No Triple Crown possibility means disappointment at Belmont

— -- ELMONT, N.Y. -- It was the second-biggest day of the year at Belmont Park. Or the biggest, depending on how you look at things.

The Preakness Stakes is down in Baltimore, of course, about a four-hour drive south. But the Preakness is the difference between whether Belmont hosts one of the sporting highlights of the year in this country, or just another noteworthy event on our sports-littered landscape.

The Preakness Stakes giveth, or taketh away, the Triple Crown.

That's why hundreds of horse-racing fans stuck around here Saturday evening, nearly an hour after the 10th and final live race of the day had concluded -- to see if this grand old track would have another chance at history in three weeks' time.

It looked promising for a while. But Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming couldn't finish the job, succumbing to Classic Empire, who was then caught by Cloud Computing down the stretch.

A couple of hours before the Preakness, things were far sunnier at Belmont Park -- literally, and figuratively. New York Racing Association senior vice president and chief experience officer Lynn LaRocca was in her office, eagerly awaiting the race.

Several other NYRA officials were on site in Baltimore.

" Just in case [a Triple Crown] does happen, we're right there on the spot," LaRocca said, "to talk to the press and horsemen and the connections of the horse, to make out the details to bring them up here."

LaRocca stayed behind, but the preparations for this year's Belmont Stakes were already well underway.

"We've pretty much been planning since the week after Belmont Stakes last year, and that's how it goes," she said. "And we always plan for the possibility that it's a Triple Crown. So right now everything's in full motion as if it's going to be a Triple Crown event. We've got a capacity in the facility. We plan to that, we stock to that."

There are some tweaks to be made, however, if the Kentucky Derby winner also takes the Preakness.

"There's certain areas of the facility that we might turn on," LaRocca said. "There's a trackside tent that is a high-end hospitality [space] that could become a potential area for people to go in. We generally won't sell it if it's not a Triple Crown, but we'll put it up if it's a Triple Crown event.

"If it's a Triple Crown event, we're gonna get people from all over the world who have interest."

The fans aren't the only ones who are interested. The general rank-and-file employees at Belmont Park also have a vested interest in whether a Triple Crown is at stake.

More than 100,000 fans have packed this place when the Triple Crown is on the line, which could lead to some headaches. But the employees surveyed on Saturday were all rooting for Always Dreaming.

"Of course, yes. We pray! We pray!" said Cynthia Howard, a bartender at Backyard Brews, one of the concession stands outside. "Watch when that race goes off, we gonna be screaming!"

"[The Triple Crown's] a great thing" said Ed Norcia, a teller at one of the betting stands inside the grandstand. "It brings people out, it brings new people out -- it starts to contribute toward the sport again, trying to build the sport up again."

Alas, there won't be 100,000 fans at Belmont Park on June 10, or anywhere close to that. When the Preakness ended on Saturday, the fans watching trackside here slowly filtered out, shuffling along amid the many discarded betting slips scattered across the ground.

But back inside, lots of fans were still lingering, eyes fixed on several TV screens as other races went off at tracks around the country.

There's always another race. And there will be another Triple Crown, too.

Just not this year.