Changes are coming to historic Belmont Park, located on the Queens/Long Island border. Big Sandy sits on an enormous plot of land and, on Long Island, land means money — lots and lots of money.
On Wednesday, Dec. 20, it was announced that the NHLs New York Islanders are coming back to Long Island, with an 18,000-seat arena to be built on the Belmont Park grounds. The thinking is that the new playpen could be ready for the 2020-2021 hockey season, though no timetable was given.
So, what does this have to do with harness racing? Potentially, a lot. This is not new news, but there has been some talk of Yonkers Raceway moving to Belmont Park. That sounds odd, but it could be a reality. The plan being discussed has Belmont Park expanding its training track from 1 to 1 ¼ miles. This would allow a one-mile harness track to be built in the middle. As most know, harness tracks and dirt thoroughbred tracks are completely different in composition, so a new track for Standardbreds would have to be built. In addition to the track, lights, roads and parking would also have to be added.
Yonkers Raceway is part of the Empire City Casino and tearing down the track or, in this case, moving it would allow the casino to expand and build a hotel and/or restaurant on the Belmont grounds. As much as many of us love harness racing, the casinos, hotels and restaurants bring in more money. By New York State law, a racino has to sponsor horse or harness racing, but is there a loophole that would allow off-site sponsorship?
Yonkers Raceway has been at its present site since 1899. There is tradition; there is nostalgia; there is familiarity; and there is history. If it moves, what will the economic impact be on Westchester County? Elmont (where Belmont Park is located) is 25 miles away, but it’s a different county and there will be economic implications.
The owners of Empire City would have to present the city of Yonkers and Westchester County a rock solid financial plan for the track to be moved. That said, most think that a hotel and restaurant has the potential to bring more money to the coffers of the city and county, certainly more than a harness track.
NYRA owns Belmont and it too would like to consolidate. Aqueduct Racetrack is in Queens and shares space with Resorts World Casino. NYRA’s plan is to demolish The Big A, allow the casino to expand, and move most of its racing to Belmont. This would require winterizing the Belmont track, which won’t be cheap. The casinos rule the world here, but the good news is that there has been no talk of cutting or discontinuing racing. In fact, if it’s done right, thoroughbred and Standardbred racing might get more money from the casinos to supplement its purses and overall operations.
NYRA would race most weeks at Belmont with some weekends at Saratoga, where the organization makes most of its money. Yonkers would move to Belmont and both casinos could expand to potentially make more money. Sounds like a win-win.
In harness racing, Yonkers has the highest overnight purses, but because it’s a half-mile track, it struggles to generate big handle. Imagine what could happen if Yonkers combined those big purses with a one-mile oval? On the East Coast, only the Meadowlands runs year-round on a one-mile oval. On a typical Saturday, Yonkers will generate between $500,000 and $600,000 in handle while the Meadowlands will hover around $2 million, despite smaller purses and inferior horses. Bettors like and want a one-mile track, plain and simple.
Imagine pitting one-mile Yonkers against one-mile Meadowlands? With higher purses, Yonkers would probably lure the better horses from The Big M to buoy their product, while further eroding the Meadowlands product. The only way the Meadowlands could keep pace would be to have some form of alternative revenue to boost its purses. A casino isn’t coming there in the near future, but there has been talk of a sports book there to help supplement both harness and horse racing in the Garden State. The only thing that keeps Meadowlands ahead of Yonkers in handle is track length and loyalty. The Meadowlands product is still good, but they have lost horses, drivers and trainers to Yonkers because of simple economics.
Meadowlands owner Jeffrey Gural has admitted that a one-mile revenue-enhanced Yonkers could drive The Big M into the ground. Nobody wants the Meadowlands to become a bigger version of Freehold, but a one-mile Yonkers would be a major threat.
The good news is this won’t be happening tomorrow and, even if it did, it would take years to construct and come to fruition. By then, you might be able to bet on the Giants-Cowboys game at The Big M. Having two world-class one-mile ovals in the metro would be a boon for harness racing. But, the Meadowlands seems to be at a standstill while Yonkers seems to moving forward.
For now, we will stay tuned and let the speculation run wild.