There are three weeks left before the running of the 147th Belmont Stakes and for the third time in four years, a Triple Crown is at stake. But the memory for many of the 102,199 in attendance last year won't be a dramatic day of races or a failed bid at a Triple Crown by heavy favorite California Chrome.
Instead it will be the chaos and disaster that ensued in the hours after the race as tens of thousands of fans were left stranded and without adequate mass transportation en route to leaving the race. This falls on the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and New York Racing Association (NYRA) to make sure that the scenes of 2014 don't play out again. What played out last year was poor management and poor execution of a plan to handle the heavy attendance figures from that day – if there was a plan at all.
Those there last year will say that there was no plan, just indifference.
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The look and feel around Belmont Park in the hours after the last race was run was sheer panic as fans queued up for hundreds of yards, waiting for trains that never came. They were thrown into the streets with no direction and no help.
It was the worst exit-strategy for any major sporting event in the tristate area over the past three decades, even eclipsing the horror stories from the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium.
Fans by thousands were forced out on foot and ended up in clusters in Jamaica Hills and Hempstead, marching as a rag-tag mob through residential neighborhoods. They were forced to shill out money for taxis to get to Penn Station or subway stops, this after paying for round-trips on the Long Island Railroad. Round-trips that they never ended up being able to use.
Now with another crowd on June 6 likely expected to top six-figures, this storm of bad planning and even worse execution can't happen again. The MTA and Belmont Park had no problem packing in the stands filled with fans; but when their pockets were empty, there was no concern for how they got home and if they got home. They got what they needed from the paying spectators, who with empty wallets now offered nothing more to NYRA and were dumped out on the streets.
Instead of organization and clear planning, police and transit officials and NYRA employees only shrugged. A day at the races it was not.
Horse racing and NYRA have fallen on hard times, the struggles of racetracks well documented as the sport has gone through a series of dramatic declines. While NYRA can't promise history and a successful Triple Crown bid, it should at least promise order and safety for its paying customers, something which didn't happen last year.
Not the scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon as it played out last year. Any sporting event of note is a logistical nightmare for planners but what happened a year ago was not just absurd but turned into a very ugly scene.
Whether American Pharaoh makes history in three weeks time and wins the Triple Crown remains to be seen. What can be certain, however, is that the MTA and NYRA can emerge as winners from this if they treat their fans right.