On a crisp autumn afternoon in 1954, John Hanes began putting together an idea that would trigger a renaissance in New York thoroughbred racing.
For the most part, the prominent horse owner and member of the Jockey Club traveled to the New York metropolitan area’s thoroughbred tracks in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Once at the track, he would sit in a box.
But on this day, Hanes was on a fact-finding mission to find out what it was like for most guests to visit the track. So he took the train to Belmont Park. Roaming the grandstand, he looked for a decent lunch and a good seat. He found neither. Nor could he even get near the paddock for an up-close view of the horses. “It was useless,” Hanes told Sports Illustrated of his experience. “I never once got to a hot-dog stand, or to a $2 window, or close to a horse—or within range of a comfortable seat.
What Hanes learned that day in 1954 was revealing. Despite New York’s status as the nation’s leading racing circuit, the facilities at the four major thoroughbred tracks— Belmont as well as Saratoga Race Course, Aqueduct Race Track and Jamaica Race Course—were deteriorating. Meantime, increasingly paltry purses were compromising the proud tradition of the state’s tracks in New York. That had become apparent in 1953 when Alfred Vanderbilt’s great champion, Native Dancer earned $18,850 for winning the Travers at Saratoga, compared to the nearly $98,000 and $67,000, respectively, he had earned in Chicago for winning the Arlington Classic and the American Derby.
By then, some guests had started heading to out-of-state tracks where the amenities were more pleasant. There was even talk in racing circles that the iconic Saratoga Race Course, opened a month after the Battle of Gettysburg in August 1863, should be closed down because it was generating little state tax revenue.
But Hanes was hardly the only prominent New York-based horse people to be concerned. Some months earlier while speaking to the members of the Jockey Club at the Reading Rooms in Saratoga, Ashley Trimble Cole, the chairman of the New York State Racing Commission, resolved to take action in tackling the issues of thoroughbred racing in New York. “(And) if you gentlemen can’t do something about it,” he told them, “the Racing Commission will find men who can.”
The Jockey Club took note. Moving decisively, Vice Chairman Ogden Phipps named a three-person committee of people with demonstrated business expertise and a passion for thoroughbred racing to develop a comprehensive, long-range plan to restore the luster of New York Racing. Hanes, a former U.S. Undersecretary of the Treasury, was one. The others were Christopher Chenery, chairman of the board of Southern Natural Gas Co. and later the breeder of record of Secretariat; and Harry Guggenheim, a director of Kennecott Copper Co.
The three men met frequently, and by January 1955 had developed a comprehensive reorganization plan based on a deceptively simple idea. New York racing, the committee suggested, would best be served if the four flat-racing New York tracks joined hands under the guidance of a single organization to provide comfort, convenience and a good experience for horseplayers. “In short,” Hanes said, “invite them to come racing instead of inviting them to stay home.”
The committee called their new non-profit organization, The Greater New York Association, later renamed The New York Racing Association (NYRA). Chartered on April 28, 1955, the Association counted on the strong backing of New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, who in his 30s had owned a successful racing stable, Arden Farms, before turning to a career in government. The New York State Legislature complied, and in June 1955 granted NYRA a 25-year franchise grant that guaranteed it a minimum 4 percent of pari-mutuel handle at downstate tracks and 5 percent at Saratoga to be used for capital improvements. That enabled the association to borrow $47 million on a 10-year loan from a consortium of 13 banks headed by the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company in the fall of 1955.
NYRA then bought the stock at New York’s existing metropolitan tracks—Belmont Park, Jamaica Race Racecourse, Aqueduct Racetrack and Empire City— and Saratoga Race Course, upstate. At the Spa, there was concern that the Association would run a concurrent meet downstate and threatening the summer meet’s routine weekday crowds of more than 10,000. But as part of the legislation that created NYRA, Governor Harriman prohibited a simultaneous downstate meet while guaranteeing a minimum of 24 days of racing each summer in Saratoga.
In the New York metro area, NYRA closed both Empire City and Jamaica and sold the Jamaica property for a housing development. Creating a corporation to be run by the racing officials who received no salaries, NYRA raised some $45 million, which it earmarked for capital improvements at its tracks.
To secure bank financing, NYRA was granted a long-term franchise to operate the tracks. NYRA demolished the old Grandstand at Aqueduct, and in 1959, reopened the new facility. At Saratoga, the track and its drainage system were completely rebuilt, two new barns were constructed and 19 new bunkhouses and three kitchens were added. Racing at the Spa earned a further shot in the arm in 1963 when construction of the Northway provided a direct highway route from exit of the New York Thruway in Albany to the track.
Belmont Park closed as well, in late 1962, and the Grandstand there was rebuilt and modernized before reopening in 1968, just in time for the 100th running of the Belmont Stakes.
The rescue effort was a resounding success. On September 14, 1959, opening day at the new Aqueduct Racetrack, more than 42,000 fans took note of what was then the most ultra-modern, up-to-date racing facility in North America. Turf writer W.C. Heinz noted something more, namely what he called “a revolution in New York State that should interest taxpayers, legislators, horse lovers and horse racing throughout the United States,” as he wrote in Reader’s Digest.
In those days, Aqueduct’s autumn meet typically ended in mid-November, leaving New York’s thoroughbred tracks dark until the following spring. But in 1975, Aqueduct opens its winterized, one-mile inner dirt track on the former site of the inner turf course to create a year-round circuit of racing on NYRA tracks. In 2011, after NYRA had undergone bankruptcy, Aqueduct Racetrack took another major step forward when Resorts World New York City Casino, operated by Genting New York LLC, opened at the track. As part of the agreement, NYRA created a capital improvement budget that it is using to upgrade the physical infrastructure of all three of its tracks.
In 2012, at the direction of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, a temporary publicly controlled body was put in place to transform the management of thoroughbred racing in New York. At the time, the Governor signed the NYRA Re-organization legislation, he specifically noted the importance of New York State’s industry racing industry as a major economic driver in the state. The industry is responsible for the generation of 17,400 jobs and the contribution of more than $2.1 billion into New York’s urban, suburban economy. NYRA is the cornerstone of the industry segment.
The economic benefits are particularly apparent in Saratoga. A 2015 study by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) shows that NYRA’s annual summer meet at Saratoga Race Course generates $237 million in economic activity and nearly 2,600 jobs across the greater Capital Region. The report concludes that the economic rewards from the operation of the race course generate as much as $14.2 million in tax revenue for the city, the county and New York State.
These days, it’s likely that the racing enthusiast of 20 years ago walking into a NYRA track would feel right at home while recognizing a host of improvements that have made thoroughbred racing in New York more accessible than ever. Both Saratoga and Belmont Park have playgrounds and a lot of family-focused special events to accommodate the many families who now attend the races.
There are new restaurants and wagering facilities as well as a constantly expanding range of food and entertainment options, including Trakus at all three tracks; and in Saratoga, more picnic tables and a whole-hearted embrace of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Taste NY” initiative. There are an expanding number of must-see, big event days from the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival and the Stars & Stripes Racing Festival at Belmont Park to Whitney Day and Travers Day at Saratoga. And thanks to track announcer Luis Granderson, a native of Panama, NYRA races are now broadcast in Spanish, helping to expand its brand among Latino fans.
Today’s NYRA fan is likely to be taking advantage of technology by following the races on their Smartphones or on big-screen, high-definition televisions in the Backyard of Belmont Park or Saratoga Race Course or at Longshots, Aqueduct Racetrack’s 24,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art sports bar and simulcasting facility, which opened in 2014. And they are watching NYRA races using a range of digital wagering amenities, or even at home using Roku.
A case in point was the 2019 meet at Saratoga Race Course, where for the first time in history, NYRA generated more than $700 million in all-sources handle during the meet, which was conducted over a five-day race week and included the cancellation of a full Saturday card of racing. Wagering from all-sources totaled $705,343,949 a staggering increase of more than $46 million, or 7 percent, over 2018 when racing was conducted for the full 40 days during a six-day week. This year’s handle eclipsed the previous record set in 2017 by nearly $29 million or 4.2 percent.
The banner year was made possible in large part to the extended NYRA team drawn from facilities, finance, marketing and contractors working together under a tight deadline to open Saratoga’s stunning hospitality venue, the 1863 Club. Constructed over the course of only 10 months, the 36,000-square-foot, three-story, climate-controlled building took the place of the old “At the Rail” tents and temporary suites – and was an immediate hit, drawing solid crowds all summer.
Contributing to the success was the NYRA-TV team, which produced 192 hours of the acclaimed Saratoga Live broadcast, an unprecedented amount of live television, and also this produced a Travers broadcast, which had previously been a part of the NBC coverage. Also, the NYRA Bets team continues to excel and innovate with numbers that are way above budget expectations and last year’s results. In 2019, NYRA Bets account holders wagered $85 million in total handle year-to-date, $5 million higher than budget and driven by an increase in active users of more than 43 percent.
By working together, NYRA has been able to deliver on Governor Cuomo’s desire to see tourism grow as a result of our horse racing operations. In doing so, it has created more jobs and more revenue—and a bright new future for New York’s thoroughbred industry.
Aqueduct Racetrack opened on September 27, 1894, on property that belonged to the old Brooklyn Water Works, which was home to a conduit that brought water to New York City from the vast Hempstead Plain. Also known as the Big A, Aqueduct is the only racetrack in New York City, occupying 210 acres in South Ozone Park in the borough of Queens. Just eight miles from its sister track, Belmont Park, Aqueduct’s neighbor is John F. Kennedy International Airport, the top international passenger gateway in the United States.
Through the years, the Big A has been the scene of some of racing’s landmark events, including the only triple dead heat in stakes history when Brownie, Bossuet, and Wait a Bit hit the wire as one in the Carter Handicap on June 10, 1944. Man o’ War, Sword Dancer, Kelso, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Secretariat, Forego, Easy Goer and Smarty Jones built their legends at Aqueduct, and Cigar, for whom the Grade 1 Cigar Mile is named, won the first two races of his 16-race winning streak at the Big A.
From 1955-59, Aqueduct was rebuilt at a cost of $34.5 million. With a new grandstand, racing strip, barns, and accessory buildings, the new Aqueduct opened on September 14, 1959 to a crowd of 42,473 and rave reviews as the most up-to-date racing facility in North America. From 1963-68, during the reconstruction of Belmont Park, Aqueduct was the site of the Belmont Stakes.
In 1975, Aqueduct opened its winterized, one-mile inner dirt track on the former site of the inner turf course, and on October 11, 1981, it unveiled one of the largest restaurants in New York City, the multi-tiered Equestris. In 1985 and 1989, Aqueduct underwent two more rounds of improvements, including the construction of mini-theatres, the expansion of the backyard, paddock and grandstand and installation of a weather-insulated paddock.
In 2011, Aqueduct commenced its most sweeping change with the opening of the multi-level, 415,000 square foot casino, Resorts World Casino New York City, operated by Genting New York LLC. The casino, which occupies the former grandstand, commenced operations in October, 2011, and expanded to a second floor in December, with more than 5,000 VLTs and ETGs available.
For more than a century, Belmont Park has been the stage for many of racing’s greatest legends, showcasing legends such as Man o’ War, Curlin, Beldame, Rachel Alexandra, Seabiscuit, Cigar and many others. It began in 1902, when a syndicate headed by August Belmont II and former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney sought land on Long Island to build the most elaborate track in America, one modeled after the great race courses of Europe. They found what they were looking for on the border of Queens County and Nassau County. Originally known as Foster’s Meadow, the 650 acres of land included a turreted Tudor-Gothic mansion owned by William de Forest Manice, which was to serve as the track’s Turf and Field Club until 1956.
The grand opening of Belmont Park on May 4, 1905, attracted more than 40,000 fans who witnessed August Belmont II’s Blandy, at 7-1, hold off 100-1 shot Oliver Cromwell in the $1,500 Belmont Inaugural. Later, James R. Keane’s Sysonby, who would be ranked No. 30 on the Blood-Horse Magazine’s top 100 horses of the 20th century, made his 3-year-old debut against the super filly Beldame, another of Belmont’s charges. In the stretch, Sysonby got unexpected competition from 20-1 Race King, and the two hit the wire in a dead heat.
Closed in 1963 due to structural defects, Belmont Park was rebuilt and re-opened in 1968. Since 2012, numerous improvements have been made to enhance the guest experience while preserving its historic architectural elements, including the installation of hundreds of HD televisions across the property and new video display boards in the Paddock, installing Trakus technology for horseplayers and enhancing and expanding the Belmont Cafe and the Top of the Stretch picnic area. In 2015, $5 million in improvements were made to the transit rotunda on the west end of the Grandstand, as well as new rail station platforms, which increased the Belmont Station train capacity to 10 cars and improved egress from the track on major racing days.
The Belmont Stakes, the final and most demanding leg of the Triple Crown, is named after August Belmont who had been a leading banker and racing man of the 19th century. He was also the first President of the Jockey Club in 1867. In 1869, August Belmont took first and second money with his own Fenian and Glenelg.
The Belmont Stakes was run at Jerome Park from 1867 to 1889; at Morris Park from 1890 to 1904; at Aqueduct from 1963 to 1967. Not run in 1911 and 1912. Run at a mile and five furlongs from 1867 to 1873; a mile and a quarter in 1890, 1891, 1892, 1895, 1904 and 1905; a mile and a furlong in 1893 and 1894; a mile and three furlongs from 1896 to 1903 and from 1906 to 1925. No time taken in 1907 and 1908. Run as a Handicap Stakes in 1895 and in 1913. The value for the 1987, 1988 and 1992 winners includes the $1,000,000 Triple Crown point system bonus.
Secretariat’s 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes established the world record for a mile and a half on dirt at 2:24 and will forever be engraved into our memories. With his win in the Belmont, he became the ninth horse to capture the Triple Crown. Seattle Slew took the title in 1977 with Jean Cruguet. Five years later Affirmed trained by Laz Barrera, swept the Triple Crown races. His duel with Alydar in the Belmont Stakes earned him the titled of the 11th Triple Crown Winner. This was the start of the 37-year Triple Crown drought.
The American racing world would wait anxiously each year for the start of the Triple Crown series in hopes that a savior of the dry spell would emerge. Since 1978 many horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, Charismatic in 1999, War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, I’ll have Another in 2012 and California Chrome in 2014) and were denied racing immortality in the Belmont Stakes.
Then in 2015, along came American Pharoah. Owned by Zayat Stables, LLC ridden by Victor Espinoza and trained by Bob Baffert. In front of a capped crowd of 90,000, the field of eight headlined by American Pharoah, loaded into the gate. Everyone from the fans to staff to the Zayat family held their breath as the gates flew open. American Pharoah broke and went right to the lead at the first turn. Coming into the home stretch the crowd increasingly grew louder and louder cheering on the soon to be 12th Triple Crown Champion. Victor Espinoza opened him up as he made his “run for glory.” He glided across the finish line at a 5 ½ length victory and with a time of 2:26.65. It was the fastest Belmont stakes since Point Given in 2001 and the second fastest to Triple Crown winner, Secretariat. The crowed erupted in euphoria, the 37-year wait was finally over. Tears, laughing, and cheering amongst a most grateful Belmont crowd will be remembered for years to come.
The record-setting 147th meet at historic Saratoga Race Course saw the continued growth of two marquee days, Whitney Day and Travers Day, the latter of which marked by the historic appearance of American Pharoah, only the fourth Triple Crown winner ever to compete in the “Mid-Summer Derby.” While the momentum from American Pharoah’s victory in the Belmont Stakes drove attendance and handle at the Spa, perhaps one of the best moments in racing came the day before his upset by Keen Ice in the Travers, when 15,000 fans turned out in the morning just to watch him jog around the track.
With paid attendance at more than one million in 2015, the annual summer meet at Saratoga Race Course generates $237 million in economic activity and nearly 2,600 jobs across the greater Capital Region, according to the findings of a study released this year by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency (IDA). The update also shows a surge in job growth of more than 30 percent attributed to the operation of Saratoga Race Course and its participants, including owners, trainers and jockeys, as well as tourism activity generated by the track.
Already famous for its mineral baths, Saratoga held its first thoroughbred meet just a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Staged by gambler, casino owner, ex-boxing champion and future Congressman John “Old Smoke” Morrissey and beginning on August 3, 1863, the four-day meet drew thousands of locals and tourists who saw Lizzie W. defeat Captain Moore in the best-of-three series of races.
Emboldened by the success of that first meet, Morrissey promptly enlisted his friends John R. Hunter, William Travers and Leonard Jerome to form the Saratoga Association. Its first responsibility was the construction of a new, permanent grandstand on the current site of Saratoga Race Course. Across the street, the “old course” became the barn area known as Horse Haven, with the vestiges of the original track still encircling the stables.
While the summer meet routinely drew weekday crowds of more than 10,000 during the 1950’s, there was concern that the Greater New York Association, formed in 1955, would run a concurrent meet downstate. In April, 1957, Gov. Averill Harriman signed into law a bill that prohibited a simultaneous downstate meet and also guaranteed a minimum of 24 days of racing at the Spa. In 1963, the construction of the Northway improved automotive access to the track from the New York State Thruway in Albany.
Named one of the world’s great sporting venues by Sports Illustrated, the past comes alive every summer in the historic grandstand as guests experience not only the best in thoroughbred racing, but the unmatched ambience and charm of Saratoga Springs.
Although some may quibble with the order, it’s no wonder that Saratoga’s motto is “Health, history, and horses.”
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