Terms of the $455 million to finance the construction were negotiated with NYRA.
By Tom Precious
A historic makeover of Belmont Park, which would also include the consolidation of Thoroughbred racing in the New York City area by closing Aqueduct Racetrack, received final approval the evening of May 1 by state lawmakers in Albany.
The legislation, already backed by Governor Kathy Hochul, will permit NYRA to now move ahead to negotiate a loan agreement with the Hochul administration for $455 million to finance such major work as the construction of a new grandstand and tracks at Belmont, as well as the opening of the facility’s infield to accommodate fans at racing and large entertainment events.
When the Belmont work is completed in the next several years, NYRA will relinquish its lease at Aqueduct, which will close to racing to make way for still-unknown commercial and residential development in the future.
“The transformation of Belmont Park will secure the future of Thoroughbred racing in New York State, create thousands of good jobs and drive tourism to Long Island and the region for decades to come,” said NYRA president and CEO David O’Rourke.
The Belmont construction program is contained in a couple of the various pieces of legislation that make up the overall $229 billion state budget, which could be completed as early as Tuesday.
One was a relatively brief mention—taking up just one page of a 1,157-page budget bill—of a $455 million appropriation for a loan to NYRA; both the Assembly and Senate passed that particular budget bill shortly before 5 p.m. Monday.
The other set of Belmont-related provisions, stretching out over a dozen pages of another of the budget bills, spells out the details of an array of conditions placed on NYRA in return for the $455 million state loan, including such things as repayment terms, requirements for union workers and environmental standards for Belmont construction projects and a process for state and local input and oversight regarding the future development of Aqueduct.
The 2023/2024 New York budget does something talked about for years in the racing industry and government: consolidation of thoroughbred racing in the New York City area to a single, year-round racetrack and creation of a pathway to close and redevelop Aqueduct, a 110-acre parcel in South Ozone Park. The Big A, the original track which first opened in 1894, has been eyed by developers for years for both the size of its acreage and its location near JFK Airport and mass transit. Millions of dollars have been spent, including in recent years, renovating and updating facilities at Aqueduct. The property was recently appraised at $1 billion, according to NYRA.
NYRA officials believe the Belmont construction, following various state and local reviews still needed, will begin in 2024 and is due to be completed in 2026.
Joseph Appelbaum, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said he has been asked by owners and trainers from around the country if Belmont really is going to be redeveloped. “The excitement has been palpable. Here in New York, we underestimate the national importance of NYRA’s ability to put on a world-class modern racing sport. A new Belmont Park will create a flagship facility not just for the state, but for the country,” Appelbaum said Monday.
“It’s an exciting time at Belmont Park,” he added. “Our horsemen and women are enthusiastic—and a little nervous—about what the future of our sport will look like at a modern racing facility. This is really unknown in American racing. The next few years will be a significant transition to what we are hoping is the home of the most vital horse racing venue in the world.”
One of the budget bills passed Monday in Albany authorizes a $455 million appropriation from the state Urban Development Corp., to be used for planning, design, construction, demolition, and other work at Belmont. No money will go out the door to NYRA, the appropriation states, until the racing corporation and the governor’s budget director enter into a repayment agreement for the terms of the loan’s repayment.
The loan is due to be paid back within 20 years; NYRA’s chief source of money to finance the loan’s principal and interest will come from tapping proceeds it receives in revenue sharing from a Resorts World-operated casino on the grounds of Aqueduct. (That casino is separate from the Aqueduct closure plan; its operators are vying to win one of the casino development licenses New York State is considering awarding sometime this year.)
Senator Joseph Addabbo, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Senate racing, gaming, and wagering committee, told his colleagues shortly before passage Monday night of a budget bill containing one of the key Belmont plan’s provisions that the deal will benefit the racing industry across the state, create construction jobs and make for a Belmont updated with current standards for everything from disabled people to environmental codes.
“It’s a very sound investment,” Addabbo said on the Senate floor.
Monday was a sharply different day for NYRA at the state Capitol from just a year ago. Last year, during state budget talks and again at the end of session in June, the NYRA Belmont plan died in the face of opposition and questions from lawmakers who voiced various concerns about the state advancing NYRA the borrowed funds it sought. Some saw it as an inappropriate use of state funding.
NYRA and its allies spent the year promoting the plan, saying it would create jobs, make for more efficient racing in the New York City area with the operation of a sole Thoroughbred track and increase the value of the state-owned Belmont and Aqueduct properties.
NYRA was able to beat back criticism from groups that oppose racing for equine safety reasons and from those and others who say that a private racing corporation should not have to rely on the state to provide it with loans for the Belmont project. NYRA has said it could not finance the project on its own in the private marketplace and said guarantees are in place to fully repay taxpayers the $455 million, plus interest.
The NYRA plan calls for construction of a new grandstand and clubhouse, replacing the existing 1.25 million square feet of space with a facility about one-fourth its size and with far more modern amenities than in the structure saw its last major renovation in 1968.
The Belmont project, which had to win over state lawmakers who represent the areas around both downstate NYRA tracks, is due to soon access for fans, for the first time, to Belmont’s 45-acre infield and increase open space in the existing track’s backyard.
“NYRA is committed to building a world-class venue that honors the history and traditions of this iconic property within a modernized overall facility. We will deliver a revitalized Belmont Park that will reclaim its place as a global capital of thoroughbred horse racing,” NYRA’s O’Rourke said in a written statement issued Monday, hours after the two legislative houses on Sunday evening released the terms of the Belmont and Aqueduct agreement.
NYRA has promoted a New York City consulting firm’s study, which it funded, that said the reconstructed Belmont Park will generate $155 million in annual economic output through both racing and non-racing activities, such as entertainment events. The study was among a number of efforts by NYRA and a coalition called We Are NY Horse Racing, which includes an array of racing, business, union, and other interests employed since the Belmont borrowing plan died during the previous annual budget talks last spring and again at the end of the legislative session in June.
The campaign included outreach to reluctant state lawmakers, community groups in Queens and Nassau County and an advertising and marketing program. NYRA pledged to conduct year-round racing at the renovated Belmont—outside the summer meet at Saratoga—with a grandstand and new racing surfaces, including a synthetic track built for winter racing conditions. NYRA has said the new facility will guarantee the return of the Breeders’ Cup to New York—for the first time since 2005—as part of its annual rotation of venue locations.
The Belmont legislation was contained in budget bills agreed to over the weekend by Hochul and Democrats who control the Senate and Assembly. Negotiators were still working Monday on the final elements of the $229 billion overall budget.
The deal in Albany for NYRA’s borrowing plan comes the same week as downstate Thoroughbred racing moves from Aqueduct to Belmont. The spring/summer NYRA meet starts Thursday at Belmont, and will include the June 10 Belmont Stakes (G1).