Aqueduct's days as a racetrack are numbered.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing a proposal that calls for a massive expansion of the current gaming facility at the Big A. He wants there to be something called the New York International Convention and Exhibition Center, a 3.8 million square foot facility at Aqueduct that will include a full-fledged casino, a hotel and a convention center.
There's a ton of money to be made with such a place in the biggest city in America, which is why it's going to happen. But as long as there is a racetrack, a grandstand and a barn area at Aqueduct, there's not enough room for Cuomo's mega-casino. That is why Aqueduct racetrack can't possibly survive this.
In the months ahead, here's what is likely to happen:
But as long as there is a racetrack, a grandstand and a barn area at Aqueduct, there's not enough room for Cuomo's mega-casino.
Under current laws, there must be racing at the Aqueduct location in order for there to be casino gaming. That will have to be changed, which shouldn't be any problem at all. NYRA will go to the state and Genting, the company that runs the casino, and remind them that the only way they can get rid of Aqueduct is to shift the winter race meet to Belmont and that will require millions spent on both the grandstand and the racing surface at Belmont. For that reason, NYRA is going to want Genting to write them a huge check in order for them to agree to shut down Aqueduct. Again, that doesn't figure to be a problem. Genting knows that there's a goldmine waiting to be discovered at Aqueduct and will gladly pay to get rid of racing.
The more unpredictable aspect of this of this story is what NYRA will do with Belmont, a track, in its current state, that is totally unsuitable for winter racing.
According to a report in the New York Daily News, NYRA is considering replacing one of Belmont's turf courses with a winterized dirt track and then building a new turf course inside of the three existing tracks.
That makes sense, but it doesn't solve the problems of having a huge facility that is unheated and a relic from times gone by when people actually went to the racetrack.
The best solution may be to blow Belmont up and start all over again.
A massive grandstand is needed one day a year, Belmont Stakes Day. With Genting figuring to pay NYRA a large fortune for them to close Aqueduct, the money will be available to demolish the Belmont grandstand and replace it with a much smaller, heated grandstand that would better fit the needs of a racetrack in the 21st century. They can create a far better customer experience with a much, much smaller facility.
While they're at it they should start anew with the racing surfaces. A mile-and-a-half track doesn't work in a modern era where 96% of your customers are watching races on a television or on a computer. The horses are just too far away and it's hard to watch the action, especially without Trakus. NYRA should come back with a mile-and-an-eighth main track that can be winterized.
If not that, make the Belmont training track the winter racing surface. You can leave existing Belmont alone and operate there the same dates you do now. Spend some money to refurbish the training track and build a small, utilitarian grandstand there for the 1,200 or so people that would likely show up every day in February to watch winter racing at Belmont. That seems perfectly practical and would probably be a lot cheaper than starting all over with the existing track and grandstand.
Of course, the best solution would be to just stop racing in the winter, turning back the clock to an era where New York shut down from December through mid-March. It's not going to happen. NYRA has a good relationship with the horsemen and the horsemen want winter racing. No one wants to rock the boat, even if that means a steady diet of $7,500 claimers.
NYRA could go in a number of different directions, but this much is certain: Aqueduct is a goner and Belmont Park is going to undergo massive change.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.