Sunday, January 22, 2012
By Mike MacAdam
A Seat in the Bleachers: Casino dominates Aqueduct
NEW YORK — It was only appropriate that the first thing I
encountered upon walking into the pressbox at Aqueduct last Saturday was a
Peregrine falcon making a pigeon disappear.
The big bird was perched on the gutter outside the wide
glass front that gives you a view of the old gray track in Queens, taking its
time nibbling away on the so-called rat with wings.
After we amateur ornithologists sat back down and got about
the business of the racing card, feathers still occasionally floated up into
view and away.
I had a “Dude, where’s my track?” moment upon pulling into
the spanking-new parking lot off Rockaway Boulevard.
Not so many months ago, the grandstand was exposed to view
like an old skull missing its jawbone, as they prepared the location for the erection
of Genting’s Resorts World New York City, a spectacular slot machine casino
that has to be seen to be believed.
In his state of the state address on Jan. 4, Gov. Andrew
Cuomo proposed a multibillion-dollar convention center on the Aqueduct site, which
carried implications for the racing side and accelerated speculation that a
domino effect on Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course would occur.
Having visited the casino, where 2,300 electronic machines
are blinking and jingle-jangling away non-stop, I can only conclude that, no
matter how lengthy and complicated the process becomes, the powers that be are
serious about the idea of swallowing the track bit by bit until it’s gone.
Gov. Cuomo said he wants New York to catapult itself from
having the 12th largest convention center in the country, the outdated Javits
Center in Manhattan, to having the largest. That means fully expanding and
converting Aqueduct into a one-stop destination for shows, hotel guests,
conventioneers and casino gamblers.
The necessary state constitutional amendment that would
allow full-fledged casino games — not just slots — would take some time and
complicated political work, including convincing the public to ratify the
amendment once it passes through two consecutive legislatures.
If this dream plan comes to fruition, it’s highly likely
that horse racing at Aqueduct would be phased out.
In the meantime, if you’re a racing fan and get an
opportunity to visit Aqueduct, be prepared for an eye-opening transformation (I
was making a pit stop there between assignments at Fenway Park for
Union-Harvard hockey and Siena vs. Manhattan in the Bronx).
I’d read numerous reviews and reports about the new casino,
but you really do have to see it to believe it. Resorts World New York shouldn’t
be compared to other racinos, like Saratoga Casino and Raceway, because the
casino absolutely dominates the scene now. And, at first blush, it was actually
pretty astonishing for this non-casino person.
I’ve compared the renovated Churchill Downs to the Mayflower
converted to a luxury liner, with the two graceful trademark spires allowed to
co-exist, if submissively, with swanky superstructures on either side. But the
racetrack clubhouse at Aqueduct is just an old afterthought, nothing else.
Veteran turf writer Ed Fountaine of the New York Post said
that the first time he walked from the racing side to the casino side, it was
like getting knocked out in drab Kansas and waking up in the technicolor Oz.
Others have said it’s the only racino they’ve seen where the
casino portion rivals what you would encounter in Las Vegas.
Me, I’m a racing guy and have no interest in casinos, but if
that’s your thing, great.
I have to admit that I felt a tad self-conscious wandering
through Resorts World with my quaint tools of thoroughbred handicapping: a
program and a printout of the past performances. I always doubted the theory
that mixing the two wagering pursuits in one racino setting would create
crossover fans to racing to any significant degree. I didn’t see anyone in the
casino with a Daily Racing Form.
Not that a racing fan would feel accommodated there, anyway.
If anything, I felt shunned.
I had been warned that there were no TVs showing racing, not
even the live races that were going on right outside on the track, not one
lousy monitor in a corner.
The casino is spectacularly appointed, with a two-story
spiraling, cylindrical chandelier dominating the entrance, and a huge bar that
circles a stage and has a curved 16-by-18 foot HD TV that was showing the
Florida State basketball team knocking the stuffing out of North Carolina. TVs,
TVs everywhere, and not a race to drink.
A terrific Greek salad, butternut squash soup and Stella
Artois from the Wolfgang Puck counter in the food court for 19 bucks, however,
didn’t seem like a bad deal.
Walking through the maze of slot machines, of which only
about half are installed so far, it was easy to get a little disoriented, so I
retreated to the racing clubhouse, Quasimodo-like: “The bells! The bells!”
I’d like to say that, with all this newfound prosperity,
there’s been some trickle-down effect to the racing facility, as they’ve
installed a cascading waterfall on press row. Actually, that was a ceiling leak
being collected in a plastic bucket.
Aqueduct is still Aqueduct, for better or worse, and I like
to look at it in a more amber light, and not through the cigarette smoke haze
that assaults you when you walk through the apron. They still have the Sunny
Jim Fitzsimmons room, with little green-shaded reading lamps and beautifully
framed old photos of the legendary trainer on the walls, although now it’s a
Players Club for NYRA Rewards guests.
And just because the sparkling casino dominates the
landscape now doesn’t mean that the racing side is no longer alive and
vibrant. On the contrary, each floor was crowded with loud, hardcore
racetrackers, at least on this day. I almost got shut out once.
The optimistic revenue projections for the casino have
actually been exceeded so far, and even though that hasn’t translated to any
noticeable physical improvements to the racing clubhouse, purses have received
a big boost, and capital improvement projects for Saratoga and Belmont are in
the works. For a cold Saturday in January, NYRA put together a really nice
The casino is thriving, and that’s good — very good — for
the New York Racing Association and horse bettors in this state. For now.
Racing fans are a hardy bunch who seem to accept the fact, if grudgingly, that
they’re going to get the short end of the slot machine lever more often than
A horse named Fight for V L T’s won the sixth race, by the
way, and paid $40.80.
No, I didn’t have it.