Belmont and Aqueduct: how long can they both survive?

More than $14 million has been spent on capital improvements at Aqueduct in recent years, but still there’s a lengthy list of areas in need of refurbishments. Photo:

The New York City area has a long history of housing racetracks. The country’s very first racetrack is believed to be the Newmarket course on Long Island, which was built in 1665.

Since then New York area racetracks such as Morris Park, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay and Jerome Park have come and gone until only two remain, Aqueduct in Ozone Park, Queens, and Belmont Park in Elmont, a town in Nassau County that borders Queens Village at the eastern end of New York City.

For the last 58 years, those two tracks, along with Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York, have formed the New York Racing Association’s circuit, but the clock is ticking on the triumvirate.

With the announcement on Jan. 17 that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo included legislation in his Executive Budget proposing that NYRA be returned to private control, the future of New York racing came into a sharper focus. Under government control since 2012, if the budget and the legislation contained in it is approved – as it is expected to be – a board tilted in NYRA’s favor will determine the path it will follow for years to come.

Productive dialogue

“As a private entity, building upon our recent progress and record of accomplishment, we look forward to growing our sport, our fan base, and our economic benefit to the State of New York,” NYRA CEO and President Chris Kay said in a statement.

“We appreciate the Governor’s support for legislation to return NYRA to private control. NYRA supports this proposed legislation, which is the result of productive dialogue with the Governor’s office over the last several months. We look forward to working with the legislature and all stakeholders in efforts to pass the Executive’s proposal.”

Some changes from privatization should include a relatively simple item such as days when night racing can be offered, which would most likely become of part of NYRA’s schedule in 2018.

A far more important decision involves whether NYRA will continue to operate both Aqueduct and Belmont Park, two tracks located less than ten miles apart.

Infrastucture for the next 50 years

While NYRA officials are reluctant to comment on future plans until the privatization is approved by the state legislature, it has become obvious to major stakeholders in the industry that in a few months NYRA will finally be in a position to address vital issues that have been stalled since the re-organization that placed the NYRA board under state control.

“For the last few years, NYRA has put forward plans for capital development that they are waiting to unleash once they are released from the state’s hands,” said Jeff Cannizzo, Executive Director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc. “Once that happens in the next several months, we’ll see NYRA’s capital improvement plans come to fruition faster than they have in the past. They will utilize some of the VLT [Video Lottery Terminal] money for special projects that are relevant to the tracks, and NYRA will move forward in terms of building the infrastructure for the next 50 years of racing.”

For decades, the future of Aqueduct has been debated. Re-built at a cost of $34 million, the ‘new’ Aqueduct opened in 1959, four years after it was closed and six weeks after Jamaica Park was shuttered. Its proximity to John F. Kennedy airport eventually made the 210-acre plant a valuable commodity. Whenever talk of expanding the airport or adding parking surfaced, property at Aqueduct was seen as the answer.

Yet all of that changed when a casino was opened in the area that had been Aqueduct’s grandstand seating area.

Hugely lucrative casino

Owned not by NYRA but by the Genting Group, the facility and its nearly 6,000 slot machines and table games has emerged as one of the world’s most lucrative casinos. According to New York State Lottery figures, the Aqueduct casino – the only one in New York City - had a net win of $13.9 million in the week that ended Feb. 4, and from Feb. 2016 through Jan. 2017 it posted a net win of roughly $815 million.

As valuable as the racetrack’s property may have been due to its nearby airport, its value has risen like a high-speed elevator due to the goldmine known as the Resorts World Casino New York City.

With the ability to expand the casino, add hotels, shopping, dining and entertainment venues to a site with a New York City subway station on the grounds, some insiders say the property at Aqueduct – which is now controlled by the state - could be worth $1 billion or more.

“It’s the billion-dollar question,” Cannizzo said about Aqueduct’s future. “There are two tracks eight miles apart and they both have been neglected in the sense of spending on capital revenue in the last 15 years. That is why they look the way they do and they’re in the shape they are. You have to be realistic about that.”

Core principles

Even if those figures are inflated, there’s no doubt the casino has changed the nature of the game at Aqueduct, which is open for racing only six months per year, and it will ultimately force NYRA to make crucial decisions that will impact the sport for decades to come.

“Strategic decisions need to be made and that’s one of racing’s biggest problems,” Cannizzo said. “There’s a lot of decisions in the industry that are sporadic in the sense that they are based on what’s good for this week or for short-term results. What NYRA is facing will affect racing for the next few decades, and that’s why you have to look at the core principles and core issues the industry face.

“How do we address attendance? How do we address the horseplayers and how to accommodate them on and off the track? How do we make it a better experience for owners? Those areas have to be addressed. I don’t think there’s one solution to a complex problem, so it has to be well thought out.”

While shifting to a single track seems logical on one level, the move is not as easy as it might seem.

Frigid winter days

When Belmont Park was opened 1905, it was built as a spring/summer time racetrack and the grandstand was built facing north.

Nor was anything changed when Belmont Park was closed from 1963 until May 1968 and the grandstand was rebuilt to include seating for more than 32,000 patrons at a cost of $30.7 million.

As a result, in terms of frigid winter days, the facility lacks heating. Also, the placement of the 10-story tall, 1,266 foot-long grandstand and its huge roof blocks the sun from shining on parts of the racing surface. Without the help of the sun’s rays, portions of the track remain frozen throughout the winter and are dangerous for racing.

“There’s a shadow up the stretch and it’s difficult to keep a consistent surface with the track going in and out of sunlight,” said Rick Violette, President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “It’s not just in the winter. We see it at other times of the year when the track dries out.”

While some of NYRA’s critics have called for an end to winter racing, which would solve most of the problems of having just Belmont Park as a downstate track, both horsemen and NYRA have no interest in suspending operations during winter months.

Serious erosion of the job base

“As far as Aqueduct goes, the horsemen are firmly entrenched in continued year-round racing,” Violette said. “It is attached to 33,000 jobs and a $4.3 billion economic impact. If you do away with winter racing, there would be a serious erosion of that job base. They are full-time jobs that you cannot take lightly. That is one of the biggest reasons why we encourage the continuation of the VLT money. It’s a jobs program.

“Assuming winter racing is continued, and we see that as must, if you’re thinking of consolidating Aqueduct and Belmont you basically need a new Belmont that can handle year-round racing.

“Another peg in the puzzle is if we turn the land over to Genting for expansion and a hotel and all that type of good stuff for them, the revenue created from that should go to pay for the renovation or re-creation of Belmont.

Rebuild Belmont?

“Otherwise, what’s the incentive to move? If’s $1 billion or $700 million, we have to make sure that money stays in racing so we can create a 21st century Belmont Park that we can be proud of for the next 20 or 30 years.”

Solving the problem of winter racing at Belmont Park involves only a handful of possible solutions.

  • The grandstand could be retro-fitted, making it smaller and allowing the sun to hit the racetrack.

  • A small facility could be built around Belmont’s training track, which has the same limestone base as Aqueduct’s winterized inner track, but the objections in past years by the local community to items such as a softball field in that area make it a huge longshot.

  • The grandstand and racetrack could be repositioned to the west so that the sun would hit the track. Under this plan, the grandstand would face what is now the track’s final turn, with the racing oval and paddock moved to accommodate the new facility.

Violette believes rebuilding Belmont Park would be the best move.

“My plan would be to blow it all up and start anew with the grandstand running parallel with the Cross Island Parkway,” the 64-year-old trainer said. “It would be a brand new facility with concentric circles and a clever architect with some blank paper can build in seasonality and tunnels so that when we need to expand patronage for a day like the Belmont Stakes or a Breeders’ Cup Day we can expand the infield. We can have a winter facility and something different for the spring and summer.

Investment ‘would pay dividends’

“They rebuilt Yankee Stadium, so there’s no reason we can’t rebuild Belmont, but I think I’m losing that argument. It would be more expensive, but the investment would pay significant dividends and we would have something that would be the envy of other racetracks for the next few decades.

“Just refurbishing, you could get it done in a year, but nobody buys second-hand stuff anymore. People want new. They are building new stadiums after the other ones are only 10 or 15 years old. They become obsolete so fast and just retro-fitting it and putting a band-aid on it is a real backwards way of doing it. It might the only way it gets done, I don’t know. I keep putting in my two cents hoping it gets some traction, but I know I’m swimming upstream on that.”

Making the move even more complex would be the impact it would have on racing during construction at Belmont.

In the 1960s, when Belmont’s race dates were shifted to Aqueduct, the move was relatively seamless. Back then, there was no winter racing (Aqueduct was closed in January and February) and the only impact on the Belmont Stakes was a repositioning of the starting gate for the mile-and-a-half classic.

Now, with the casino occupying what used to be Aqueduct’s grandstand seating area, holding the Belmont Stakes there would limit the size and scope of the crowd. While temporary seating could be constructed in the area that served as Aqueduct’s grandstand apron, there would be limited options for the high-end seating areas that have boosted NYRA’s bottom line on that day.

Aqueduct ‘is going nowhere quick’

Another potential problem would involve turf racing, which plays a major role in filling NYRA’s daily racing cards. An expansion of racing dates at Saratoga during the construction at Belmont Park would help the situation, but would not remedy it. While Belmont Park has two turf courses, Aqueduct has one and cannot offer sprints on it.

“One turf course would get pretty chewed up, so maybe during the construction we can do camera-only days and run turf-only at Belmont and people will have no or limited access to the live racing,” Violette said. “There might have to be trade-offs like that, but there are ways to get it done.”

While there are several options NYRA can choose from in deciding the fate of its two Big Apple tracks, what’s more certain is that Aqueduct will not be closing its doors and handing over the keys to a new tenant anytime soon.

“Aqueduct is going nowhere quick,” Violette said. “Whatever you do, it would be a serious renovation that would take a year or two. Even if you knew today what you want to do, it would still be 3-5 years before the consolidation could be completed. So we’re going to be racing there for the foreseeable future and they should be investing in things to make Aqueduct more comfortable for horseplayers.”

All of which means, once privatization becomes official, NYRA will have to decide what belongs on its to-do list and prioritize them, even if Aqueduct has a shelf life of less than 10 years. More than $14 million has been spent on capital improvements at the Big A in recent years, but still there’s a lengthy list of areas in need of refurbishments.

Interim improvements

“There will have to be interim improvements at Aqueduct because there’s a need to have that. It’s not wasted money. It’s a necessary evil,” Violette said. “We need to accommodate our fans and the horses running over the racetrack while we’re doing something different at Belmont. At Aqueduct, you can always do something better with the facility in terms of dining. The relationship with Genting is not what we hoped it would be. The food is much more expensive than we’d like to see for our customers and often it isn’t that good. You’d like to see that corrected.

“And, if we’re going to use the facility more in coming years and we will have people ship in, I think there should be money spent on the receiving barns. This way people are happy about coming to Aqueduct and not grinding their teeth over it. That can probably be done without spending a lot of money.”

What happens in future months promises to be interesting, at the very least. While NYRA decides on the future of its two nearby tracks, plans for the 445 acres at Belmont Park could involve more than horse racing. With published reports that the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League are unhappy playing at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the possibility of building an arena for the team at Belmont Park has been floated in newspaper stories.

That possibility, in racetrack parlance, might be a longshot, but it’s reflective of the impending dawn of a new day for New York racing that might bring it back to the old model of not-for-profit operation but can also usher in some long overdue changes.

“I think we have some great business minds at NYRA,” Violette said, “and, as much as I might bump heads with them, I think there’s a genuine effort to make racing work.”

And now time will tell if in future years that effort involves two racetracks in the Big Apple or just one.

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