06/03/2002 12:00AM

Clydesdales, singing humans, sky divers, and a big race


ELMONT, N.Y. - Three times during the 1990's a Triple Crown was on the line and fans flocked to Belmont Park, including 1999 when a record crowd of 85,818 witnessed Lemon Drop Kid deny Charismatic his Triple Crown.

The last two runnings of the Belmont Stakes drew healthy crowds - 67,810 and 73,857 - even though no Triple Crown was in the offing.

The strong attendance in 2000 and 2001 may be because of New York Racing Association's efforts over the past several years to turn the Belmont Stakes into a major event in the New York metro area.

To that end, NYRA has worked closely with neighboring communities, such as Garden City, which hosts the Belmont Stakes Parade and Street Festival for the fourth year, on Friday between 7 and 10 p.m.

Last year, an estimated 10,000 people attended the Belmont Stakes Festival, which is held in downtown Garden City. Nearly a dozen musical acts, food from local restaurants, and entertainment for kids, are some of the things offered at this year's festival.

"It's become really popular," said Bill Nader, senior vice president at the New York Racing Association. "Garden City has embraced the Belmont Stakes and has become an active participant in promoting the race. It's a family-orientated event and just a real celebration."

There are also big doings at the track all week leading up to and including Belmont Stakes Day. Beginning Wednesday, the popular Budweiser Clydesdales will be on display in the backyard and will perform on the track between races on Saturday.

In between races on Friday's sunset racing card, performances are scheduled from singers starring in the hit Broadway shows "Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables," and "The Full Monty."

On Saturday, flag-waving sky divers, performances by recording artist Linda Eder, and a raffle for a $5,000 betting voucher for the Belmont Stakes are just some of the highlights.

Several offtrack activities also will bring attention to Saturday's Belmont. On Thursday jockey Victor Espinoza, the rider of Triple Crown hopeful War Emblem, throws out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees play the Orioles. Belmont's bugler, Sam Grossman, will play the national anthem before the game, which begins at 7:05 p.m.

On Friday in New York City, a Belmont Stakes jockey or trainer is expected to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

"These events make the Belmont Stakes more mainstream," Nader said. "The Belmont has become not just a sporting event. It's a big event period." But Nader knows that having another Triple Crown up for grabs is what makes record topple.

"There's the opportunity to witness history and if the weather is good, we could be staring at a new record on Saturday," Nader said.