Belmont opens with boost in average purses
The 83rd running of the Grade 3, $150,000 Westchester kicks off the exciting stakes action on Saturday. A traditional prep for the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap on Memorial Day, the Westchester is the first of Belmont's 26 graded stakes worth $8.8 million, an increase of more than 25 percent from last year.
The holiday weekend marks the start of the Grade 1 season with a trio of world-class races on May 28: the $750,000 Metropolitan, the $400,000 Ogden Phipps for fillies and mares, and the $300,000 Acorn for three-year-old fillies, which will be run on Memorial Day for the first time. Rounding out the graded stakes action and the $500,000 Guaranteed All Graded Stakes Pick 4 is the Grade 2, $300,000 Sands Point for 3-year-old turf fillies.
In addition to world-class racing, the biggest beach party on Long Island will take place Memorial Day weekend at Belmont Park, with live bands on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, Family Fun Day on Sunday and a Belmont Park Beach Mat giveaway on Memorial Day, free with paid admission while supplies last. Also on May 26, Hall of Fame jockeys Steve Cauthen and Jorge Velasquez will sign postcards in the clubhouse commemorating the unforgettable 1978 Triple Crown rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar.
Along with the Belmont Stakes, June 9 will offer a pair of prestigious Grade 1 turf races in the $500,000 Manhattan Handicap and the $500,000 Just a Game for fillies and mares, the Grade 2, $400,000 Woody Stephens for three-year-olds and the Grade 2, $400,000 True North Handicap for sprinters.
Throughout the meet, NYRA's program for two-year-olds will be enhanced by a $100,000 bonus for any juvenile who breaks its maiden during Belmont's spring meet and goes on to win a graded stakes at Saratoga, Belmont, or Aqueduct this year. The meet will offer open maiden special weight races with purses of $70,000 for sprints and $75,000 for routes.
From start to finish, family activities abound, including the popular "Breakfast at Belmont" program weekend mornings from 7 – 9:30 a.m. (EDT) and Family Fun Days on Sundays, except for Belmont Stakes weekend.
The Long Island Rail Road's "Belmont Special" will run from Penn Station to Belmont Park at 10:58 a.m. and 11:42 a.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 10:58 a.m. and 11:51 a.m. on weekends and holidays, effective April 27 through May 13. Return service will be approximately 30 minutes after the last race, with an additional train at 3:42 p.m. weekdays and 4:27 p.m. weekends, effective April 27 through May 13.
First race post time is 1 p.m. except for "Party at the Park" Fridays (3 p.m.) and Belmont Stakes Day (11:35 am). Live racing is generally conducted Wednesday through Sunday. Belmont Park will be open on Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, with no live racing on Tuesday and Wednesday that week. Belmont Park will also be closed for live racing on June 10 and July 11.
Except for Belmont Stakes Day, general grandstand admission and admission to the Belmont Café simulcast area is $3, clubhouse admission is $5, and general parking is free.
The record daily average purses at the upcoming Belmont meet has attracted additional horses from leading stables around the country, as well as new faces to the jockey colony.
Trainer Dale Romans, who has never had more than 10 horses at Belmont in the spring, will personally oversee 38 head this year.
"New York is heading back to the head of the class," Romans said. "It's the best jurisdiction for racing. This is the first time in the spring that we're going to have a full-time stable. I'm renting a house across the street from the track, and I'm looking forward to it."
Jockeys Julien Leparoux, Rosie Napravnik, and Junior Alvarado will ride full-time at Belmont for the first time, and they'll face off against Eclipse Award winners Ramon Dominguez, Edgar Prado, and John Velazquez. The talented jockey colony also includes Javier Castellano, Eddie Castro, David Cohen, Alan Garcia, Jose Lezcano, Rajiv Maragh, Corey Nakatani, Alex Solis, and Cornelio Velasquez.
Leparoux, named the 2009 Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Jockey and a regular at Saratoga, will ride in New York full-time beginning with the Belmont meet. In New York, Leparoux has earned Grade 1 victories in the 2008 and 2009 Diana (Forever Together), 2009 Personal Ensign (Icon Project), 2009 Flower Bowl Invitational (Pure Clan), and 2010 Carter (Warrior's Reward).
"He's ready for a different challenge," Leparoux's longtime agent Steve Bass said in February. "We were looking for a place where we could go and basically stay year-round – not have to pack up and move every few months. The purses don't hurt, either."
Napravnik, leading jockey at the Fair Grounds the past two years and at Delaware Park in 2010, has returned to New York to compete regularly for the first time since she successfully wintered at Aqueduct in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
"I'm really looking forward to joining this riding colony full time," Napravnik said. "I got my feet wet a couple of winters ago, so I've gotten to know a lot of the trainers and ride for a lot of them and win races for many of them. (The racing) is going to be unbelievable, like nowhere else."
Alvarado, winner of the 2009 riding title at Arlington Park, has competed at Aqueduct the past two winters, respectively finishing fifth and third in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 inner track jockey standings. This year, he'll ride in New York year-round instead of returning to Arlington.
"I did pretty well last year in the winter, but it was getting really tough so I decided to go back to Chicago," Alvarado said. "I have a great agent (Mike Sellito), though, so I know I'll be riding for good trainers this year. That's why we're going to take a chance and stay here. It's going to be tough, but it's going to be tough for everybody."
The list of trainers who for the first time will have a string in New York for the duration of the Belmont spring/summer meet includes H. Graham Motion, Ralph Nicks, Tom Proctor, Michael Trombetta, and Ian Wilkes.
"With the way things are and with the purses being so good, we decided we wanted to work in New York a little bit more," said Trombetta, who will have six stalls at Belmont. "If we have the right horses to run in New York, then we'll want to have the opportunity to run them. We run quite a bit in New York from the Fair Hill training center, but we thought there'd be some benefit to having stalls in New York. A lot of horses can van 4-5 hours and run just fine, but some run better if they get there a day or two early, and this will help us with that."
In addition, the list of out-of-state horsemen who will be prominent at Belmont includes Bob Hess, Jr., Eddie Kenneally, Steve Klesaris, Mike Maker, Ken McPeek, and Michelle Nihei.
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