BELMONT PARK, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) – What a difference a year makes.

Last year at this time, stands at Belmont Park were empty on its biggest day of the year.

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Now, a gigantic benchmark in its recovery: People at the track, showing off hats, sipping champagne.

It a big business boost to Long Island.

In villages and hamlets near Belmont Park, restaurants, cafes and main street merchants are banking on a spike in business.

At the Garden City Hotel, they say the spike is already underway.

“This is a big weekend, not just in celebration of the Stakes, but in commerce here in the area. We are sold out this weekend and have a waiting list and that hasn’t happened in a very long time,” said J. Grady Colin, the hotel’s general manager.

“The Belmont Jewel” – bourbon, pomegranate juice and special mix – goes down easy, say the ladies who lunch. Tourists are coming to the iconic track from  all over with their dollars.

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“I feel really great. This is actually the first time I’ve left Pennsylvania since the beginning of 2020, so hooray!” said tourist Angela Montoni.

“I mean, I came from North Carolina. This is the first race I’ve been to since COVID,” said Rebecca Montaldo, who traveled from Fayetteville, North Carolina.

“The fact that we can go and have fun, and watch the horses, and talk and socialize, eat and drink and all of that stuff semi-normally feels wonderful,” said Nassau County Executive Laura Curran.

And down the stretch they come: Jockeys, owners, trainers, to get their spotlight before the big race.

Normally, the Belmont attracts about 90,000 fans, more if there’s a triple crown in play. This year, just 11,000-12,000 will be allowed in. They’ll sit in vaccinated an unvaccinated sections, with tickets purchased in advance. The LIRR is adding trains.

And don’t forget your fascinator.

“More fascinators than hats. What we are seeing is a lot of color. People are ordering color to celebrate,” said milliner Christine Moore.

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Fans finally back in the stands brings real hope after last year’s empty economic bust.

Jennifer McLogan