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A Belmont Stakes without fans in the stands

152nd running is first leg of Triple Crown

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Jay Hegi has only missed a handful of Belmont Stakes since 1978 when he witnessed a classic in his first experience at the event as Affirmed nipped Alydar to complete the Triple Crown.

“That race was incredible and it hooked me to keep coming back,” said Hegi, a North Merrick resident since 1999. “I remember standing for that race with my father [John] and a friend,” he added. “After that I’ve always bought reserved seat tickets as part of a group. I had 6 tickets for this year.”

Hegi and thousands of other ticket holders now need to take steps to get a refund. Because while the Belmont Stakes is set for Saturday, June 20, serving as the opening leg of the Triple Crown for the first time in history, New York Racing Association officials announced it’ll be held without fans in the stands.

The Kentucky Derby, meanwhile, will be held on Sept. 5, and the Preakness Stakes will be held on Oct. 3.

“I’m going to miss being at the Belmont but I’ll definitely be watching,” Hegi said. “I’ve been to the World Series, Super Bowl and so many major sporting events, but the 2015 Stakes when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown was the loudest crowd noise I’ve ever heard. From the second he turned into the stretch, it was thunderous.”

Vince Roth, of East Rockaway, hasn’t missed a Belmont since 2004 when he stood trackside as Smarty Jones’ bid for the Triple Crown was foiled by a fast-closing Birdstone. “Smarty Jones is my favorite horse of all-time but I’ve seen two Triple Crowns in recent years so it came full circle,” said Roth, a managing partner of Final Furlong Racing Stable. “Being at the Belmont is a ton of fun and a great experience. It’s definitely going to be strange watching from home, but I’m excited about it and hopefully it’ll be the one and only time it has to be the first leg of the Crown.”

Like Roth, Rockville Centre resident Matt Magione had hopes of seeing a Triple Crown winner in 2012 after I’ll Have Another captured the Derby and Preakness. However, a day before the Belmont he was scratched and eventually forced to retire due to tendonitis.

“The Belmont Stakes is one of my favorite days of the year,” Magione said. “You get to see some of the best horses in the country. I understand why there can’t be fans and why they couldn’t run it in the fall, but I’m still going to watch and wager that’s for sure.”

Anyone who purchased tickets for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival is eligible for a refund. Those who purchase tickets directly from the NYRA box office or a NYRA sales representative can request a refund online, and fans who purchased tickets on Ticketmaster will receive an email directing them to log into their account to request a refund.

This year’s Belmont will differ from prior years because it will be shorter. Traditionally, horses run 1 1/2 miles on “Big Sandy,” but this year they will only run 1 1/8 miles, to account for the scheduled adjustments to the Triple Crown. The distance was 1 1/8 miles in 1893 and 1894.

“While this will certainly be a unique running of this historic race, we are grateful to be able to hold the Belmont Stakes in 2020,” NYRA President David O’Rourke said in a statement. “Thanks to our partners at NBC Sports, fans across the country can look forward to a day of exceptional thoroughbred racing at a time when entertainment and sports are so important to providing a sense of normalcy.”

NBC will provide coverage on Belmont Stakes day for three hours beginning at 3 p.m.

News of the Stakes date came three days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced NYRA officials can begin live horse racing on June 1 without fans. Belmont’s spring/summer meet opened June 3 and runs through July 12.