NEW YORK — An ominous weather forecast and the absence of a Triple Crown contender portends a low turnout for Saturday's 145th running of the Belmont Stakes, though attendance for the premier race on the local racing calendar has fluctuated wildly and unpredictably in recent years.
The potential of a horse completing the Triple Crown, which has not been achieved since Affirmed in 1978, has always been the most reliable predictor of attendance at Belmont Park. The six most attended Belmonts have come over the last 15 years, each when a Triple Crown was on the line: in 2004 (120,139), 2002 (103,222), 2003 (101,864), 2008 (94,476), 1999 (85,818) and 1998 (80,162).
Tom Albertrani, trainer of Freedom Child (an 8-to-1 shot on Friday morning), said the weather has a bigger impact on fan turnout than the lack of a Triple Crown hopeful in the field.
"We're disappointed there's not a Triple Crown on the line and obviously that makes a difference in the turnout," said Albertrani, who's attended more than 30 Belmonts and won the 2006 Preakness with Bernardini. "The good thing about New Yorkers is they'll take a shot if the sun comes out."
That might not be the case. The National Weather Service is calling for heavy rains Friday into Saturday with a chance of showers after 2 p.m., possibly extending through the Belmont's 6:36 p.m. post time.
The lack of a Triple Crown contender hasn't always proven fatal. Neither the Kentucky Derby nor Preakness Stakes winners showed up in 2006, yet the Belmont still drew 61,168 fans to see Jazil win. The same was true in 2000, when 67,610 turned out despite the absence of Derby champion Fusaichi Pegasus and Preakness winner Red Bullet.
Weather has shown a negative impact on attendance, but it hasn't always been uniform.
The race drew just 45,243 when conditions were fair in 2010, the smallest attendance for a Triple Crown race in more than a decade. One year later, amid rain and cooler temperatures, a crowd of 55,779 turned out — an increase of 23.3 percent.
The least attended Belmont in the last 30 years was in 1995, when 37,171 saw Thunder Gulch win the 1.5-mile race. Affirmed remains the last horse to win all three in 1978.
But while the lousy weather might not augur well for Saturday's attendance, Albertrani welcomes it. After all, Freedom Child earned his place in the 14-horse field by winning last month's Peter Pan Stakes in sloppy conditions by 13 1/4 lengths.
"We're kind of glad it's muddy," Albertrani confessed.