LOS ANGELES, December 6, 2013—New York Governor Cuomo took his lumps recently when he referred to Aqueduct as a “waste;” reviving speculation that the Ozone Park facility would be closed and its racing operation transferred to Belmont Park 10 miles away.

Whether the State maintains two tracks or three, NYRA must offer its patrons a new approach to the racing experience that deploys those facilities to their best advantage.

The sprawling Elmont plant, which contains the only 12-furlong oval in North America, is capable of hosting crowds exceeding 100,000 but it hasn’t filled to capacity since 2008. Such happenstances are limited to attempts to win the Triple Crown; an average of twice per decade since Affirmed in 1978.

Races around both turns of the huge dirt track are rare, and those at 10 furlongs which are forced to start on the clubhouse turn are even rarer. Inadequate maintenance of that section of the track recently compromised the start of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Could this be another obstacle besides weather and politics to prevent Belmont from hosting the Breeders’ Cup; a situation that further devalues the venue? Is there another head-turning option out there?

Belmont as a destination will always suffer in comparison to Saratoga. Ironically, Aqueduct is now located right next to a thriving casino whose clientele represent potential horse race bettors at an upgraded facility that shares its subway access.

So why prefer an isolated location whose physical layout makes one-turn routes out of many distances run around two turns almost everywhere else? Real estate property values for one; those who don’t understand this concept—namely politicians—another.

Going forward with only an outdated, underused property doesn’t seem practical without first demonstrating the ability to reverse declining on-track attendance in the face of growing off-track participation.
The decision is probably best delayed until a future private-sector bidder makes a proposal.

The State’s intention to privatize racing at Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct in the near future, without current VLT revenue, will require innovation to increase the value of its franchise. Thus far, vision has proven myopic.

One opportunity to consider would be to take control of the Triple Crown by offering an alternate path that would increase the likelihood that a potential champion contests the Belmont Stakes. With equine safety consciousness on the rise, the timing is right to challenge the perception of what the Triple Crown represents.

Why shouldn’t any “qualified” three-year-old who, in confirmed graded company, wins at 10 furlongs on the first Saturday in May – and then successively at 9.5 and 12 furlongs within eight weeks be deemed a Triple Crown champion?

Purists insist that the five week duration is sacrosanct, that changing the spacing between legs would make it easier to win. Doesn’t it make sense, however, that 4 weeks rest between each leg would enable more contestants to deliver their best effort, thus making it more difficult?

The Triple Crown tournament is limited to the 20 horses that can fit in two starting gates, but why should the contests be limited to the same venues. Isn’t accomplishment more essential than logistics?

Churchill Downs broke with tradition last year by forcing Derby participants to compete in a smaller subset of prep races, giving greater weight to those scheduled within six weeks of the event.

Of course, if the Derby winner is not up to winning the Preakness two weeks later or does but is unable to compete again three weeks after that, the Belmont Stakes becomes significantly less-than, and Churchill management couldn’t care less.

This spring, would Orb have fared better in the Preakness with more rest? Could I’ll Have Another have avoided injury with more time between starts? Would Bodemeister have been more effective with three races in seven weeks than in five?

Where is it written that the road to the Triple Crown must only go through Louisville and Baltimore?

It has been posited that the main obstacle to moving the Preakness back even a week is that Pimlico would lose the heavy college student that has returned home. But what if the “new NYRA” proposed a second path to the Triple Crown, a New York-based path?

The key to an alternate New York path would be a weighted bonus structure for multiple top-four finishes in the series, generating greater earnings for most participants. Once the series catches on, bonuses could be extended to Derby and Preakness runners as well.

New York needs to do something dramatic, something different, and it doesn’t have to be limited to equine participants. Rather than raise admission prices to increase revenue, the NYTC could feature, say, a customer-friendly dollar-minimum Pick Six. Any carryover from the previous day would be suspended and payouts mandated for the Saturday pool only. Try it on a limited basis and see if it bumps attendance. Look outside the box.

Expanded use of Saratoga seems unavoidable if a downstate track is closed. Perhaps two shorter meetings replacing the existing one might work, but only with the town’s support, of course.

Since the area is as beautiful in May as it is in August, a Spa spring meet might prove an attractive launching site for a New York Triple Crown, encompassing a reconfigured Jerome or Dwyer and concluding with the Travers.