By Shawn Rychling
If you have been out to Belmont Park on a regular, run-of-the mill racing day – say on a Wednesday in mid- to late-September – then you may have noticed an eerie quiet, even a din of inactivity.
Well, NYRA and the state of New York, which by the way owns all three tracks on the NYRA circuit, took steps to increase the activity level on the grounds this week when it announced a plan to sell rights to a parcel of the land at Belmont Park to the New York Islanders and the National Hockey League to build a new 18,000-seat arena as part of a sports and entertainment complex on the Belmont grounds.
Plans are for the arena to hold about 150 events per year, including the 41 regular-season hockey games for the Islanders. The usual additions of retail, dining, recreation, and other entertainment venues is part of the overall plan as the section of land behind the Belmont grandstand supposedly becomes a destination for a younger crowd of fans eager to expose themselves to horse racing.
It’s a story we have heard many times before. Horse racing needs to attract younger fans and here is a way to do it. Admittedly, this is just a hoped-for consequence of the Islanders moving their home games to Elmont, New York. The main goal is revenue raising for the State of New York for usage of the property as well as growing of the tax base.
Hey, if racing reaches unforeseen heights due to this new initiative, then that will be great. But the larger picture is the overall future of the three NYRA racetracks and whether year-round racing is viable and how the schedule is structured.
NYRA took the major step this past summer of replacing the winterized inner track at Aqueduct with a new outer turf course, giving the Big A two grass surfaces. It was thought that this may be preparation for the eventual moving of all downstate racing to Aqueduct for a year or two, or maybe longer, so that Belmont may be renovated to make winter racing viable at Big Sandy. The current configuration of the track and grandstand makes winter racing impossible due to the lack of sunlight hitting the racing the surface.
The temporary closing of Belmont would push the Belmont Stakes over to Aqueduct. Impossible you say? Well, the third jewel of the Triple Crown was run at Aqueduct from 1963-68 while Belmont was being rebuilt. The starting gate would be placed on the backstretch and the horses would take 1 ½ laps around the strip to complete the mile-and-a-half race. A bigger issue may be the fact that the casino that opened at Aqueduct a few years back forced the elimination of much of the grandstand, making it difficult for Aqueduct to accommodate the large crowd that the Belmont Stakes draws.
After the winterized version of Belmont is complete, Aqueduct could be closed and handed over to the casino people for further expansion.
Speaking of winter racing, its viability seems to be under constant attack. And while horseplayers and horsemen alike defend it, there are glaring weaknesses as on several racing days just last week when there were not even 60 horses entered to fill eight-race cards. NYRA is making a good decision to schedule only 3 or 4 racing days per week from now through mid-April with the exception of weeks that have a Monday holiday.
And then we get to Saratoga and the possible expansion of that meet. Much talk has centered around a July 4 through Labor Day meet with perhaps 5 instead of 6 race cards per week on the calendar which would mean the total number of racing days would remain, or go only slightly higher, than the current number of 40.
The bottom line is stay tuned.
With that said, enjoy the racing for now and from all of us at the New York Hot List, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Find out how to get all our Hot List analysis at Interbets.com.