Outside the racino’s glow, horses still race at Aqueduct
Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens feels like an airport that has seen better days: Old TV monitors hang from the ceiling, announcements echo off concrete corridors and grizzled race fans stand around waiting.
On a gloomy, brisk Friday afternoon last month, several hundred people made their way into the cavernous grandstand to wager on horses. Most kept their eyes glued to the screens, watching the fluctuating odds for the first race at Aqueduct and the progress of races at other tracks across the country. Some stepped into the cold outside to smoke cigarettes and watch the jockeys and trainers parade their horses to the starting gate.
“Well,” one bettor said, “let’s start the day on a good note.”
The dingy conditions at Aqueduct are a world away from its neighbor next door, Genting’s Resorts World Casino, a bright swirl of vibrant colors where fl ashing lights twinkle and tones jingle from endless rows of what look like slot machines but are technically called “video lottery terminals.”
Yet their fates are linked: Since the racino opened in October, 6.5 percent of the take from those VLTs has gone to the New York Racing Association, which runs Aqueduct and two other state tracks.
The money has increased the prize purses in each race, which has drawn more horses to compete and boosted the state’s thoroughbred industry. NYRA’s three tracks handled $352 million in bets last year, up 32 percent from 2010, compared with a 2.6 percent increase at every other horse track in New York.
Now both racinos and racetracks face a reckoning in the coming years, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to legalize full-fledged casino gambling in the state. Genting wants to build a massive convention center at Aqueduct, and everyone expects the company will try to place a casino there as well.
That raises questions about the fate of the old racetrack—especially with NYRA’s Belmont Park racetrack just seven miles away across the Nassau County line.
“Everyone is trying to figure out what the future holds,” said Jeff Cannizzo, executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc. “Ideally, they [casinos and racetracks] can coexist with each other, as they do around the country.”
Cannizzo said casinos would employ only a few thousand people in New York, while industry advocacy groups estimate horse breeding and racing are responsible for 40,000 jobs. The groups have banded together to form the New York Horse Racing and Agriculture Industry Alliance to protect their interests should casinos come to the state.
Aqueduct hosts races during the winter months, and typically has offered middling competition as the best horses, jockeys and trainers head to Florida or California. The quality improves when NYRA shifts operations to Belmont in the spring and fall, and its summer meet in Saratoga still draws some of the best competition in the sport.
Genting’s expansion plans at the site, which include what would be the largest convention center in the country, would keep Aqueduct Racetrack open. Any decision to close it down and winterize racing at Belmont would be decided by NYRA and the state, said Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Genting’s Resorts World Casino. The current plans make room for both a convention center and racetrack.
“It’s not for us to say if racing is going to stay there or not,” said Friedman. “And so I think to assume that they’re going to winterize Belmont and go there is presumptuous. We envision racing in our plan.”
Aqueduct certainly has its fans, who would be disappointed if the racetrack were no longer in operation.
“There’s so much racing history here. [Belmont] isn’t very conducive to winters,” said Maggie Wolfendale, an on-air analyst for NYRA’s TV broadcast. “Some people just love Aqueduct.”
Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, chair of the Racing and Wagering Committee, agreed that Aqueduct serves an important function in New York horse racing, and needs to stay in operation even if a convention center is built next door.
“It’s like a stepladder,” Pretlow said. “If you cancel Aqueduct, it will make Belmont less important.”
Jack Friedman, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, would like to see Aqueduct keep running, but if not would want Genting to compensate the track for its lost jobs.
“I don’t know if it makes sense to combine both,” he said. “Belmont should have a first-class quality racetrack if there’s such a development.”
NYRA is banking on Aqueduct’s success, arguing that the track was profitable this year based on NYRA’s net income of $19 million this year—of which all but $1.4 million came from VLTs. The average daily purse this season is $375,000, up $100,000 from the year before, and the daily betting average in February was up 19.6 percent from the previous year.
“I think there’ll always be a passionate group of people coming to Aqueduct,” said NYRA spokesman Dan Silver. “There’s not a lot of crossover between people that play slot machines and people who bet on horse racing.”
But more revenue from VLTs and more extravagant purses may have hurt the horse-racing industry in a fundamental way: At least 18 horses have died while running on the track at Aqueduct since the season started late last fall, up from 10 in each of the previous two years.
Cuomo has called for an independent investigation, and NYRA responded by cutting the newly rich purses in lower-quality races, giving owners less incentive to work a horse beyond its capacity.
NYRA has also struggled at times to handle the basic tasks of posting results and calculating payouts, which have not seemed to be improved by additional funding.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli says NYRA faces a $19.7 million deficit, and fears it will misappropriate the $48 million in VLT profit it is projected to receive this year unless safeguards are put in place. In a statement, NYRA said it disagreed with DiNapoli’s findings.
“To implement all of the recommendations… would have required more money and resources than NYRA could prudently spend at that time,” the statement reads. “We fully understand the importance of this process and remain committed to completing it.”
On that cold Friday at Aqueduct, the bettors wagered $823,117 over the course of nine races. The real money came in from the televised simulcast, as the track handled another $5,538,387 from around the country.
In the day’s first race at 12:50 p.m., seven horses shot out of the gate to a chorus of shouts and applause from the bettors.
“C’mon baby, go get ’em!” one man yelled.
Running for a $30,000 purse, they covered a mile of dirt track in less than 90 seconds. The winner, Pleasant friday, returned $4.70 on a $2 bet. The thrill was intense yet short-lived. Losing bettors sulked away as discarded white betting slips began to litter the floor. The next race was half an hour away.
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, aqueduct, Belmont, casino, convention center, Dan Silver, death, Gambling, gaming, Gary Pretlow, Genting, horse racing, Jack Friedman, Jeff Cannizzo, Maggie Wolfendale, New York Racing Association, NYRA, Queens, Queens Chamber of Commerce, racetrack, racino, Resorts World, Saratoga, Stefan Friedman, Thomas DiNapoli, thoroughbred, track, VLT, Wagering
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