By Francis LaBelle Jr.
If, over the course of more than a century, Belmont Park had only hosted Thoroughbred racing, its place in history would be both prominent and assured.
But Belmont Park, which opened on May 4, 1905, has figured into the Long Island story and the world’s history in diverse and unexpected ways.
One of Belmont’s most enduring legacies surely will relate to the role the park played in the development of modern aviation in this country.
It started in 1910, when thousands gathered at Belmont Park to watch several of the world’s great aviators participate in the first-of-its-kind International Aviation Tournament. The track was closed to horse racing at the time, due to anti-gambling legislation in New York State, but air racing was a different story.
With aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright overseeing the event, huge crowds assembled to see the new technology in action. Time and distance races were the hallmark of the 10-day event and the highlight was a race to the Statue of Liberty.
The day of the Statue of Liberty Race, October 30, an estimated 150,000 people flocked to the track to watch. The finish of the three-contestant race proved controversial – American pilot John B. Moisant was declared the winner with the fastest time, but Englishman Claude Graham-White challenged the ruling.
Eventually, both were disqualified and the third pilot, Frenchman Count de Lesseps, was named the winner and awarded the $10,000 prize – but not until March of the following year, after Moisant had died while attempting a landing in high winds on Dec. 30, 1910.
Crowed a New York Times headline on the revised ruling published March 15, 1911: “Only Comfort for Friends of Dead American Who Made Fastest Time is That Englishman Also Loses.”
Eight years after the air show, on May 15, 1918, Belmont Park became the origin and destination of the first Air Mail flown between New York and Washington, D.C. The first flight took off with 4,000 letters, which were transferred to a second plane in Philadelphia and flown on to Washington, with Boston and Chicago runs added later.
While the terminal was moved to nearby Roosevelt Field on Long Island, in 1919, a plaque commemorating Belmont’s pioneering role in the development of the Air Mail service was dedicated in 1955 and remains in place today.
In times of national crisis, Belmont has served as both a safe haven and a support base.
In 1940, the world was again at war and Belmont Park hosted a War Relief Day on June 6. A total of $891,320 was raised at Belmont Park that year for the American Red Cross.
On October 2, 1943, Belmont Park staged “Back the Attack Day.” Admission to the track was exclusively by the purchase of one or more War Bonds. The occasion produced the largest “gate” in sports history as about 30,000 fans bought $30 million worth of War Bonds.
More recently, Belmont Park served as the staging area for emergency vehicles and personnel following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Because of its size, Belmont Park had long been used as a training and instruction facility for drivers of police, fire and other emergency vehicles. This time, however, its location on the Queens County/Nassau County border, with access to the Long Island Railroad and several main roadways, made Belmont Park ideal to serve as a central base for the heroes of 9/11.
Through the years, Belmont Park has been the site for numerous radio broadcasts, television programs, photo shoots and even motion pictures. Woody Allen, Gisele Bundchen, David Letterman, Helen Hunt, Sharon Stone, Denis Leary, Olympia Dukakis, and Mira Sorvino are just some of the luminaries who have filmed on location at the track.
This has all been Belmont Park.
Oh, yes – and Thoroughbred racing, too.