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Questions Loom Over Racetrack’s Future

Racing returned to a spruced-up Aqueduct Racetrack last Wednesday, Oct. 29, but the longterm future of the South Ozone Park venue remains clouded in uncertainty.

The New York Racing Association (NYRA) touted $14 million in enhancements around the facility “designed to further enhance the guest experience and improve the quality of racing.” Aqueduct, as profiled in numerous published reports, fell into disrepair in recent years, a product of NYRA’s previous financial woes.

“Investing $14 million in capital funds over the course of the past 16 months, we have transformed the very look and feel of Aqueduct Racetrack, and tried to further enhance the experience for our horseplayers and our fans,” said NYRA President and CEO Christopher Kay in a statement.

The improvements include a new high-definition video toteboard; the installation of Trakus, a digital system to track each horse in a race; airport-style seating; more than 100 flat-screen televisions; decorative, equinethemed murals around the facility; a repainted first-floor; and a new sports bar and simulcast facility called Longshots.

On the backstretch, where hundreds of horses are stabled, 10 new international stalls were built to separate thoroughbreds shipped from overseas for review and inspection. The NYRA stated this will allow for “a more streamlined process that will continue to support long-term growth in international equine competition.”

The organization also cleaned and repainted barns and made capital improvements to the dormitories where backstretch workers reside.

Even with those improvements and others made, questions loom over whether the races will keep running at Aqueduct years from now. At previous meetings of the NYRA Reorganization Board-the statesupervised panel tasked with reforming the organization and preparing it for re-privatization- members openly questioned the economic viability of keeping Aqueduct open.

NYRA’s finances have improved thanks largely to the infusion of revenue from Resorts World New York Casino, which operates in Aqueduct’s former grandstand. Per an agreement with the state, NYRA and the state’s thoroughbred horsemen receive portions of the casino’s proceeds. Under current law, Resorts World can only operate as long as Aqueduct hosts live thoroughbred racing.

The only racetrack located entirely within New York City, Aqueduct holds races six consecutive months each year, generally from late October until the following April. In addition to Aqueduct, the NYRA also operates Belmont Park, which holds spring/summer and fall meets; and Saratoga Race Course, known for its elite, 40- day summer meet.

Attendance at Aqueduct significantly dwindled over the past few years, with daily turnout last year averaging at about 5,000. The track’s handle-the amount of money wagered by the public-remains high, however, due to off-track wagering made by phone or online, or at simulcast facilities.

Given the need for continued improvements at Belmont and Saratoga-and that Aqueduct and Belmont Park are located eight miles apart-some NYRA board members suggested shuttering Aqueduct and renovating Belmont to accommodate yearround racing.

During the NYRA Board of Director’s Sept. 29 meeting, Kay indicated that “the executive management team continues to confer with various stakeholders and experts as part of its efforts to study and develop and recommendations” regarding prprivatizing the NYRA, including developing a business plan with a “three-year financial component, including 2014 actual performance.”

The plan will be submitted to the governor and state legislature in April 2015-and it figures to clarify the long-term vision for Aqueduct Racetrack.

Aqueduct’s 200 acres is owned by New York State; NYRA previously claimed it owned all three racetracks, but ceded those claims several years ago in order to receive an operational loan and a 25-year extension of its racing license.

Early in 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo floated the idea of constructing the nation’s largest convention center at Aqueduct, but that plan fell through after negotiations failed with Genting Americas, which operates Resorts World New York.

Most recently, the New York City Football Club reportedly expressed interest in building its new soccer stadium adjacent to Aqueduct.

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