The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is committed to representing the interests of owners and trainers at the New York Racing Association tracks. NYTHA recognizes that its constituents are the lifeblood of the racing industry in New York and focuses its efforts on doing what is best for New York horsemen.
Saratogian: NYRA counting on slots to fund major upgrades at tracks
NYRA counting on slots to fund major upgrades at tracks
By PAUL POST , The Saratogian
One of the challenges for NYRA is to boost attendance and betting at races at Belmont Park. (Photo provided)
ELMONT – Armed with a new 25-year franchise agreement, New York Racing Association is prepared to wage war against industrywide trends of declining on-track attendance and handle.
However, it won’t have the ammunition to put up a good fight until Aqueduct Racetrack’s proposed gaming center comes on line. The state has not yet named a VLT operator.
NYRA is slated to get 7 percent of the Aqueduct racino’s net earnings – up to $25 million per year for capital expenses, $20 million for operations – and everything and anything is open to suggestion as the firm seeks ways to improve its three tracks: Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course.
"We got $30 million to bridge us from the start of the new franchise to when VLTs start operating," NYRA President and CEO Charles Hayward said. "At one point, late 2009 looked realistic. Now I’d say 15 to 18 months. That’s just what I’ve been told by the bidders."
If that estimate is accurate, the racino at Aqueduct might not open until mid-2010. Three entities have submitted bids to run the proposed 4,500-machine video lottery terminal facility. Gov. David L. Paterson’s office says an announcement will be made soon. But it’s been saying that since legislation allowing for VLTs was approved seven years ago.
"When I started here in 2004, one of the first questions people asked was, ‘When are VLTs going to get up and operating?’ " Hayward said. "Each time I’ve been asked and answered, I’ve been wrong."
The difference now is that lawmakers realize the urgency of generating new revenue, not just for racing, but cash-strapped state coffers, as well. It’s estimated that the state loses the potential for making $1 million for each day the gaming center’s doors fail to open.
NYRA, however, is laying the groundwork for the day money starts to flow. Recently, it hired London-based Turnberry Consulting Ltd. to make recommendations for each track – quality of racing, dirt versus synthetic surfaces, backstretch living conditions, hospitality and patron experience. Basically, what each track should look like 10 years from now.
"They’re going to give us a preliminary report in October," Hayward said. "Then it’s going to be presented to some of our trustees in November. We’ll use that as a framework to really develop and flesh out some of our capital plans going forward."
Getting up from his desk overlooking Belmont Park’s paddock, Hayward heads down a corridor, turns the corner and walks out to the grandstand overlooking the track’s massive infield.
"We have 440 acres here," Hayward said, looking out on America’s only 1 1/2-mile track, so vast that the naked eye can barely see the starting gate for some races. Belmont’s "new" building opened in 1968 before the onset of Off Track Betting, when crowds averaged about 25,000 people a day. Today, they get about one-fifth that.
With ivy-covered walls, it’s a jewel of a facility, reflecting a century of rich history as host of the third leg of racing’s Triple Crown. Except for Belmont Stakes Day, which draws about 100,000 patrons, the track’s sheer size has outlived its usefulness, presenting NYRA with a dilemma about what to do with a beautiful yet difficult-to-maintain facility.
"This building is about as old as Shea Stadium, which they’re knocking down and replacing," Hayward said. "We had some substantial plumbing issues on Belmont Stakes Day and we had some substantial issues that caused us to miss a day of racing at the end of the meet. There’s a whole range of issues.
"If you wanted to conduct winter racing here (instead of Aqueduct) and consolidate racing at Belmont, you couldn’t race on the current oval and you probably wouldn’t want to anyways," Hayward said. "The building faces north so the whole stretch run in front of the grandstand completely freezes. No matter how much you work on the track, you would lose days upon days of racing."
Reduce the building’s size?
Have a separate oval and new grandstand for winter-time racing only?
Shrink the 1 1/2mile oval to 1 1/8, like Saratoga?
Questions surrounding each track’s future seem endless. NYRA wants to answer them now so that it can move forward when VLT money becomes available.
"This is all highly speculative," Hayward said, emphasizing that no decisions have been made. "We may still run at Aqueduct forever."
That’s music to the ears of longtime owner-trainer Eddie Miller, who grew up in Queens and has been racing there since the early 1980s.
"I went to Jamaica High School. There were so many kids that we had split sessions from 1 to 5:30, the same time as the races. Some days I used to cut school and take the bus to Aqueduct," he said. "Aqueduct is a tremendous training facility. That’s where some of the best horses are."
Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown is currently stabled there.
Aqueduct, the winter track, is to get VLTS
Aqueduct runs from early November to late April. After the Christmas break, most big stables head south for the winter, giving other horsemen, with New York breds, in particular, a chance to earn a slice of racing’s pie. Without this meet, they probably couldn’t survive.
Among the many issues under consideration is whether New York’s year-round racing is too much of a good thing.
From Aqueduct, racing immediately starts up at Belmont, which runs until mid-July, followed by Saratoga’s six-week meet. Then comes Belmont’s fall program, which means horses run almost continuously at Belmont and Aqueduct – less than 10 miles apart – for eight consecutive months, from early September to late April.
"Most successful meets have a beginning, middle and end," said John Sabini, a former state senator from Queens. "With too much product, there’s no urgency to attend the downstate tracks."
Scaling back the program is unlikely, though, because California, Kentucky, Maryland and Illinois race year round, too. New York would be at a competitive disadvantage if it acted unilaterally.
Racing for 2-year-olds
Hall of Fame trainer LeRoy Jolley said there might be another solution.
Growing the 2-year-old program would bring more horses into the mix, meaning that older ones wouldn’t have to compete so often, improving racing’s quality overall.
"Racing 2-year-olds sensibly, rather than hurting them, extends their life, their career and their earnings," he said. "Maybe we can change and race our horses a little more effectively."
In August, Sabini took over as new chairman of the state Racing and Wagering Board, which regulates New York’s racing industry. In addition to enhancing the sport’s integrity, Paterson has given him a clear charge: "We’re looking for ways for this (racing) to make money for the state," Sabini said.
At Aqueduct, the first order of business is VLTs.
"There will be more money for purses and breeders," said Greg Garofalo, a trainer and attorney for the 1,000-member New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. "That’ll translate into more investment. Guys with big-time money, they don’t want to be around a dump. They want to be around a fancy place."
Aqueduct’s VLT facility will have 300,000 square feet with nearly three times as many machines as Saratoga Gaming and Raceway’s racino. NYRA has a responsibility for cleaning up the rest of the building, which, to be kind, looks tired. Mounds of pigeon droppings are everywhere, inside and out. Going from Belmont to Aqueduct is like going from Park Place to the Bowery.
There hasn’t been live racing at Aqueduct since last spring. There’s a lot of work to do.
Changes at Saratoga
Meanwhile, NYRA’s Saratoga work crews are moving forward with all kinds of projects, from new storm water drainage systems to barn rehabilitation.
"I applaud NYRA," Garofalo said. "In difficult times, they’re trying to make improvements."
While cognizant of the need to protect Saratoga’s ambience and historical character, physical upgrades are needed there, too, Hayward said.
After all, the oldest parts of the grandstand have been in use since 1864. This summer, prior to the Saratoga meet, crews jacked up portions of the building to restore structural soundness, an effort that’s far from being done.
NYRA spent $200,000 this year to enclose and air-condition the At the Rail and Paddock pavilions.
"You could replace the At the Rail with a two-story building that’s aesthetically consistent with Saratoga," Hayward said. "And we have those five luxury suites at the clubhouse turn that we have to rent every year."
These, too, could be replaced with permanent structures. Also, Turnberry’s report might include doing something with Saratoga’s infield. At one time, boards were put down across the main track and turf courses, allowing people to watch races from the infield.
"There were some mutual bays, it’s kind of a cool place to go," Hayward said. "I think you’d have to gain access underneath the track, at the clubhouse turn or far turn.
"One thing we’re not going to do is put in the kind of stuff that’s at the infield at Churchill Downs. It’s all structures. If you’re up on the fourth floor trying to watch the races, you see horses go into the clubhouse turn and you never see them again until they come around the inside."
NYRA does not want Saratoga’s infield experience to replicate Kentucky Derby Day, something akin to Mardi Gras bordering on Woodstock.
At Saratoga and Belmont, plans are already in the mix to provide new townhouse-style housing for backstretch workers – $30 million at each track.
"There’s a tremendous relief that comes with the franchise resolution," Hayward said. "I showed up here in November 2004. We were under a deferred prosecution agreement with a Federal monitor.
"Within a month, five weeks, we had 25 state troopers storm the place and pull out all this information about jockey weights. Six weeks after that, we had the Uvari indictment for a trainer who had allegedly milk-shaked a horse.
"Then we had the whole franchise process, then bankruptcy. It wasn’t always easy to come to work, because you weren’t sure what things were going to happen."
There’s still a lot of speculation. The difference, for the most part, is that it’s positive in nature – plans for new construction, facilities and amenities rather than fears about job loss and racing shutdowns.
"It’s tough to make money and maintain three tracks," Jolley said. "The maintenance and overhead is tremendous.
"Hopefully now, with the franchise under their belt, NYRA will be able to solve some of these problems. I hope they hurry up," Jolley said. "We might be getting past the Golden Age of the slot machine."
P.O. Box 170070
Jamaica, NY 11417