After spending most of the past two months frozen in time at historic Saratoga Race Coursethe New York Racing Association is taking another trip back to the past.
Now it’s 1963 and the days of Kelso all over again.
That was the time when a crumbling Belmont Park was razed and rebuilt into a modern marvel of its era and racing shifted from Victorian Saratoga in August to the urban setting of Aqueduct Racetrack in September while the “new” Belmont Park was constructed.
Fifty-nine years later, déjà vu is heading into the starting gate.
With construction of an infield tunnel marking the start of another makeover for Belmont Park, once again the normal flow of the NYRA season has been juggled so that Saratoga will segue into Aqueduct for a 28-day meet that begins Sept. 15 and has been labeled Belmont at the Big A.
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“We’re building the tunnels at Belmont and there’s a challenge for the horsemen. We thank them and the (New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association) for their support because we are not able to open the main track at Belmont completely, but we are giving them an opportunity to use it the best they can,” NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations Frank Gabriel said.
Unlike the work in the 1960s, when Belmont Park was closed from 1963 until 1968, the construction of the tunnel is a first step that will allow NYRA to rebuild its racing surfaces, add a fourth, synthetic track, and remodel the grandstand over the course of the next three-to-five years while continuing to race in the spring at Belmont and keeping the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) at its home.
And when its finished, the goal is to have a state-of-the-art facility in which downstate racing can be consolidating into a sparkling, new complex.
“In the 1960s, the grandstand they built at Belmont was perfect for the environment they thought they would be operating in. The customer experience was built around wagering back then,” NYRA CEO and president Dave O’Rourke said. “Now that we understand how people will interact with the wagering, for us it’s more about the experience of getting people near the horses, getting people into nature, into green spaces and family spaces, and having accessibility across the different price points.
“At Saratoga you can reserve a picnic table and spend the day there and that’s the concept we’d like to see at Belmont. The building also has zero suites now. There’s been an evolution of sports venues in the last 20 years and we’ re going to benefit from all of the experience that went into building other venues over the last two decades. Our new chairman is Marc Holliday and I can’t think of a better person to lead us at this time.”
In the meantime, today’s trainers will get a taste of what life was like for their counterparts in the 1960s, starting with the construction work not far from their barns.
“The mounds of dirt are impressive,” NYTHA president Joe Appelbaum said.
As for the racing, the switch to Aqueduct in the fall is not that much of a curveball for year-round horsemen who generally spend November through April racing at the Big A, which does not have a functional stable area. While NYRA covers the cost of shipping to Aqueduct from Belmont and Saratoga, much of the inconvenience involves having to send a worker with their horse to Aqueduct and how the relatively short commute from Elmont to Ozone Park can be exasperating, depending on traffic.
“Would you love to walk out of your barn at Belmont and run? Of course. But we go to Aqueduct six months a year and now it’s eight, so it’s not that big of a difference. The positive part is we are going over there to use two very good grass courses,” said trainer Dave Donk, who is based at NYRA tracks throughout the year. “Aqueduct is nine miles away from Belmont and sometime it’s a 15-minute drive and sometimes it’s a 45-minute drive, but at the end of the day, it’s not a big deal.”
From a racing standpoint, the stakes schedule closely resembles last fall’s meet at Belmont. A key difference is that dirt races at a mile-and-a-sixteenth or mile-and-an-eighth are contested around two turns at Aqueduct as opposed to one at Belmont, yet that could pay a dividend with Horse of the Year candidate Life Is Good likely to run in the Oct. 1 Woodward Stakes (G1) as a final prep for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) because of the grade 1 stakes’ two-turn conditions. Turf sprints at Aqueduct are also capped at six furlongs, unlike those races at Belmont which can be contested at seven furlongs.
Overall, there will be four grade 1 stakes among 41 stakes (23 graded) worth $9.9 million at the Thursday through Sunday meet that ends Oct. 30.
“We created the stakes program with very few changes and the ones we made I hope will be positive and can produce the same good races we expected at Belmont,” Gabriel said. “We moved the Kelso (G2) later in the meet (from Sept. 25 in 2021 to Oct. 29). It’s been a struggle to fill it so we moved it to make it a prep for the Cigar Mile (G1). The (Oct. 8) Vosburgh (G2) was changed from six furlongs to seven so that it can be a dual purpose race for the Breeders’ Cup, either the (Qatar Racing) Sprint (G1) or the (Big Ass Fans) Dirt Mile (G1).”
As a financial boost for horsemen, NYRA will offer three bonuses linked to participation at the meet.
Horses who last raced at Saratoga will receive $500 for both their owner and trainer if they finish worse than third in their first start at the Belmont at the Big A meet.
Trainers stabled at Belmont or Saratoga will also be paid $200 for each start at the meet, while the owners of starters who are not stabled at a NYRA track will receive a $1,000 bonus toward shipping expenses.
The construction will also impact training at Belmont Park. Though horses can work on the main track and a turf course, training hours have been reduced and a section about a furlong-long has been fenced off to allow access to the site of the tunnel.
“The training situation has improved,” Donk said. “There has been a lot of cooperation with NYRA and we’ve made some good adjustments. It seems to be going well and most of us are comfortable with it.”
Belmont’s training track will not be affected, except for increased activity.
“The biggest issue is managing the load on the training track. That’s what we are focused on and we’re working with our trainers and NYRA on it. We can train on the main track for about an hour and a half on weekdays and 2 1/2 hour on weekends. Our horsemen are great at overcoming obstacles and everyone will make the best of it and we’ll be OK,” Appelbaum said. “We want to make sure safety is taken care of first. I think the care that (NYRA senior vice president of operations and capital projects) Glen Kozak and his crew put into our surfaces is great. We know the construction will take some years to finish but we hope it gets done quickly and done extremely well. We see all the surface issues that tracks are having around the country and there’s nothing more important than taking care of our surfaces.”
In the end, while the Belmont at the Big A meet may be more inconvenient than a typical fall meet at beautiful Belmont Park for horsemen and fans in Nassau County, there’s also the promise of a new and exciting chapter for New York racing in the next few years.
“There’s a reason the work is being done at Belmont and we have to concede a bit on it. We’ll all survive,” Donk said, “and this is great for NYRA’s future. We can’t lose sight of that.”