Fifth in an occasional series.
Thirty-nine years ago, Secretariat raced from history into legend.
Big Red won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. The image is indelible: an immortal, racing only against time. On Saturday, June 9. there will once again be well-dressed crowds and loud cheers, and perhaps I'll Take Another, like Secretariat, will capture the coveted Triple Crown. But Belmont Park itself has lost its race against time.
It's clear that Belmont's future is linked to the future of gambling in New York State. Ideas for the park range from hosting year-round throughbred racing to a far more dramatic vision: a full-scale casino. Options for Belmont expanded on Friday, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said negotiations to build a convention center at nearby Aqueduct Racetrack had ended without a deal.
Certainly, Belmont will remain a thoroughbred venue, but even expanding its schedule wouldn't restore the social and economic potential of this stellar state asset. As of now, the few contenders for restoring some of the luster, such as adding a major league soccer stadium, aren't even near the starting gate.
Next month, Empire State Development will officially request proposals to develop 36 acres of state land at Belmont: one parcel of eight acres adjacent to the grandstand on the north side of Hempstead Turnpike, and remaining land across the road. The fortunate timing coincides with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's reining in of the New York Racing Association, which controlled Belmont Park with a strangling level of self-interest. The new NYRA management is expected to be far more flexible in how it uses Belmont's vast acreage to accommodate an overall vision for the park. This holistic approach could include a center to introduce new generations to riding, pedestrian access to the Long Island Rail Road station abutting the park, or shared use of parking fields.
Hopefully, those proposals will showcase a grander vision from the private sector for the available 36 acres, which could include but should go beyond the already suggested uses of housing, retail and entertainment. This site at the Queens border could be the catalyst to revitalize Elmont and Floral Park and provide desperately needed new revenue for Nassau County. By sparking such a renewal, Belmont Park can emerge a winner.
While Belmont was always a better site for development as a gambling venue than Aqueduct, that future appeared to dim in 2010. Gov. David A. Paterson and the State Legislature decided a racino with video lottery terminals was best placed at Aqueduct. The Genting Group of Malaysia won the franchise and quickly opened Resorts World Casino late last year, earning the state more than $216 million in its first six months of operation. The ambitious multinational company now wants to double the number of video terminals at Aqueduct, a move that would have better positioned it for a full-scale casino license if New Yorkers eventually approve a referendum to permit table games at seven locations in the state.
Until Friday's announcement, the Cuomo administration was considering that expansion in exchange for Genting building the nation's largest convention center near the racino. While thoroughbred racing could still have taken place at Aqueduct, one plan under consideration was to consolidate all racing at Belmont (save the short summer season at Saratoga) to attract better horses, jockeys and trainers.
That might still make sense. If a full casino never materializes here, Belmont could use that extra action. But there will never be enough fans to fill the grandstand more than once a year. To succeed, Belmont must be more.
As part of the convention center talks, Genting had demanded that Aqueduct get exclusive casino rights in the area. Now that Cuomo says he is talking to other developers about a convention center, the door is open for Belmont to be a top contender for a casino.
The odds are that Belmont Park can still get to the winners circle, but it will take a dazzling performance for it, and the surrounding community, to cash in. As always, its destiny is a gamble, wagered on gambling itself.
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