Fate of Belmont Stakes lingers on air quality concerns in New York

The 115th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race, which is scheduled to be held Saturday in New York, could be postponed amid concerns about air quality from lingering wildfire smoke from Canada.

Horse racing at Belmont Park was called off Thursday due to poor air quality, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul warned that the final leg of the Triple Crown could be affected if conditions don’t improve by Saturday. She said racing will be prohibited if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index (AQI) exceeds 200. 

“As New Yorkers continue to experience unhealthy air quality as a result of Canadian wildfires, we must all work to ensure that animals—including these peak-performance equine athletes — are protected,” Hochul said in a press release. “The measures being implemented at tracks across New York State are effective steps to keep all those who participate in the sport safe now and into the future.”

 The AQI includes a range of index values that measure the amount of particle pollution, ozone, and toxic gases in the air. Anything over 200 is considered “very unhealthy.”

Numerous sporting events were postponed this week amid the hazy conditions. Flights were also temporarily grounded at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, and Philadelphia International Airport, all citing visibility concerns. 

Hochul said if the AQI remains under 200 in Elmont, New York, on Saturday, then horses will be allowed to workout or race as long as their attending veterinarian certifies that they’re not adversely affected by the air quality. However, if the AQI reaches 201, then no horses would be permitted to race. 

Festivities were canceled Thursday at Saratoga Race Course, including a racing program that would have kicked off the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. Events were allowed to resume Friday following a significant improvement in air quality conditions throughout the region, but smoke from Nova Scotia and Quebec continued to linger as far away as North Carolina and could stick around through the weekend. 

“In addition to the resumption of live racing, both Belmont and Saratoga re-opened for training earlier this morning,” said Pat McKenna, vice president of communications for the New York Racing Association. “Moving forward, NYRA will continue to actively monitor air quality conditions and forecasts to ensure the environment remains safe for racing participants and fans this weekend.”