Tomorrow Belmont Park will remind the world what it and horse racing once were.
With perfect weather expected and a Triple Crown hopeful generating excitement, this day could fool fans into thinking the event represents the gorgeous track's future. But it doesn't. For racing to thrive there, Belmont has to be redeveloped to provide a better experience every day. Other uses must blossom. The community must prosper. And Aqueduct, the area's other track, must close.
What are the odds of all this happening? It's far more of a long shot than 3-to-5 favorite California Chrome. Racing's decline is nearly as old as the 35-year-drought in Triple Crown heroes.
The New York Racing Association is required to create a strategic plan for the three state-owned tracks it operates, Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga, by next April. NYRA has lost money for more than a decade, even after receiving $200 million from the state in 2008 and $127 million from Resorts World Casino's video lottery terminals at Aqueduct in the past three years.
NYRA's challenge is to attract the young gamblers who prefer the rush of casinos and a hundred other forms of entertainment that have sprung up to overtake the old-fashioned pace of gambling on horses. Yet the pursuit is still exciting, and racing can have a future.
Belmont, with 1 million square feet of enclosed space that can hold 100,000 people, is the largest grandstand in racing. It can hold a Triple Crown crowd without forcing a single guest into the infield. That's great for the Belmont Stakes, but it's inefficient when only a few thousand people show up for the daily card.
Clearly Belmont needs an overhaul that would create a much smaller, heated grandstand, freeing up space for retail, restaurants and entertainment. The parking lots are vast and used too infrequently. Those areas can be put to far more enticing uses.
Pretty horses and 10 races a day aren't enough. And Belmont needs more synergistic partners. The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, which just reopened near the track to provide critical care and specialty treatment to horses, is a good example.
Such overhauls have brought some success at other tracks, most notably Florida's Gulfstream Park. Aqueduct, a miserable facility about 10 miles away that is now overshadowed by the fabulously profitable Resorts World Casino, should cease its racing. Concentrating horse racing at Belmont, other than the six-week summer meet at Saratoga, would free Aqueduct for development, as well. Saratoga, profitable and beloved, would be fine.
The reimagining of Belmont must also include a vision of what the state should do with 36 acres on the periphery of the park. A decision on whether to build a professional soccer stadium or to accept proposals for retail and residential uses has been awaited since a request was issued almost two years ago. With the area blossoming, there will be enough demand to refurbish the Belmont LIRR station, now obsolete and operated only on race days.
It's a long shot that California Chrome alone can save racing. The better bet is that a new vision can save Belmont Park.