amNY at the Track | Big changes coming to Belmont Park, sooner rather than later

Horse running at Belmont Park
Jack Christopher runs by the fans at the Belmont Park grandstand in winning the Woody Stephens Stakes on June 11, 2022.
NYRA/Adam Coglianese

Belmont Park has been dark for the past nine months due to reconstruction, but this was a momentous week in its history.

It appears the long-awaited plans to build a brand new, modern grandstand is finally about to become a reality. Both houses of the state legislature included in their one-house budgets this week funding for the project, which Governor Kathy Hochul also included in her budget plan announced earlier this year. 

A lot of power brokering will happen among Hochul and legislative leaders between now and April 1, the state budget deadline, as they work out a spending deal for the coming year. But with all three parties in agreement on a new Belmont Park grandstand, the project looks as close to a fait accompli as it could be.

We Are New York Racing, the lobbying group that has been the most vocal in pushing for state funding for the new Belmont grandstand, and the New York Racing Association (NYRA) took something of a victory lap Tuesday after learning that the state Assembly and Senate had agreed with the governor on providing a state loan of up to $450 million for the project.

“The construction of a new Belmont Park will create thousands of jobs, generate billions in economic activity and secure the future of thoroughbred racing in New York State at no cost to taxpayers. By supporting this transformational project, Governor Hochul, [state Senate] Majority Leader [Andrea] Stewart-Cousins, [Assembly] Speaker [Carl] Heastie, and our partners in the legislature are protecting the interests of thousands of hard-working New Yorkers on Long Island and across the state,” said Patrick McKenna, vice president for communications at NYRA, which operates Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.

Final approval of the Belmont Park grandstand project will be a watershed moment in the history of thoroughbred racing in New York — an industry that critics claim is dying, but has found new life over the past quarter-century through funding from the Resorts World New York City casino at Aqueduct Racetrack, online gaming, television deals, Triple Crown pursuits and the revival of Saratoga Race Course.

Belmont has desperately needed a new facility to meet the needs of modern racing fans. The current grandstand, built in the 1960s, is cavernous and lacking in amenities on racing days outside the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. Because of its aging status, it lost access to the Breeders’ Cup, American racing’s biggest event outside the Triple Crown; Belmont last hosted the world championship racing festival in 2005.

The new grandstand will again make Belmont a destination race track for fans to enjoy beyond the Belmont Stakes, and give NYRA the ability to once again host the Breeders’ Cup. The new access to the infield, thanks to the tunnel reconstruction that’s expected to be completed by late April, will also allow NYRA to set up additional amenities and even park space within the ovals.

But all of this will ultimately come at the cost of Aqueduct Racetrack — a well-past-its-prime facility in its own right, situated eight miles away on about 100 acres of state-owned land in Queens.

One sign of Aqueduct’s impending doom came on Wednesday, when NYRA announced it would build a synthetic oval as part of its track reconstruction project set to begin after the Belmont spring/summer meet concludes in July. The project will completely renovate the 1 1/2 mile “Big Sandy” main track, and the two turf courses within it — the first major renovation to the racing surfaces in more than 30 years; all four tracks will be finished in time for the 2024 spring meet.

The synthetic oval will be 1 mile in dimension and located within the inner turf course. Last year, NYRA installed Tapeta Surfaces on a training track to gauge how a synthetic track would hold up in the New York climate. Unlike the main track, synthetic ovals are all-weather — staying fast regardless of precipitation or temperature. They have the added bonus of providing ample cushion to help horses absorb the shock of running, increasing safety.

Additionally, the Daily Racing Form reported, NYRA plans to make the main track “more amenable to winter racing.”

Synthetic oval racing surface at Belmont Park
The Tapeta surface installed in 2022 on a “pony track” at Belmont Park.Courtesy NYRA

NYRA Chairperson Marc Holliday said last June that the renovations to Belmont, both with a new grandstand and track, will enable the racing outfit to consolidate its racing operations there and shutter Aqueduct. Those remarks were seemingly confirmed by McKenna in a statement last year to amNewYork Metro: “NYRA has long been interested in consolidating its downstate operations to one facility capable of hosting live racing from September through mid-July as well year-round stabling and training. NYRA envisions Belmont Park playing that role in the future.”

So far, NYRA’s plans are finally on firm ground. They are poised to get the new Belmont grandstand and synthetic track which they’ve long sought. In a few years time, a new Belmont Park will emerge, and Aqueduct Racetrack will likely go the way of Hollywood Park, Arlington Park, Roosevelt Raceway and other racing meccas of yesteryear.

It’ll be bittersweet for New York racing fans, as we’ve previously said. But if the loss of Aqueduct results in a new Belmont Park that keeps thoroughbred racing strong for decades to come, then the effort (and money) will have been worth it.

Triple Crown notes

  • The Road to the Kentucky Derby is quiet this weekend, with no major preps set. Next weekend will see the Louisiana Derby which, at 1 3/16 miles, is the longest of the Derby preps in America, at the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
  • Forte emerged from the Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 5 as the heavy favorite at 7-2, powered by his command performance in the March 5 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Todd Pletcher-trainee will likely race one more time before the Kentucky Derby, likely the Florida Derby on April 1.
  • Arabian Knight, who had been the second choice in future wagers in Pool 5, was withdrawn from Kentucky Derby contention by trainer Tim Yakteen and owner Amr Zedan. The lightly-raced colt will likely be pointed to a summer racing campaign, according to the Daily Racing Form.
  • Tapit Trice’s victory in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 11 was the stuff champions are made of. A front-running horse, he broke from the starting gate slowly and wound up at the tail of the field. But he ultimately ran down the competition in the final strides and got the victory, punching his ticket to the Kentucky Derby in the process. If he can do that after being taken completely off his game, what can he do on it?