There was a lot to celebrate earlier this month when it was confirmed the New York State’s budget will include a $455-million loan to the New York Racing Association that will go toward a complete rebuild of Belmont Park. That means Belmont will be torn down and replaced by a new structure and that once the new building is up, racing will cease at Aqueduct. But when will it happen, what will the new track look like and what does it mean for the yearly racing schedule? Here are some of the most important questions and answers involving this dramatic change for New York racing.
When Will The New Building Open? The plan is to have the new track ready to go for the 2026 spring meet. Construction will start after the 2024 spring meet at Belmont ends. Shortly thereafter, the current building, which opened in 1968, will be torn down.
“It is very early on in the process, but our goal is to have the new facility ready for the 2026 Belmont,” said NYRA CEO and President Dave O’Rourke. “The specifics, we’re still working through that and I’ll have a much better answer for you this summer.”
With Belmont Closing in 2024 and Not Ready to Open until 2026, What Does That Mean for the 2025 Racing Schedule and the 2025 Belmont? That might be the single biggest issue that remains unresolved. There are a handful of options. They could run that spring at Aqueduct and hold the Belmont there. The Belmont was run at Aqueduct from 1963 to 1967 while the current Belmont was being built. From a logistical standpoint, that’s probably the easiest solution, but the aesthetics of Aqueduct leave a lot to be desired. They could try to run at Belmont during the construction and without stands. That’s what Arlington did in 1985 after a fire ravaged the track, just a few weeks before the running of the GI Arlington Million. Gulfstream found a way to conduct racing in the period between the destruction of the old stands and the opening of the new building. You can do a lot these days with tents and temporary seating. Or how about this? Run most of the spring meet at Aqueduct, but head north for Belmont week and have a Belmont-at-Saratoga meet for four or five days.
“Everything is on the table and we will look at all our options,” O’Rourke said.
NYRA has confirmed that all of the traditional fall Belmont meets between now and the re-opening of the new Belmont will be held at Aqueduct.
What Will The New Grandstand Look Like, How Big Will it Be? It will take up roughly 275,000 square feet, making it about one fourth the size of the current building, which covers 1.25 million square feet. As is the case with any new sports facility being built today, there will be an emphasis on amenities. Expect luxury boxes, a high-end restaurant and tents and other temporary facilities catering to the wheel-heeled.
If It’s Going to Be That Small, How Will They Accommodate the Types of Crowds You Get for the Belmont Stakes and, in the Future the Breeders’ Cup? “They’re going to lay down the infrastructure so that they can put up high-end temporary hospitality for the big days,” O’Rourke said. “It will be something like what you see at Royal Ascot. We’re building that into the plan.”
The new Belmont will also be able to place fans in the infield, something not currently available at the existing facility.
Belmont Struggles Mightily When it Comes to Attendance, Particularly on the Week Days. Can a New, Shiny Facility Change That Narrative?
“I think those attendances will be greater than you might think,” O’Rourke said. “Right now, if you come out here on a nice Saturday in the spring, every green area is packed. It’s the building. The building itself is a warehouse built for betting. We’re going to have a lot more green space at the new track. By creating a park-like atmosphere, I think you’re going to a see a different kind of draw on a regular day. It’s also going to be a facility that will cater more to the owner and horsemen. This is New York and a lot of the owners live here. We want to build something they’ll want to come out to. That’s what Saratoga does. It brings everyone, fans, owners, out. I know it’s a different market, but we think by having a smaller, high-end building we can accomplish some of that.
With No Aqueduct, Belmont Will Be Open for 44 Weeks. Is That Too Much? Could We See an Expanded Saratoga Meet?
“As of now, the plan is to run the traditional meet at Saratoga with Belmont hosting the rest of the days,” O’Rourke said. “We will see how that works out. If we need to adjust or try something different, we’ll have to figure out what that might be. What that might be, I don’t know.”
With All the Changes this Was NYRA’s Chance to Downsize its Racing Surfaces. You Need a Mile-and-a-half Main Track for Exactly One Race a Year. Why Not Go to a Smaller Main Track?
“Some things you just don’t want to mess with,” O’Rourke said. “We had many different variations drawn up, but we’re not going to change. The Belmont Stakes is the biggest event held here and the mile-and-a-half track works for that. There will be one change, though. The turf courses are going to widened, with more lanes.
What’s the Latest on the Synthetic Track at Belmont?
“The synthetic track is going in this year and will be ready for the 2024 spring meet at Belmont,” O’Rourke said. “Once we leave for Saratoga, the synthetic goes in, the inner turf gets redone and more tunnels go in. The flavor of winter racing in New York is going to change. We will have more options. Our circuit, we become a dirt circuit every year for four, five months. With a synthetic track, there will be more of an opportunity for turf-focused horses and they will have a place to run up north.”