John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Big A Turf II, a Win-Win for NYRA

Two weeks ago, the New York Racing Association revealed that Aqueduct’s inner dirt track is in the process of being converted to a second turf course, and that the main dirt track will be renovated and converted to accommodate year-round racing.

Finally, sanity is prevailing.

In our view, this comes a decade or two behind schedule. In that context, the current NYRA administration deserves props for finally putting the Aqueduct main track on course to become a meaningful winter meet, more reflective of what New York racing should be.

It wasn’t very long after its inception in 1976 that the winter-track race meet became the tail that has wagged the NYRA dog and, sadly, if one can picture those optics, it certainly did not do NYRA’s national brand and image any favors.

The argument we made historically was that if the winter surface is so great, why wasn’t it installed on the main track in the first place? You can’t run a world class American race meeting if the only dirt options are six furlongs or two turns.

The one negative in all this is that, with respect to racing and training, many New York horseman consider the existing main track surface at Aqueduct to be the best of NYRA’s three dirt-racing surfaces.

In any case, it wasn’t long before the “turf course” announcement initiated speculation that the addition of a second grass course is prelude to an altered big picture, a plan that eventually could lead to the consolidation of racing downstate at one venue.

There are several scenarios being proffered, the most logical being the possibility that Aqueduct will serve as a temporary year-round venue while Belmont is shuttered for a complete makeover to be determined at some point in the near future.

Following this reconstruction period, Belmont would reopen as a permanent, state-of-the-art home for year-round racing in the metropolitan area.

This would dovetail nicely with the proposed building of an arena across Hempstead Turnpike that would be, among other things, the new home of the New York Islanders.

The perception is that this new “sports complex” would be Long Island’s answer to Madison Square Garden and Barclays Arena. There are millions of people who live east of the Nassau County line. Belmont Park already rests hard by the conveniently accessible Cross Island Parkway.

All this certainly is an intriguing notion.

The idea that Big A Turf II is a blueprint for a bigger plan was given further speculative life when Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, declined to speak on this issue for the record but indicated that a big-picture announcement could be forthcoming later this year.

Panza also indicated in a Daily Racing Form story that NYRA is in talks with Gov. Cuomo and the horsemen concerning the future of racing in the New York metropolitan area.

A win-win would be that Belmont Park once again becomes a racing mecca while Cuomo grabs the land he so covets in Queens for further development.

“There is a much larger plan,” conceded Panza.

The short-term benefits of a second turf course and reconditioning the Aqueduct main track are obvious. Given the burgeoning popularity of turf racing with bettors and racing departments throughout the country, the move makes a lot of good business sense.

Modern turf courses are larger with better drainage. They provide additional racing lanes for extended race meets in the same manner that separate turf courses such as those in place at Belmont and Saratoga provide.

In addition to being able to card 7-furlong and flat-mile races out of a chute on a dirt surface that will play in the northern temperate zone, the benefit a new turf course will allow for the carding of shorter turf sprints, racing that almost always overfill at every class level.

An indication of the growing trend toward turf racing and greater American participation in international racing is another burgeoning trend, so much so that sales companies are now scheduling select sales that feature successful turf sires.

Yes, there is life beyond the Kentucky Derby.

It is rare that racing makes any progressive change at all, but one such as this is in New York is at once good for the business and the sport of Thoroughbred racing, a win-win.

When one considers New York racing specifically, a third win is at play; the ability to compete with the escalating threat to New York winter racing that has come from Maryland, specifically Laurel Park.

Over the past two seasons, The Stronach Group has made sizable eight-figure investments to their Laurel property. The quality of the racing there has improved markedly over all class levels and the handle numbers reflect as much.

Turf sprints and the ability to run 7-furlong and mile-chute races during late fall and early spring in the Northeast has given TSG an upward trajectory, as compared to New York’s, this past year in particular.

No one along executive row would admit this but if I were in one of those chairs, I’d sure being thinking about it. Then if any of my colleagues still had doubts about the validity of this concern, I'd suggest that they only need check out Linda Rice’s 2017 stats for confirmation.


Mark Berner is a bit under the weather. His Inside New York column will resume next Tuesday

Written by John Pricci

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