By T. D. Thornton
The New York Racing Association revealed May 4 that the inner dirt track at Aqueduct Racetrack is in the process of being converted to a second turf course and that the main dirt track will be renovated to accommodate year-round racing. The news sparked speculation that the switch over is just the beginning of a larger, longer-range plan that could eventually lead to the consolidation of downstate racing at a single venue instead of at both Aqueduct and Belmont Park.
Among the various scenarios that are being floated, the leading candidate seems to be the possibility that Aqueduct is being improved so it can serve as a temporary year-round venue while Belmont is shuttered for a full-blown makeover that would allow it to reopen a year or two later as the permanent, state-of-the-art home for year-round racing in greater New York City.
Reached by phone Friday, Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, said that he is not at liberty to speak on the record about detailed long-range plans involving the future of the two tracks, which are separated by 10 miles on the Belt Parkway. But he did add that an announcement having to do with that topic could be in the pipeline for later this year.
“We are working on a much larger plan, and we hope in the next few months–we’re working with the governor’s office and the horsemen–that the picture will become much more clear,” said Panza. “There is a much larger plan. At the moment that’s all I can say…. We hope in the next three to six months that we’ll be able to make more announcements on the future of New York racing. We think there’s a lot of positive stuff to come.”
The Daily Racing Form first broke the news about the project Thursday, which began this week after the Aqueduct backstretch was closed for training and Belmont opened for its traditional May-to-July meet. There had been no formal announcement from NYRA officials prior to the commencement of the work.
The new turf course will be one-mile in circumference, and in effect it will be a much more modernized version of what used to be the “main turf course” at Aqueduct between 1959 and 1975, when the venue featured two grass courses. The winterized inner dirt track first debuted in 1976, and it has undergone various changes in composition over the decades in attempts to make it a safe surface to withstand the rigors of winter racing. The inner track season generally has run from December through March.
Rick Violette Jr., president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and an ex officio member of the NYRA reorganization board, underscored the need for viewing the project within both short- and long-term contexts.
“I think the bigger picture is if things get somehow fast-tracked to where we’re making decisions about Belmont becoming a year-round facility, and there’s going to be a necessity to run at Aqueduct either a full summer or [through the] fall, there’s no way that we can handle summertime or early fall racing with just one turf course,” Violette said. “So having two turf courses there would certainly prep us for some important decisions that will be made going down the road. And for that, I think it’s probably a prudent measure.
“I think the most significant preparation [as part of a potential master plan] is being ready if decisions are made to either winterize or change the dynamic over at Belmont,” Violette continued. “If we were not able to race there for a summer and fall, [Aqueduct] would be ready to handle the workload, and you can’t do that stuff overnight. You don’t wake up and say, ‘Geez, we’re going to close down and won’t run at Belmont this summer, and shoot, I forgot to put in a new turf course.’
“So it’s long-range planning,” Violette summed up. “Sometimes [a new idea] in the short term doesn’t make sense. But from a 30,000-foot level, a lot of times it’s brilliance. We’re going to sit back and see what happens and have as much input as we can along the way. But I think that whole scope, from the short term–having a few more turf races in spring and fall–to the long term, of maybe introducing a new Belmont, is all part of the new scope and plan.”
Panza spoke in detail about the short-term benefits of both the new turf course and the upside of being able to card additional distances during the winter months on Aqueduct’s refurbished main track. He said he believes both moves will give NYRA better flexibility in terms of writing races while bolstering field sizes.
“By adding a second turf course it allows us to run turf sprints over at Aqueduct, which is something that we haven’t been able to do,” Panza said. “By moving the dirt racing to the outer track, it allows us a lot more variance in the distances we can run. The short races, we are basically limited to six furlongs. So if you had a dirt horse who closes going six furlongs, you just were sort of stuck for most of the winter. Now we’re going to be able to write six, six and a half, seven [furlongs], and a mile. So that should be able to help us on the dirt races. And in April, we do not quite get as much turf racing as we do in the fall, but it’s still going to help us in that we’re going to be able to run some turf sprints in the spring meet, and some more turf races [for conditions like] New York-bred maidens that [currently] overfill.”
Panza continued: “The old turf course is a little bit old and doesn’t drain that well. The new course will, so when there’s a little bit of off weather, we’re going to be able to use that new course because it will drain a little bit better…. We’re looking at a cost of around $3 million. We started already, and I would imagine we’d be done sometime around July or August. They’ll move pretty quickly here….The financial number on this thing, basically, it pays for itself in about a two-and-a-half or three-year period, so we felt very comfortable making that investment at Aqueduct.”
Violette said the addition of a second grass course at Aqueduct is in line with national trends.
“Turf racing has become more and more popular. I really think dirt racing is under somewhat of a threat,” Violette said. “At Belmont and Saratoga, we run six turf races a day as long as the weather holds out, and we’re life-and-death to get allowance races to go on the dirt, even sprinting. If not a mini-crisis, it’s a significant change within the industry that’s facing all racing…. There is certainly a change in dynamics over the past couple of decades.”
Christophe Clement, who has trained horses that have won 23 turf races and bankrolled $1.4 million over the Aqueduct course over the last five years, said he was in favor of the plan for additional turf racing.
“Obviously, they are thinking down the road two things,” Clement said. “One, should we have sprints on the turf at Aqueduct that will help them to fill up some races in the spring and the fall? And number two, if anything happens to Belmont, then we can move to Aqueduct and have two turf courses. As a trainer, just a wider choice of races would be great for us as a benefit for the types of horses we train.”
But on the opposite end of the spectrum, Rudy Rodriguez, whose trainees dominated the 2016-17 inner-track trainer standings with 49 wins from 201 starts, wasn’t as keen about the change.
“It’s going to be tough,” the conditioner said. “I know we’ve got to get used to whatever they throw at us, but hopefully they’ll be doing the right thing for all of the horsemen. I’m not too sure what the grass course is going to do for me. I don’t have too many grass horses. I guess we’ll have to start claiming some grass horses now.”
Panza said the ability to card turf sprints at Aqueduct is going to end up being a bigger positive than some might think.
“We’re going to probably be able to run one turf sprint a day, which is a big deal,” Panza said. “People don’t understand it, but there are a lot of turf sprinters in the United States. Breeders have been breeding for speed for so many years now that that’s sort of what’s out there, and we want to take advantage of that.”
The longer-term trend favoring turf pedigrees in United States racing is reflected, in part, by the recent announcement by the Fasig-Tipton sales company of a Turf Showcase select auction, which will consist of yearlings suited for grass and be held Sept. 10 at the company’s Newtown Paddocks in Lexington, Kentucky. Boyd Browning, Jr., Fasig-Tipton’s president and chief executive officer, said he is pleased to see turf racing expanding from a niche to more of a mainstay.
“Obviously, I’m glad to see the expansion with the turf course at Aqueduct,” Browning said. “It’s just another indication of the growing popularity, the growing interest, and the growing opportunities with turf racing in the United States. It’s nice to see on the heels of us announcing this sale that another major racing circuit is making these types of improvements. It’s a welcome sign.”