Tight security, record crowd expected
By Frank Eltman
ELMONT, N.Y. -- With a crowd expected to approach 100,000 -- enough to nearly fill Shea and Yankee stadiums combined -- security is being raised to unprecedented levels for Saturday's 134th Belmont Stakes.
"This is the largest attended sporting event ... in the New York metropolitan area this year and quite likely for many years to come,'' said Inspector William McHale, commander of the Long Island police precinct where the Belmont Park race track is located.
McHale, who has experience at seven previous Belmont Stakes, said authorities have taken extra precautions this year. "The circumstances of 9-11 have changed the way we address security measures,'' he said.
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem is bidding to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. The colt is owned by Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a member of the Saudi royal family. Many of the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudis, raising security concerns.
With sunny skies forecast, track and police officials expect record attendance. The existing mark of 85,818 was set in 1999, when Charismatic finished third in his attempt to win the Triple Crown.
McHale said security includes Nassau County police, New York City Police, Metropolitan Transportation Authority police, Belmont security forces and other local, state and federal agencies including the FBI.
He declined to specify the number of officers assigned to the track, but noted all fans will be subject to inspections of their belongings and officers will be equipped with metal-detecting wands.
Flight restrictions will be in place over the track, which is located on the Queens-Nassau border between John F. Kennedy and La Guardia airports. McHale said some helicopter flights for VIPs will be permitted, but those flights have already been booked and screened. They will arrive at an undisclosed location near the track.
Glen Mathes, a spokesman for the New York Racing Association, which operates the track, said fans are being encouraged to use mass transit. The track opens at 8:30 a.m. and the Belmont Stakes -- the 10th race on Saturday's card -- is scheduled for 6:10 p.m.
No coolers will be allowed in the track's buildings. However, fans will be allowed to bring coolers into the grandstand's backyard area.
"Belmont has historically had a festive atmosphere and the track is trying to make sure that remains the same,'' said McHale.
McHale noted that heightened security plans began last year in preparation for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, which was held at Belmont Park Oct. 27 -- just weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
He said Breeders' Cup officials had considered moving to a different location after Sept. 11, but proceeded with the races in New York.
"Everything went well,'' McHale said. He said fans at the Breeders' Cup were "very cooperative'' and understood the need for added security.
"We have no indications that anyone is planning to make the Belmont a target, but we're going forward with our plans just as if they were and we're going to try to be prepared in any case.''