The first time I went to Belmont Racetrack was a wondrous experience. I took the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station right to the track, on a beautiful autumn day. About 25,000 people, including many families, picnicked on the grass, watched the thoroughbreds in the paddock, bet their $2 and cheered for their horse to win.
I sat in the lush backyard at Belmont on one of the new lawn chairs, as my pal Artie went inside to make a bet. Someone quickly sat down on the chair my friend had vacated. I turned to warn him it was taken, then realized it was ex-Secretary of State William Rogers, now a member of the New York Racing Association (NYRA).
He smiled and asked me if I found the chairs comfortable, how I was enjoying my afternoon and if I had any suggestions to make the place better. As we chatted, my startled buddy returned, and I couldn’t resist formally introducing them to each other, as Artie awkwardly shook Rogers’ hand.
The memory stays with me today, as I enter a virtually deserted Belmont on another beautiful fall afternoon decades later.
There are virtually no families in attendance, no music, just small clusters of older men. The LIRR “Belmont Express” that brought me out from the city years ago has been taken out of service.
In the still-beautiful, sprawling complex with a capacity of over 100,000, there are less than 2,000 people in attendance.
How did things deteriorate to this sorry state?
Many people blame NYRA management. “Why can’t they provide bus service from all the boroughs?” asks Larry, a track regular. “The Tropicana in Atlantic City offers round-trip service from New York City for $3. And the casino doesn’t even charge you to enter.”
His cigar-chomping friend Tony, squinting to read the blurry numbers on the outdoor big-screen TV, agrees. “What are they doing to attract young people? Where’s the marketing? How about NYRA executives get off their lazy asses and talk to their customers? All these jerks think about is slots, slots, slots.”
Tony’s right. While New York State authorized slot machine betting (“racino”) at Aqueduct in 2001, it just got around to finding an operator this year. Meanwhile, the NYRA factored into its budget slot machine revenue it never received and plunged into debt. In spring 2010, the NY State Legislature gave the NYRA a $25 million loan to get it through spring 2011, when the racino golden goose is supposed to land at Aqueduct.
To fully understand the folly of this, imagine if the struggling New York Mets, instead of spending money on better ballplayers and improving their product, decided to spend it on installing thousands of slot machines at Citi Field. How would that strike you, sports fans?
The state is following such dubious, short-term thinking with horseracing. Worse yet, a recent report by State Inspector General Joseph Fisch accused State Senator John Sampson and other government officials of loading the dice in favor of the corrupt AEG (Aqueduct Entertainment Group) in the supposedly competitive bidding to run the casinos.
After the scandal about the fixed bidding broke, the state reversed course and gave the contract to Asian gaming company Genting New York.
The casinos are expected to swing into operation in April 2011, and horsemen are worried that rather than rescue horseracing, the casinos will actually kill it.
“We’d better make sure that if we go along with the casinos, we have a locked-in contract,” said legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas, “because I’m afraid these casino bosses will one day wake up and say ‘Hey, we don’t need the horses at all, do we?’ ”
Back at Belmont and down about $50, I finally win an exacta. I gaze up at the big screen TV–$87.50. Not bad!
“No, that’s a six–it’s $67.50,” says Larry. “Nah, that’s an eight,” argues Tony, who also had the exacta.
I collect my $37.50, take a last look around the Belmont ghost town that once was a mecca of horseracing, and leave it for the last time.
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