The third leg of the Triple Crown is set to kick off in upstate New York’s Saratoga Springs this Saturday, June 8. 

Saratoga Race Course will host the third jewel of the Triple Crown on loan over the next two years: the Belmont Stakes.

The 10-horse field will gallop a mile and a quarter in front of a 50,000-seat, sold-out crowd.

“The anticipation has been at a fever pitch since December. It's actually hard to believe that we're about to open the gates in just a few days' time,” said Pat McKenna, a NYRA spokesman.

Normally, the race is held at Belmont Park in the Nassau County town of Elmont. But Belmont is getting a facelift, thanks to a $455 million construction loan awarded to the New York Racing Association, the nonprofit franchised to operate the state’s three biggest tracks.

“It's investing in the horse industry in the state of New York with a brand-new modernized facility, all new racing surfaces, rightsizing the facility for a 10-month operation meeting,” said Glen Kozak, NYRA’s Executive Vice President of Operations and Capital Projects. 

The plan also closes Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens.

Completion is scheduled for 2026.

“NYRA will pay it back. The state actually makes some money on interest, and they get back property, which is Aqueduct,” said state Sen. Joe Addabbo, who chairs the State Senate’s Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wagering. “That’s about a billion-dollar property value right there. So, the state stands to benefit greatly by the new Belmont track.”

Supporters wager the deal will deliver jobs and tourists.

“Part of what you learn by spending time here at Saratoga is, the backyard really is the beating heart of this facility. The ability for fans to bring a picnic, to spend time with friends and family in this beautiful setting is really what we're looking to recreate,” McKenna said.

“I think the great thing about Saratoga is the city embraces the racing you know, and it's one of the few places throughout the country that actually does that,” Kozack said.

Saratoga’s success includes more than 1.5 million visitors annually. In recent years, the track has boasted an average of 25,000 people in daily attendance during the six-week summer meet that kicks off in July.

Plus, the track also helps drive millions in economic activity to the city.

“I think that, you know, over the years Saratoga has gained tremendously,” said Amy Smith, who owns the Saratoga Arms, a hotel that has operated in the heart of the city since 1997, with her mother Kathleen.

“My parents, before this property, had restaurants. They were only open May through October, so they closed in the wintertime. There was no business in the mid-‘80s,” Smith said.

She said the hotel is almost sold out this weekend.

“We are actually ahead of pace, which is wonderful in terms of revenue and occupancy. It's, again, this is the area where we have our most of our repeat guests,” she said.

Critics argue that transforming Belmont Park is a gamble.

“Interest in horse racing has diminished significantly. We just don't see people going to the track, other than Saratoga,” said Bennett Liebman, a government lawyer in residence at Albany Law School.

Liebman worked as a horse racing expert under two New York governors, Andrew and Mario Cuomo.

“Subsidies, just for sports stadiums, just don't work. Then you look at it and say, ‘What's the, what's the plan?’ I mean, are there going to be more jobs? We don't know,” he said.

Liebman also pointed to years of declining attendance. A state Gaming Commission report showed Belmont Park attracted under 200,000 visitors in 2022.

Horse racing gets millions in government help annually, despite hauling in betting profits. And NYRA is under scrutiny – and pressure – to make horse racing profitable. It went bankrupt in 2006, and the state bailed them out and took control.

Improvements have been made, but horse racing wouldn’t be possible without added government support.

“None of the other tracks, NYRA, certainly at Saratoga, could survive without direct benefits, but every other track would close up within a day,” Liebman said.

Horse racing fans won’t see a Triple Crown winner this year, but they will be able to enjoy the benefits of Saratoga throughout the four-day meeting, starting Thursday.