights 2-year-olds in the Grade 1 Champagne for males and Grade 1 Frizette for fillies.

That Oct. 5 card has been designated “Fabulous Fillies Day,” which will highlight breast cancer research and awareness organizations, include a survivors’ walk, and also showcase local art and fashion.

One of the more popular programs of the fall meet is New York Showcase Day, featuring 10 races – including seven stakes – restricted to New York-breds on Oct. 19.

Belmont will offer free grandstand admission every Sunday.