Mark Berner

Mark Berner first worked with horses on a small farm in upstate New York in 1973, where he mucked stalls and cared for racehorses with infirmities that were turned out there until ready to resume training.

He joined American Teletimer as a clocker in 1976 and operated their electronic timing equipment at many east coast racetracks until 1978, when he was permanently stationed at NYRA's three tracks, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park & Saratoga Race Course.

Berner did freelance handicapping for the New York Daily News in 1982 & 1983 before joining Newsday in 1984 as a handicapper and later a sports reporter. Berner teamed up with Pricci to win the United Press International's 1985 UPI New York Newspaper Awards for Best Sports Story. In addition, Berner wrote and handicapped for several trade publications including, Daily Racing Form, Sports Eye, Racing Action, The Thoroughbred Times, Horse Player Magazine and New York Sportsnet.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2018


Belmont Park: It’s Two, Two Venues in One


The New York Islanders and its consortium, New York Arena Partners, is about to put $1 billion into a sports, entertainment and retail complex at Belmont Park, and the New York Racing Association is simultaneously planning to spend hundreds of millions of its own to renovate the property.

And to assure anyone who might harbor doubts that the new NYRA is not in it for the long term, the association will be asking the State of New York to extend its Belmont Park lease. New York racing is on solid ground once again and NYRA’s current vision now appears limitless.

“Belmont will be Gulfstream Park on steroids,” said NYRA board member Michael Dubb at a press conference last month to announce the selection of the Islanders as the winning bidder for the New York Empire State Development’s Request for Proposal.

The Islanders put together a team of A-list partners to help get this job done, including Oak View Group which on its website states: “We are here to be a positive disruption to business as usual in the sports and live entertainment industry.”

Added Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke: “You guys are going to be really happy with this.”

Leiweke should know. He and Oak View board member Irving Azoff, manager of more music stars than an American flag has stripes, formed the Arena Alliance. The alliance has collaborated with 26 world-class arenas to share music and sports content.

The NYRA is sure to benefit from synergy with the Islanders: Hockey can be to Belmont Park what the racino has been to Aqueduct specifically, and to the NYRA in general. Who knows, sports might become a viable business model for America’s struggling racetracks?

At this juncture, NYRA is farther away from a new beginning than the Islanders. The team wants to put shovels in the ground by spring. NYRA is still finalizing plans. It needs the blessing of its Board of Directors and the Franchise Oversight Board before applying for needed local permits.

NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay said the renovation of Belmont would take place in stages. The Belmont spring meetings will be conducted throughout the construction period. If all goes smoothly, that project could be completed by 2021.

The Belmont Stakes will not be run at Aqueduct, as is it was when Belmont was reconstructed in the 1960s. Belmont’s fall meetings are not as secure. Kay said he is trying to balance simultaneous racing and construction.

Kay told HRI that the entire clubhouse will be enclosed, winterized, and that corporate/luxury boxes will be constructed. The clubhouse will be dual faced with a view of the track facing north and a view of the paddock to the south.

Night racing is high on NYRA’s wish list. A bill permitting night Thoroughbred racing was passed by the New York State Senate last year and NYRA hopes to get it through the State Assembly this year.

The cost of lighting the track has decreased dramatically with the advent of LED lighting, which would allow NYRA to dim the lights between races, a nod to local resident groups that might object.

Current law states that Thoroughbreds own the day and harness racing owns the night. Kay said NYRA would work with Yonkers to stagger the harness schedule so that post times would not be in conflict, adding that NYRA has no interest in conducting harness racing at Belmont.

NYRA wants to build a fourth concentric track inside the three that already exist at Belmont, thereby avoiding shadows cast on the main track during the low sun of winter.

This is news, as it is the first time Kay or anyone at the NYRA has talked about winter racing at Belmont, a seeming confirmation that Aqueduct eventually will cease to conduct racing as the two downstate racetracks would be consolidated into one.

The backyard area at Belmont Park is safe said Kay, who added that most of the entertainment and retail shops would be built on land currently used for parking. Further, NYRA is considering building a tunnel to open up the infield to patrons for the first time.

Kay hopes that the backyard will be a draw to Isles fans that want to bring their families to the races, just as they do with hockey games. He likened the concept to the alcohol and nicotine free zone NYRA built for children at Saratoga.

It’s no secret that NYRA, and horseracing in general, needs a booster shot. The sport has not really created a vast number of new fans in recent decades. Hockey games and concerts can introduce new fans to racing that otherwise would not be exposed to a racing venue.

Kay hopes that dinner and the races will be like dinner and a hockey game, or dinner and a concert. He sees the creation of two venues in one place as a true destination for sports fans, thinking that more choices would give the sports crowd greater incentive to visit.

Gulfstream on steroids, indeed.

Written by Mark Berner

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