By T. D. Thornton
The 2023 push to secure bond funding for a new Belmont Park officially kicked off on a gray, chilly November morning with a press conference at the out-of-session New York State Capitol in Albany on Thursday. The unveiling of the legislative agenda for next year was hosted by the “We Are NY Horse Racing” coalition of small businesses, labor unions, non-profits, and trade associations.
While the scope of the years-in-the-planning project was largely framed in general terms as being able to bring state-wide economic benefits at no cost to taxpayers, several details did emerge about the ongoing attempt to modernize Belmont while closing Aqueduct Racetrack so that all downstate Thoroughbred racing eventually gets consolidated at one facility that is more functional and aesthetically pleasing than the other two outdated tracks.
The first bit of news is that the cost of the Belmont overhaul has risen slightly since a similar bond bill failed to gain support in the state legislature when the 2022 session expired in June.
Jeffrey Cannizzo, the senior director of government affairs at the New York Racing Association (NYRA), said a new Belmont would require “roughly $455 million” in state-backed bonds.
That's up 1.1% from the $450 million NYRA had sought via the bill earlier this year. But considering that inflation in the United States has rocketed upward at a 7.7% rate over the past year, that cost revision seems marginal.
“Belmont Park would be taken down, starting from scratch. So we're talking a completely new grandstand and clubhouse, right sized for a modern-age racecourse,” Cannizzo said.
Cannizzo also explained that “the clubhouse will be the last part of these efforts” and that the new, streamlined version of the facility would fit within a “similar footprint.”
Alluding to the work that's already being undertaken to build infield tunnels and possibly add a synthetic racing surface inside Belmont's cavernous infield, Cannizzo described the project as being built from the “inside out” if the state grants NYRA the bonds, which would then be paid back by NYRA through its share of video lottery terminal (VLT) revenue.
“Here's the vision: No taxpayer dollars are on the line. A state asset dramatically improves, and a world-class venue side by side with UBS arena,” Cannizzo said, referencing the recently-opened neighboring home of the National Hockey League's New York Islanders that, like the track, sits atop state-owned land.
“The VLT revenue comes that directly to NYRA, it's specifically earmarked for capital projects just like this,” Cannizzo said.
But because that revenue doesn't flow to NYRA in one huge $455-million chunk, It needs help from the state in fronting the money. The bonds would also likely offer a more attractive, lower rate than if NYRA sought a loan elsewhere.
The press conference was geared to a non-racing audience, and by having representatives speak from the Business Council of New York State and the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, it was clear that a primary goal of We Are NY Horse Racing is to get across the message that a rebuilt Belmont will generate trickle-down benefits extending far beyond just the Thoroughbred industry and the local economy on Long Island.
Najja Thompson, the executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc., warned that, “Without a strong horse racing ecosystem in New York, breeders can decide to move across state lines.”