To see the future of Aqueduct, should we look to its past?

December 2nd, 2014

With the return of racing this week to its inner dirt track for a four-month slog, this seems like an appropriate time to discuss Aqueduct.

Torn down in the mid-1950s and then rebuilt and expanded, the current "Big A" re-opened in 1959. What it lacked in aesthetic beauty it more than made up in functionality. For the next decade plus it was the mecca of racing in New York and in the eastern U.S. in general, which happened to coincide with the sport's peak in popularity with the American public.

Even when Belmont Park re-opened in 1968 after a five-year reconstruction, average attendance (and thus handle) was higher at Aqueduct. Unfortunately, racing held at Aqueduct began to change in the early 1970s and not for the better.

Since the formation of the New York Racing Association (NYRA) in the 1950s, racing in the state has been conducted with the needs of government foremost in mind. Throughout the 1960s politicians in Albany routinely passed legislation that "allowed" NYRA to run more dates. Not that there was any particular demand among the bluebloods who managed NYRA or the public that more racing was needed. The state just wanted more revenue.

As the 1970s began there was still a sense of seasonality with New York racing. Opening day was typically the first or second week in March and the sport wrapped up by mid-December. However, stuff started hitting the fan when New York City Off-Track Betting (NYCOTB) opened for business in 1971. Not only was it a direct competitor to the tracks themselves but, ironically, pitted the coffers located in Manhattan and Albany against one another.

So what specifically caused New York racing to turn into a year-round grind, one that hasn't had a significant break since January/February 1975? Albany's demand for an expanded racing calendar was part of it for sure, but I don't believe there was a great clamor among horsemen at the time for a year-round circuit as most were used to resting their horses, or raced in Florida, during the winter.

What I recall gleaning from reading contemporary racing periodicals while in college decades later was that the expansion of the New York racing calendar was instigated by NYCOTB's threat of offering off-season wagering to its customers, in particular races from Hialeah and Gulfstream. As no share of the revenue from that activity would have been given to either NYRA or horsemen in the form of purses, NYRA's operators at the time felt compelled to keep running so as not to lose any more of its business to NYCOTB.

Aqueduct's racetrack and reputation changed. Out went the main one-mile turf course, in came the winterized inner dirt track. Out went July race dates with its major stakes and star fields, in came dates in January and February along with new stakes of questionable stature and national relevance. Aqueduct was now New York's "winter track" and with it a lot less green for the crowd's eyes to see.

With the demise of NYCOTB several years ago, winter racing at Aqueduct's raison d'etre was arguably gone, too. However, the segment of the industry that benefits most from its existence has become firmly entrenched in the ensuing four decades. Questioning its necessity or sustainability has become Thoroughbred racing's version of the third rail of politics.

Winter racing at Aqueduct has passionate supporters and detractors. Supporters note that part of the Aqueduct season is undeniably popular with bettors -- its average daily handle is generally exceeded only by Gulfstream and Santa Anita. Those that play it, some of whom cut their teeth betting on horses when it was introduced, claim to find more winning opportunities there than on other tracks.

Detractors find the thought of subjecting man and beast to such inclement weather conditions unnecessary in the age of full card simulcasting and declining field sizes due to a dwindling foal crop. Better to lob off a few months of action and keep the brand of New York racing high and close to uniform throughout the year as possible.

There are conflicting opinions and reports on how successful the wintertime product at Aqueduct is. For the longest time it was thought the meet was so profitable it helped subsidize the outlays during the Belmont and Saratoga seasons. The current management now says it loses money, leading many to speculate the meet's days, and Aqueduct's as well, are numbered.

Wherever the truth lies, it's hard to believe the benefits of 40 straight years of continuous racing have outweighed the costs. External competition has hurt the industry the most in recent decades, but before that came the fratricidal imposition of overlapping dates and product saturation that helped stifle demand for racing in most places.

One of the biggest victims has been Aqueduct itself. The scene of so many great moments and Thoroughbreds at the height of the sport's popular history is now viewed by many as unattractive and disposable. How it's perceived is due mostly to how it's been utilized for much of its existence.

In order for racing at Aqueduct to continue well into the future, which I hope it does, a serious re-thinking of the kind of racing product it offers seems required.