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Philly fanatics come out in full force
ELMONT, N.Y. - The only things missing from Belmont Park on Saturday were the Liberty Bell and a Geno's cheesesteak stand. The hordes of Philadelphians that descended on the track for Smarty Jones's run for the Triple Crown brought everything else.
Phillies hats. Donovan McNabb jerseys. Tastykakes. And, of course, an unshakable confidence in Smarty Jones, the Philadelphia
Park-based horse who has captured the imagination of a large number of fans across the
"To tell you the truth, this was really a spur- of-the-moment thing," said Scott Howell, a 32-year-old Philadelphian who was visiting a Thoroughbred racetrack for the first time Saturday, while lounging by the paddock with a 16-ounce beer and his friend, Steve Rush. "We decided to come at 1 this morning. We figured if Smarty Jones wins it, we've got to be here.
"Plus, there's lots of pretty girls here," said Rush. "Lots."
The Philadelphians who came to Belmont Park were certainly a large contributor to what was expected to be a record crowd for this year's Belmont Stakes. By noon, every square-inch of grass in Belmont's spacious backyard had been staked out. Sometimes inebriated patrons stumbled frequently between coolers filled with canned domestic beer and plastic bags crammed with every comfort food imaginable.
On the grandstand apron, where trashcans were already overflowing with empty beer cans at 12:15 p.m., four women from Philadelphia sat against the grandstand wall on a blanket or on collapsible chairs, eating fried chicken, handing out Tastykakes, and proudly displaying homemade silk-screened T-shirts with a head-on photo of Smarty Jones winning the Preakness Stakes.
"This is Philadelphia's horse," said Michele Arias, 32. "We understand an underdog."
All four women said they were racing fans, and one, Kelly McGuire, was nose-deep in a Racing Form. Anne Cecil, 41, made the shirts - late Friday, at 1 in the morning, apparently one of the most productive hours for Philadelphians.
Though the women said they have frequently visited racetracks, including Saratoga, Arias said the Belmont Stakes this year was a unique experience.
"It's just a totally different feel," Arias said. "It has such an impact. With a baseball game, you sometimes wait forever for something to happen. But this one race, I'm just waiting for this one race, and I'll be honest, I'll probably get all choked up just thinking about it."
"It's something different every half-hour," Cecil said. "We're sports fans, we listen to sports radio, we go to a lot of events, but this is something new. And it's just great people-watching."
In the great democracy that is the racetrack, there were others who fit an entirely different mold. Adrienne Boyd, a 60-year-old retired token-booth clerk who used to work at the Aqueduct station, said she had never been to Belmont until Saturday. Smarty Jones was a factor, she said, but she was also caught up in the hype that has surrounded the event.
"I like to do all kinds of new things," Boyd said. "I came out here today to try my luck." She said her handicapping system consisted of picking names.
"When I was at Aqueduct, we used to go downstairs and bet all the time," Boyd said. "I won the very first bet I made. I'm serious. I won fifty cents! I was screaming so much that everyone thought I was the big winner. Fifty cents. It was fifty cents."
Celebrities turn out for Smarty
Plenty of celebrities were caught up in Smarty Jones fever, according to the New York Racing Association. The presence of celebrities at the Belmont Stakes has been increasing in recent years, largely because six of the last eight Belmonts have featured potential Triple Crown winners.
The Belmont attracted actors Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Joe Pesci. Television journalists Diane Sawyer, Charlie Rose, and Stone Phillips, and singer Roberta Flack also made arrangements through NYRA's customer service office to attend the race.
New York politicians were out in force, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and his successor, Michael Bloomberg, and Gov. George Pataki. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell came to Belmont to root for the state's pride and joy, Smarty Jones.
Porcelli and crew work overtime
Nobody was tuned into the Weather Channel more the last 24 hours before the Belmont Stakes than track superintendent Jerry Porcelli. Porcelli and his crew did all they could to provide a safe surface for Saturday's Belmont Stakes card.
Following the races Friday, the main track was sealed and rolled, with the hopes that any rain that fell overnight would simply roll off the sealed surface. No rain fell over night. At 4 a.m., Porcelli was told by meteorologists that only one-tenth of an inch of rain was expected by 9 a.m., so he opened the main track for training as scheduled at 5 a.m.
Porcelli put orange traffic cones up, referred to as dogs, and kept the first 30 feet from the rail sealed, while harrowing the outer part. Thus, all horses who trained Saturday did so in the middle of the track. When it appeared rain would move in by 8 a.m., Porcelli ordered the track closed at 7:30 - 45 minutes before it was scheduled to close - and the track was sealed and rolled again. Only a few drops of rain fell during the morning hours.
Since no significant rain fell by first post, Porcelli had the maintenance crew harrow the track, though "not as deeply as we normally would, to try to keep some of the bottom compacted if we do get some heavy rain later," Porcelli said.
Porcelli said only a half-inch of rain was expected, unlike last year on Belmont Day, when about an inch fell beginning around 1 p.m.
"This is similar to what happened last year," Porcelli said. "By the third race, it started to rain pretty good, and we just started sealing it with the floats. We ended up with an inch of rain last year. Although the Belmont was pretty sloppy, I thought the surface was pretty good for the whole day. We didn't get any complaints."
- The pools for Belmont Park's two $1 million guaranteed bets Saturday easily exceeded the guarantees. The pick six pool was $1,487,744, and the pick four had a pool of $1,739,609. All the races in both bets were graded stakes races. The pick four had a $1 minimum bet, and the pick six had a $2 minimum. It was the first time a racetrack has held two
$1 million-guaranteed bets on the same card.
- additional reporting by David Grening and Karen M. Johnson