June 08--A record-setting number of fans raced to Belmont Park's Long Island Rail Road station shortly after California Chrome's Triple Crown bid, leading to large crowds and long waits for trains, LIRR officials said Sunday.
Some of the 36,000 passengers who used the LIRR to come and go from the Saturday race said they were still waiting for a train at 9:30 p.m., well over two hours after California Chrome lost the Belmont Stakes to Tonalist.
"We've never had that kind of ridership before at Belmont. . . . Thirty-six thousand people arrived at Belmont between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and they all wanted to leave within the same 60 minutes," LIRR spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.
And it wasn't much better in the track parking lot afterward, according to race fans. Social media was abuzz after the Triple Crown race with people complaining about long waits to leave the lot.
Reached Sunday, Nicasia Jackson of Queens said it took her more than an hour to leave.
"People just got out [of their cars]," she said. "They started drinking beer. They started turning up their music."
In an email, Nassau Police Insp. Kenneth Lack said his department and the NYPD staffed the event with "dozens of officers on traffic control." .
"No other stadium in the region has approximately 100,000 attendees leave at the same time," Lack said. "Neither roads or rails were designed to handle that type of volume in such a short time frame."
The Belmont crowd was 102,199, the third highest in the track's history, according to the New York Racing Association.
During the Super Bowl, about 33,000 people used New Jersey Transit to get home from MetLife Stadium, surpassing estimates of 12,000. Passengers were still boarding trains two hours after the game, officials said at the time.
NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay praised Belmont race attendance in a statement but said "we recognize the transportation problems that ensued at the end of the day and will work quickly with LIRR officials and local law enforcement to ensure better service in the future."
LIRR officials said the higher number of riders than the expected 20,000 and the decision by many to leave right after the Belmont Stakes led to the large crowds and long waits. Officials hoped many would stay for the last race and a concert.
"We will take you right to the grandstands. . . . After the event, we will take you home," LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski said last week. "The only problem there is everybody can't leave at once."
Anders said that in 2008 -- the last time the Belmont Stakes had a Triple Crown contender running -- slightly more than 20,000 used the railway.
This time, the railroad warned of long waits because only one track was going in and out of the station. The station also has no platforms, and space to run only eight-car trains instead of the standard 10 to 12 cars. The LIRR ran 26 trains eastbound into Belmont -- eight more than scheduled and 26 westbound trains -- six more than scheduled, Anders said.
"Clearly some people waited, and we told them in advance it could happen," said Joe Calderone, LIRR's customer service vice president. "It's the actual infrastructure of the track."
There were other infrastructure problems Saturday evening.
With thousands waiting to cross, the state fire marshal shut down part of a pedestrian bridge that goes over the park and the LIRR tracks after concrete pieces fell from the bridge.
Customers already on the bridge first had to be loaded onto trains. Many more were routed by police on street level to access the bridge by escalator at a different point. The incident led police to take over the LIRR's customer queuing and loading operation.
Manhattan resident Antoine Gara, 28, and a friend tried unsuccessfully to leave about 7:30 p.m.
Instead, they stayed and watched the Rangers game at the racetrack and caught a train later.
"It was a disaster . . . It was a sea of people all trying to get to the LIRR at the same time," Gara said.
With Nicole Fuller
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