By T. D. Thornton
The construction of vehicle and pedestrian tunnels that cut underneath all three racing surfaces at Belmont Park could necessitate running the 2022 autumn meeting at Aqueduct Racetrack, New York Racing Association (NYRA) executives disclosed Friday.
Such a tunnel system giving greater access to Belmont's 55-acre infield could also be the first step in an eventual addition of a synthetic racing surface to Belmont.
Separately, NYRA has plans to rebuild a historic clubhouse turn chute at Saratoga Race Course that will allow one-mile dirt races to be run at the Spa for the first time in decades.
Those projects stood out among an extensive list of planned improvements green-lighted Jan. 14, when the Franchise Oversight Board (FOB) that represents the interests of NYRA's state-owned properties approved NYRA's capital expense plan for '22.
The proposed shutdown of Belmont in the fall is not etched in stone.
The issue first came up Friday when Renee Postel, NYRA's chief financial officer, said in her general overview of the proposed operating budget to the FOB that this year's spending plan “assumes the fall meet will take place at Aqueduct, which NYRA estimates will have a $2 million negative financial impact.”
Glen Kozak, NYRA's senior vice president of operations and capital projects, then explained to the FOB that the phasing and timing of the tunnel project is a work in progress that is just now at its first steps.
“It all hinges on availability of product, availability of design, and also the permitting process and how it impacts our racing operations,” Kozak said. “We had to get this at least in front of the FOB to look at what the plan would be. But there certainly could be timing adjustments to when this would actually take place where it would not hinder either the Belmont fall [meet], or, if it's something that could be completed during the [2022-23] wintertime, to allow springtime racing to return to Belmont.”
Kozak described the work as such: “It's tying in a pedestrian tunnel and also a vehicular tunnel that would go from the northern portion of the property, basically from the three-quarter pole of the main track, underneath the three current racing surfaces, and tie in to the infield and have the availability [to use] that current open space out there right now.”
Heavy equipment used to maintain the racing surfaces would constitute the primary use of that tunnel system.
Separately, Kozak said a smaller tunnel providing pedestrian access only to the infield could be sited near eighth pole, connecting to the front of the grandstand. Drainage and irrigation equipment could also be upgraded at the same time.
Patrick McKenna, NYRA's vice president of communications, said via email that there has been no final decision made on moving the Belmont fall meet to Aqueduct.
“NYRA is required to make certain assumptions for budgeting purposes, and those assumptions were discussed [Friday] with the FOB,” McKenna wrote. “While it is possible the Belmont fall meet will be conducted at Aqueduct, there will be no final decision on the fall meet until we have a clear picture of the permitting process and construction timeline for the infield tunnel at Belmont Park. Should the tunnel project not allow for the fall meet to be safely conducted at Belmont then it will be moved to Aqueduct.”
McKenna wrote that this past November, NYRA began the construction of a retaining wall necessary for the north tunnel to be built. That portion of the project is expected to be completed by the spring.
“In the near term, unlocking the infield will allow NYRA to renovate the Belmont racing surfaces and determine the feasibility of adding a synthetic surface to the current configuration,” McKenna wrote. “With the significant and permanent reduction in backyard space due to UBS Arena, the infield will become usable space for fans during big events. In addition, NYRA looks forward to providing open space for the community surrounding Belmont Park.”
By comparison, NYRA's resurrection of what was once called the Wilson Chute at Saratoga will be a far easier project to complete. Kozak said he expects it to take eight weeks and be usable at this summer's meet.
The original chute, which had been incorporated into a Saratoga track upgrade in 1902, is shown on old Saratoga track maps as being a nearly 90-degree carved-out section where the home straight meets the clubhouse turn, running more or less parallel to Nelson Avenue.
The closest example in North American racing is the current one-mile chute at Ellis Park, which decades ago had actually been modeled after Saratoga's Wilson Chute.
NYRA's mile chute got dismantled after the 1972 season to make room for parking. It was briefly brought back in 1992, but it wasn't so much of a true chute as a temporary configuration in which mile races started on the turn.
“The fortunate thing is everything is still in place from when the chute was decommissioned,” Kozak said. “This is a relatively simple construction process. When we rebuilt the main track, we designed the elevation with a grade on the outside so there could be a smooth transition from the chute to the main track…
“What's changed from the old chute is now you have a safety rail that's on the inside of the track, “Kozak continued. “In addition, we'd also look to expand the entire turn. So basically, where the chute is, we'd widen that part of the track roughly anywhere from five to nine feet over towards the harrow yard. It doesn't impact anything over there other than a camera stand that hasn't been used in the last six years…
“So we could have our full-size starting gate fit in there; have a wider chute so it's not the crowding going into the turn. We would also change the angle that it ties into the turn so it would be a couple degrees less where it would tie into it. And now with the new design of temporary or portable rails coming out of the chute, it's something that we feel would be very, very helpful to the racing product…
“We would do it this spring. We would start on the outside rail…pull the poles out, get all that set up, then [finish it] once the frost comes out of the ground. This is a very straightforward build,” Kozak said.
“I don't believe this is going to be something that is used with multiple races a day. But it will certainly give us that added benefit of that exact [mile] distance,” Kozak said.
Picnic facilities alongside the chute (in areas that were used for tailgating last year) are likely to be incorporated into the design, Kozak added.
The chute has the support of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, McKenna wrote.