BELMONT’S FUTURE: CHANGE FOR THE BETTER

The New York Racing Association opened Saratoga Race Course a week earlier this year and, despite cries from naysayers, all is good.

Saratoga’s 1863 Club
photo: Mark Berner

For two consecutive years, NYRA upgrades cleverly developed the two spots furthest from the finish line into on-track destinations for fans.

Last year “Top of the Stretch,” debuted in what used to be section Z in the grandstand. This year, the 1863 Club near the clubhouse turn, opened for business.

Progress did not wait for people who were comfortable with the status quo at Saratoga and it will not wait for those happy with a 50-year-old facility named Belmont Park.

Last week, the final approval process began for the New York Islanders Arena at Belmont and it will conclude this week. Groundbreaking could begin as early as next week.

Belmont’s Red parkng lot, future site of Isles Arena
photo: Mark Berner

Again, critics have cried about the ruination of Belmont, but NYRA is planning a major renovation to Belmont that has nothing to do with the Islanders Arena.

NYRA officials stated that Belmont’s plans would remain secret until the revelation of the Islanders’ final plan. Those soon to be publicized plans are final. NYRA’s plan for Belmont will soon follow.

Belmont’s beautiful paddock
photo: Mark Berner

There were cries to save trees in Belmont’s paddock and backyard and a letter writing campaign, which asked NYRA to curtail the Isles’ plans. NYRA has its own plan for the paddock and backyard and its officials have said there will still be trees and a kid-friendly family-oriented backyard park.

Rendering of Isles Arena
photo: New York Islanders

Jon Ledecky, co-owner of the Islanders, said at a season ticket-holders event last week, “Actual ceremony after Labor Day. Work on the arena might begin in next two weeks. One more hurdle to pass on August 8. Building ‘A’ done deal”.

NYRA itself has plans for a major renovation of the paddock with a multi-story horseshoe shaped building circling the saddling area and walking ring. It will contain boxes and suites, as well as food and beverage facilities.

There is even talk of suites facing the paddock from the back of the current clubhouse.

While the Islanders may encroach on some part of the backyard, NYRA officials assure the backyard will still exist, though its configuration will most likely be different.

Soon to be the former Red parking lot at Belmont
photo: Mark Berner

The New York Arena Partners will build its major projects, the arena and it’s food, beverage and entertainment space, the retail village and a hotel in mostly vacant parking lots used by racing fans once a year on Belmont Stakes day.

“Belmont will be Gulfstream Park on steroids,” said NYRA board member Michael Dubb in December 2017. One of the New York Arena Partners, Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke chimed in, “You guys are going to be really happy with this.”

NYRA’s plans include lights for night racing, which requires a change of current state laws. The association wants to build a fourth concentric track inside the three current courses to facilitate winter racing. That will probably be an all-weather surface that may also see use if races are forced off the turf.

Chris Kay, NYRA’s disgraced former president, confirmed to HRI in an interview on January 2, 2018, that NYRA’s two downstate tracks, Aqueduct and Belmont, would consolidate racing dates at both tracks solely to Belmont and racing, at some time in the future, will cease to exist at Aqueduct.

Belmont’s entire grandstand is slated for enclosure, making it suitable to year-round racing, save for the summer meeting at Saratoga, which in some future year probably will run from July 4th weekend through Labor day.

Digital renderings of the Isles arena show a brick exterior resembling that of Belmont, but inside it is a thoroughly modern facility. With contractors selected and a project manager hired, what was formerly known as the Red parking lot will be home to the Islanders, in time for the beginning of the 2021-2022 hockey season.

The south lot, south of Hempstead Turnpike, will house a 350,000 square foot retail village and not a mega-mall as fear-mongering protesters have described it. Mega malls are ten times that size.

The hotel will reside in the parking lot between the paddock and the barn area, providing accommodations for both hockey and horseracing fans, visiting hockey teams, and racing’s out-of-town owners and trainers.

Rendering of new LIRR station
photo: Empire State Development Corp.

A new Long Island Rail Road station on the main line at the north end of Belmont’s north parking lot will serve the racetrack and the arena with access from the east and west. The current terminal, seemingly soon to be obsolete, only has service from the west.

With arena construction slated to begin before racing returns to Belmont from Saratoga, and NYRA already having announced an early shift to Aqueduct, what other improvements could NYRA make between October and the 2020 Belmont Stakes?

The greatest profit center for NYRA regarding the Belmont Stakes would be high-priced boxes and suites to accommodate the big spenders on NYRA’s biggest day. Those facilities can be built in the window of time that exists before the 2020 Belmont, while many other projects would require more time to complete.

On the table for Belmont’s future could be a tunnel to the infield, which would create useful fan space in a vast unused portion of the facility.

Modern centralized food courts should replace the outdated concession stands currently spread throughout mostly unused portions of the grandstand.

Hockey fans will pay as much as $5,000 for a premium suite at the new arena, and all-event prices probably will top out at $500,000.

NYRA should target box holders and suite owners with comps to the clubhouse and similar boxes and suites at the track. If they can afford those prices, maybe they will like racing and maybe even buy a few horses. Even if luxury suites are used as customer perks, those are customers with disposable income.

What I would like to see at a renovated Belmont Park is innovative placement of the tote boards. Sink them into the ground with an upward angle so the fans can see them and see over them for an unobstructed view of the race.

What would you like to see at the new Belmont Park?

© HorseRaceInsider.com, All Rights Reserved, 2019

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39 Responses

  1. I really hope they don’t end up enclosing the entire grandstand. Being out in the open on a nice day in seats for racing is something I really enjoy. You can’t get the same feeling behind plate glass. Perhaps they could work it where the enclosing would only be temporary during the winter season.

    Also…any statement that has the word “Gulfstream” in it when it comes to fans and what they want should be used very cautiously IMO.

    1. Brian:

      Enclosing the Grandstand I think is unavoidable because I believe the plan is to eventually have winter racing at Belmont (with Aqueduct most likely closing in 2022 or ’23). It also is necessary anyway if NYRA wants to land the Breeders’ Cup.

      1. Oh I agree some enclosure is needed. I would just hope it is not one entire long enclosed structure. I know things will have to be made more modern as that is the change in the times. They just need to keep in mind one of the best things about the sport is being able to be outdoors and taking in the sounds, smells, and closeness to the action that is the track.

    2. Agree re Gulfstream. There could be a middle-ground on enclosing the grandstand – enclose only the Clubhouse – they will never need more space than that in the winter. Or there could be a hybrid approach for the first floor, much like you see with restaurants in NYC that have full glass fronts that can open in the summertime and yet stay warm in the winter.

    3. Bryan-
      The grandstand is huge. I walked its length yesterday at ground level and again on the roof to get photos. It would be a gigantic task to enclose the whole thing. Maybe build a multi-use section with windows that roll up like a garage door.

      1. Agree…and with the Arena and possible hotel on that side, I would not be surprised to see a shortened overall structure in the works to be more modern and condensed.

          1. Oh OK…thanks for that. I might have been thinking of earlier plans but I thought there was talk of it kind of being in the area where the western most end of the grandstand is now.

          2. Bryan-
            The hotel was originally slated to be adjacent to the arena. It was scaled back and moved.

  2. If Belmont does not have two turf courses, any other upgrade will be negated. Having two turf courses is an absolute. If one is taken away, then it could be assumed the the NYRA could care less about what fans really want.

    1. If they do put in a winter track, it likely would be inside the current turf courses and be 1 to 1 1/16 Miles in circumference. A mile oval likely is ideal because then perhaps you could especially with lights also have Harness Racing at Belmont Park, which might be enough of a concession to Harness horsemen to get the laws changed so NYRA can have night thoroughbred racing that I think will be necessary. NYRA could once construction is complete actually have a summer-fall Harness meet (including part of it going on at the same time as the Belmont fall Thoroughbred meet like Woodbine used to do) after the Hambletonian at The Meadowlands that could create a true circuit between any such at Belmont and The Meadowlands, including in this case taking over many of the former Roosevelt Raceway stakes that currently are contested elsewhere (in fact, I would even consider calling such a meet Roosevelt Raceway at Belmont).

    2. Sal-
      Belmont’s two turf courses are safe. Talk is to add a fourth course inside the three existing courses.

  3. Lights for night racing are an absolute must, as NYRA will need them if:

    They want to host the Breeders’ Cup ever again IMO.

    Major stakes programs, especially in the fall need to be moved to the evening to accommodate television (most likely NBC airing say what would become BC Preview night from 8:00-11:00 PM Eastern Time for example).

    The Harness horsemen need to understand this is 2019 and NOT 1977 when the threat of Parr Meadows (a quarter-horse track in Suffolk County that opened that year, then closed at the of ’77, reopened as Suffolk Meadows in 1986 and closed again after that year) running throughbreds at night is as I remember what led to what that has been with T-Bred tracks not allowed to race after sunset in New York State. That was mainly because the opening of Parr Meadows came on top of The Meadowlands opening the previous fall and taking away a massive amount of business from Roosevelt and Yonkers that never returned. Back then, no one could have realistically thought that NYRA would ever NEED to race at night at all, especially since in 1977 for example the television landscape was MUCH different with for example CBS actually having its biggest night on the week on SATURDAY and NOT Sunday night like it is now as people didn’t go out on Friday and Saturday night even remotely close to what they do now, even at the height at the Disco era that was going on then (what we see now with people out seemingly every Friday and Saturday night only really started around 1995 or so). That began to change with the Supreme Court in 1984 ruling the NCAA’s long-time monopoly on College Football broadcasts was illegal, which led to many more games on television that aired live and MLB almost immediately reacting by starting in 1985 having all games of the World Series airing at night in spite of constant cries that continue to this day to having day games on weekends (the last such day game was Game 6 in 1987, and that was a 4:00 PM ET start). The other sports league quickly followed suit, and the last Championship game in ANY of the “Big Four” pro sports (Baseball, Football, Basketball and Hockey) that was in the afternoon was Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals. EVERY SINGLE FINALS game in ALL of the “Big 4” pro sports since has been in prime time. That in turn has led to the mentality we have today among Millennials (those born after 1980) who likely NEVER saw an afternoon FINALS game in ANY of the “Big 4” pro sports thinking EVERY SINGLE CHAMPIONSHIP event has to be in prime time or its not relevant, especially since many now were not even born the last time such a championship game took place in the daytime and those that were had to be no more than a few years old the last time that happened (anyone who turns 30 in 2019 was no more than TWO years old the last time a Finals game was in the afternoon for example).

    The Harness Horsemen need to understand there is NO WAY NYRA would ever intend to race an every night schedule, especially during Saratoga. If it were up to me, I’d be looking for NYRA to run about 15 night programs a year plus days like Belmont Stakes day that would start in the afternoon and finish at night and others if need be where television requires a night program, almost if not all of them at Belmont Park. These mostly otherwise would be like having the opening Friday and Saturday of a meet be at night as well as perhaps the Saturday and then Thursday before the Belmont Stakes and certain major race days as noted above for example.

    The new train station is needed BUT I would also build a flyover and expand the bridge from one to two tracks to make the existing train station useful. If that is not possible, I’d be looking for a way to make it into an eventual termainal for an extension of the (E) and/or (J) subway lines and re-purpose that station for the subway with the idea of making Belmont (other than Belmont Stakes Day) a 24/7 park and ride facility as well.

    As for other development, that is long since needed in many cases and uses land that otherwise now other than Belmont Stakes Day is vacant all of the time. The suites are an absolute must not only for Belmont Stakes Day, but also if NYRA wants to land the Breeders’ Cup (in addition to installing lights and getting the laws changed regarding night racing). People may not like it, but it’s an absolute must.

    As for the 2020 racing season, what I see happening is this:

    Aqueduct remaining open through the Sunday after Memorial Day (May 31)

    Belmont only running a five-week meet starting the Thursday before the Belmont (June 4) and concluding Saturday, July 4 with Stars and Stripes Day (no racing that Sunday). I would in this scenario, except for Friday 7/3 after the Belmont Stakes I’d be looking to have Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays be “Six at Six” programs: Six Races, first post 6:00 PM with the last race going off around 8:20 PM (very similar to what many European tracks do in the summer, especially those that can start as late as 7:00 PM locally and still finish before dark). The “Six at Six” cards I suspect would be very popular with those coming out after work who want an evening’s entertainment that finishes at a reasonable hour in the evening.

    Saratoga because of a calendar quirk running a nine-week meet of 41-43 days starting Friday, July 10 and running through Labor Day (September 7). The day variable would depend on whether or not the second week would be Friday-Sunday or Wednesday-Sunday with the rest being Wednesday-Sunday plus Labor Day.

    Aqueduct then running what normally are Belmont’s fall days and then its regular meet to finish the year/

    1. Walt-
      NYRA did a cost analysis for lighting and LED’s will save over $100,000/year. The estimate was for 56 racing nights. The law needs to change to complete the plan.
      Belmont will be rebuilt in stages, like at MSG was. Aqueduct will pick up extra racing dates until Belmont is finished, then the Big A will meet the big end. A bad day at Saratoga is better than a good day at Belmont, therefore there will be more racing dates at Saratoga.

      1. The law does need to be changed and Harness Horsemen need to understand this (again), this is NOT 1977, which they seem to act like. As said, one concession might be to have a late summer-fall Harness meet (with dates similar to what were supposed to be in the fall at Roosevelt before it suddenly closed in 1998 of the week after the Hambletonian (which is also closing day at The Meadowlands) through the first Saturday in November, including much of that meet at the same time as the fall thoroughbred meet at Belmont on a new one-mile track inside the existing turf courses that then can be converted to the winter surface for winter T-Bred racing. As part of such, new tunnels would have to be built under the existing tracks and I would also build tunnels under such to allow patrons to access the infield, which then can be used not only to increase capacity for Belmont Stakes Day to around say 150,000, but also be used for varying events on a year-round basis (including perhaps building temporary stands and an ice rink in the infield for the Islanders to host a Winter Classic down the road if that ever came up for example).

        And yes, it’s no secret Aqueduct will eventually close barring anything unforeseen.

        1. Adding:

          I was surprised to see 56 dates for night racing, which is WAY higher than I have proposed (not including when cards are moved to the evening for television needs and days like Belmont Stakes Day that would be permitted to run to around 10:30 PM or so for example). My thinking was patterning night programs after Churchill’s highly successful “Downs after Dark” programs that bring in a lot of younger patrons and expose them to the sport.

    1. Would be interesting to see the horsemens take on that type of schedule. Night racing can be very hard on staff as unless training hours change you have people that are there from early in the morning till very late at night. I think in Europe there was some complaint about this as it was leading to burnout. I know there could be a long break in between for the workers, but better get the labor laws better written out as well or everyone is going to be scratching their head on how to properly pay folks.

      1. Bryan-
        It seems to work on twilight Thursdays and Fridays, and the harness peeps have always done it. There will always be squeaks, but money talks.

        1. Absolutely money talks. Some will complain, but most can adjust their schedule.

          Plus, even then, the bulk of cards would still be in the daytime save for perhaps in the winter cards starting at 1:00 or 1:30 finishing under the lights around 6:00 PM or so.

    2. Yes, but that would mean we’d also have lights at Saratoga. I simply don’t see that happening as the locals there I think would throw a massive hissy fit if NYRA installed lights (which again might be needed anyway so stakes can be in prime time for television), even if it were to run say ONE night card a week on Fridays (plus any Saturday or even Sunday where television dictates such).

      Biggest benefit of lights outside of night cards would be for morning training in the winter months as well as being able to stay at 1:30 during the winter and finish around 6:00 PM, allowing for more west coast handle.

  4. Seattle Slew ran at night at The Big M. So did the Buddy Delp monster, Spectacular Bid. If they were to run the “big wheels” they need to find another Jack E. Lee to call them: “This field is at the starting gate.” and, “The Red Man, Carmine Abbatiello.” Roosevelt was a blast, used to park outside near Fortunoff and crawl under a chain link fence to save the parking fee. “Johnny Chapman in the bike.” Good times.

  5. Mal-
    John Henry also raced at night in the swamp. Good memories at RR. Jack’s dad, Mike, was a regular in the NYRA press boxes after his days at the Long Island Press. I still live about 3 miles east of where RR was once located. My wife used to cut school to go there and watch qualifiers. Shhhh!

    1. I’m sure. I knew that about Jack’s father Mike (whom the Mike Lee stakes at Belmont is named for). Jack was a legend there and also at Freehold (where in the ’70s he called while also doing Roosevelt, there are some calls at RR from John Frogge, who was Jack’s backup for when he could not get to RR from Freehold fast enough and also from 1990-’97 or so).

      One thing I’d love to do is be able to build a new Roosevelt Raceway that would be a mile in circumference but with a chute to permit harness races at 1 1/4 Miles around two turns among other things, as I also believe (and especially after Lather Up went 1:59 2/5 for a mile and an eighth on Saturday) that 1 1/8 Miles should become the new standard distance on a mile track in Harness Racing.

  6. Gulfstream Park on steroids? That sent shivers down my spine. So limited outdoor seating, horses saddled in a claustrophobic tunnel, giant planters in the walking ring that present a danger to a horse kicking out or getting loose, post times that are 6 to 8 minutes later than published times, cheap claiming horses chewing up the turf courses, price gouging on days of Grade 1 racing, outrageous admission prices on big days to keep the Great Unwashed from the sight of the elites, valet parking prices the size of car payments, the look of a casino instead of a gracious country-like setting?

      1. Walt-
        The retail village will be in the south lot on the other side of Hempstead Tpk. You can’t even see it from the grandstand, unless you go on the roof.

        1. That makes sense and I think that was the main point. It won’t be like Gulfstream where the old grandstand was torn down.

    1. Barry-
      Dubb was talking about the physical plant, not the operating procedures of the racing association. I have seen the NYRA plans and the grandstand will remain the same. The changes will occur inside and around it, and in the infield. Ninety percent (my estimate) of the Islanders’ build will be in unused parking lots.

      1. Absolutely. The main difference is the physical plant will be winterized, which regardless is necessary anyway in order to land the Breeders’ Cup. Lights is the other big thing, and as said I think a concession would be any new inner track at Belmont would have to be for both winter thoroughbred racing AND a summer-fall Harness meet from mid-August to mid-November, creating a true circuit with The Meadowlands (and also one with Yonkers). While NYRA may want to go to an all-weather track, MANY bettors HATE synthetics and it might be better to go to a surface similar to the current one at Aqueduct that can be scraped up for a harness meet (and possibly two harness meets with a second meet from early April-just before Memorial that can include the George Morton Levy series for older pacers being run during such a meet instead of at Yonkers).

  7. Just got back online; don’t ask…

    Lights in Saratoga? How would you like to be the proverbial fly on the wall the next time Spa Chamber of Commerce meets?

    So, when should they close all the restaurants and bars in town to accommodate night racing? Spa Harness? Fuggedaboudit!

    C’mon people…

    1. I agree on Saratoga, though I suspect the restaurants would make adjustments to accommodate maybe Friday becoming a 4:00 PM first post with a 9:30 PM or so finish (the “four o’clock Friday” cards at Del Mar are by far the most popular there) and some Saturday cards finishing after 9:00 PM for television if lights did get installed. They could open earlier and get a lunch seating before such cards and still get people coming in for late dinners after the races on such days.

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