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Local News September 5, 2013  RSS feed

BIG A’S DAYS NUMBERED?

NYRA Floats Closure In Race To Cut Expenses
by Robert Pozarycki

Racing may be permanently scratched at Aqueduct Racetrack in the near future as members of the New York Racing Association’s (NYRA) Reorganizing Board hinted last week that it may consider someday shuttering the South Ozone Park facility as a way to cut costs.

During a meeting in upstate Saratoga Springs last Wednesday, Aug. 28, board members learned that the racing outfit—which additionally runs Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course—is operating at a loss despite the regular infusion of funds generated by video lottery terminals (VLTs) at Resorts World New York Casino, located in Aqueduct’s former grandstand.

Due to a trifecta of rising labor costs, falling on-track attendance and marketing expenses, NYRA officials reported the company lost $1.7 million over the first six months of 2013. During the same period last year, NYRA’s operating losses totaled about $650,000 less.

Records posted on NYRA’s website, however, indicated increased wagering from simulcast outlets across the country and off-track betting parlors in New York State.

Nonetheless, as noted in an Al- bany Times-Union report, board members at last Wednesday’s meeting indicated the company must find a way to be financially viable without relying upon the VLT revenue to make up for operating losses.

During the session, Stuart Subotnick, chair of the board’s Finance Committee, reportedly floated the idea of shuttering Aqueduct in order to trim NYRA’s operating expenses. Aqueduct holds a six-month winter meeting which runs from early November into mid-April of the following year.

The finances used to operate Aqueduct would potentially be invested into improving Belmont Park and Saratoga, which host NYRA’s most prestigious events including the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.

Subotnick cautioned, however, that there is no official plan to close Aqueduct.

The Aqueduct Racetrack site, measuring more than 200 acres, includes the racing surfaces and infield, a backstretch stable area and the clubhouse. The NYRA, which previously claimed it owned all three of its tracks, ceded those claims to the state in February 2008 in order to receive a operating loan and a 25-year extension of its racing license.

As part of a 2001 law authorizing VLTs and slot machines at thoroughbred and harness racetracks across the state, NYRA receives a percentage of all proceeds from the VLTs at Resorts World New York. The state’s horsemen and breeders also receive financial subsidies through the wagering devices.

“Hardly in New York City can you find over 200 acres of [virtually undeveloped] land that can be used for other purposes,” State Sen. JosephAddabbo stated in a phone interview with the Times Newsweekly last Friday, Aug. 30. “Something like that can have a definite impact on the community for decades.”

Addabbo suggested that any plan to close Aqueduct would have to be accompanied by a redevelopment plan that provides something more beneficial for the community. The ideal plan, he stated, would include provisions that create jobs not only for area residents but also for those who presently work at Aqueduct whose positions may be eliminated by the track’s closure.

“If you’re going to close Aqueduct, I need to know what the alternative is,” the senator stated. “If it’s something that’s going to hurt my community, I’m going to oppose it. We will keep an eye on this, but the alternative to closing has to be beneficial for my communities in order for me to accept it.”

After NYRA filed for bankruptcy in November 2006 and with the continuation of its racing license pending, questions arose about Aqueduct’s future. Eliot Spitzer, who became governor the following year, reportedly considered a proposal to close Aqueduct, sell off its land and allow one entity to run Belmont Park and Saratoga.

That idea was scrapped in February 2008 with NYRA securing the license extension and operating loan.

But shutting Aqueduct, Addabbo said, is not something that the NYRA can do overnight. The state law which authorized the operation of VLTs at Aqueduct mandates that thoroughbred racing must be conducted at the location.

Should NYRA’s board decide to close Aqueduct, a law would need to be passed by the state legislature and governor to allow Resorts World New York to remain open if Aqueduct Racetrack shuts down. The casino, which has over 4,500 VLTs, has become one of the most profitable of its kind in the country.

Known to horse players as “The Big A,” thoroughbreds have been running at Aqueduct since 1894. When the NYRA took control of the track in the 1950s, a major renovation was completed to allow Aqueduct to fill the dates of Jamaica Racetrack (now Rochdale Village) after that track closed.

Prior to 1975, NYRA did not race in the winter at all. Aqueduct hosted the circuit’s first winter races in 1976 after the outfit installed a special onemile inner dirt track within the 1 1/8- mile main track. There is also a seven-furlong turf course within both ovals, used only during the spring and fall.

Even when the horses aren’t running there, Aqueduct is open yearround for simulcast wagering from Belmont Park and Saratoga and other tracks across the country.

In its heyday, tens of thousands of spectators would go through the turnstiles at Aqueduct each racing day. Over the last 20 years, however, attendance has dropped sharply, with the average daily count at about 5,000.

Some observers blame the falling attendance on deteriorating conditions at the track itself. Reportedly, NYRA has spent millions over the last year making improvements to patron and barn areas at its facilities, but board members indicated millions more in reinvestment are needed.

The Saratoga meet ended on Labor Day, and NYRA will open its fall racing meet at Belmont Park this Saturday, Sept. 7. The horses will be back on the Aqueduct track in November.

In the meantime, NYRAis reportedly exploring other avenues by which to generate revenue, including opening its own off-track betting parlors at restaurants and bars in New York City. This would fill the wagering void left by the defunct New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation (NYCOTB), which shut down in December 2010 amid its own financial trouble.

The proposal also requires the approval of the state legislature and governor through legislation. Addabbo stated he previously supported a bill to reopen NYCOTB which was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but would consider NYRA’s own offtrack betting plan.