June 4, 2014 -- More than 100,000 racing fans will descend upon the 148th Belmont Stakes this Saturday to see if frontrunner California Chrome can pull off the Triple Crown. But what viewers at home may not know is that there’s another wager taking place off the track and on the buffet line.
Will Belmont Park shake its gritty reputation and provide a luxurious party atmosphere for its most moneyed guests after The New York Racing Association partnered with industry experts in an effort to win over palates?
“Our strategic approach is to create tailored food, beverage, and retail experiences unique to the event,” said Patrick Bruhn, SVP of Operations for Centerplate, a food and hospitality provider that has helped coordinate Presidential inaugural balls, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and three recent Super Bowls.
The endeavor is a long time in the making, as Centerplate began working on upgrading the Stakes a year ago race day.
“Our exec team walks around the entire facility the day of the event to see what’s working and what could be improved, so we can make our plans and modifications for the next year,” said Bruhn. “In January, we initiated our plan for menu design, and a layout design, then in February we brought the menu to life, and in May we executed a tasting to incorporate the modifications.”
In other words, gone are the New York-themed sandwiches and food truck rally of yesteryear.
For top-tier ticket holders in 2014, Centerplate has created a pop-up, The Champagne Room, where guests who paid $300 will enjoy trackside patio seating along with a seven-hour premium bar, limitless bubbly and live-action buffet stations serving up seafood paella, beef tenderloin, arancini risotto, and artfully decorated cake pops.
All of this, as former Yankee Bernie Williams plays classical guitar in the background.
"The Champagne Room is a full-service exclusive hospitality experience with Champagne bars, sommeliers, and mixologists,” said Bruhn, noting that the space runs right into the rail and has private betting windows.
It’s also completely sold out, as is the Trophy Room package, the grandstand and even the BYOG (bring-your-own-grill) Top of the Stretch picnic area—most seats purchased before the Kentucky Derby even ran.
To combat the swell in race-goers, Centerplate anticipates a staff of 1,200 at this year’s running. There will also be 25 Executive Chefs, 20 banquet managers, and 25 hospitality managers to “provide specific leadership to the event,” according to a representative.
That extra on-hand expertise is a good thing, as celebrity chef Bobby Flay is expected to show up. He knows a thing or two about hospitality, himself. Also anticipated is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose wife appears on the Food Network.
One can assume that after their performances, LL Cool J and Frank Sinatra Jr., who will sing his father’s hit “New York, New York,” may even swing by the Champagne Room too.
With nine stakes purses totaling $8 million, a record for a non-Breeder cup, Belmont Stakes is already a win for the NYRA. But whether they triumph as party hosts won’t be known until Saturday night.