Race horses stroll along the track of Belmont Park before...

Race horses stroll along the track of Belmont Park before fans attend the 155th running of the Belmont Stakes on June 10. Credit: James Escher

ALBANY – Animal-rights activists have filed a lawsuit seeking to block a plan by Gov. Kathy Hochul's administration to loan the New York Racing Association $455 million to renovate Belmont Park's horse racing track.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in State Supreme Court in Albany, claims the loan is illegal because it benefits a “private corporation or association,” and therefore violates the state constitution.

NYRA called the lawsuit a “meritless attack” by activists who want to end horse racing.

At issue is a $455 million loan to NYRA, which holds a state franchise to operate racing at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga tracks. Hochul proposed the loan, the State Legislature agreed and included it as part of the 2023-24 state budget adopted in May.

NYRA has said the loan would be used to make extensive Belmont improvements, including a new grandstand and clubhouse and new racing surfaces. Belmont would be winterized and racing scuttled eventually at Aqueduct. Separately, gambling interests are expected to compete for a state license to turn Aqueduct into a full-time casino.

NYRA is supposed to repay the loan over 25 years.

The lawsuit, announced by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, contends the loan is not only illegal but unsound.

The lawsuit cites arguments used by advocates and legislators who tried to block the loan initially: Horse racing attendance is dwindling, the state shouldn’t subsidize another sports venue, NYRA has a history of bankruptcies and financial trouble and more than 1,000 horses have died at New York tracks since 2009.

Four horses have died at Belmont during this year’s meet at the track, including two within 24 hours of the running of the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

Critics say there is no guarantee NYRA will repay the full loan over 25 years, in part because its authorization to operate racing expires in 10 years.

The claim was filed by two PETA supporters, Jannette Patterson of Manhattan, and John Di Leonardo of Moriches, who also is president of Humane Long Island, an animal rights group that accused the operator of a Hauppauge sloth exhibition business of exploiting animals for profit.  

“No responsible private lender would make such a staggering loan to NYRA,” they said in the claim. “NYRA’s financial solvency is, at best, questionable, and whatever nominal benefit the public derives from its mere existence is opaque.”

Di Leonardo said in an email: “There are numerous causes worthy of the Empire State's $455 million. The dying industry of thoroughbred racing, which has lost the public’s support, is not one of them."

NYRA said called the filing a “ridiculous lawsuit” and a “meritless attack on a sport that supports New York families in every corner of the state.” It has said the renovation would create temporary construction jobs and save horse-racing jobs over the long term.

“Organizations like PETA are philosophically opposed to horse racing and make no secret of their desire to end the sport,” Patrick McKenna, NYRA spokesman, said in an email. “New Yorkers reject PETA’s extreme agenda by attending, watching and wagering on horse racing in record numbers.”

An important factor in the lawsuit could be the court’s view of NYRA as private organization or as a “state actor.”

In a lawsuit revolving around NYRA’s suspension of controversial horse trainer Bob Baffert, the association initially claimed it was not a state actor and therefore not subject to some of the same due process obligations as government.

But a federal judge disagreed, saying in 2021 NYRA and state government’s financial interests were “deeply intertwined” and the actions the association had taken could be seen as state actions.

“Every court to consider whether NYRA’s conduct constitutes state action has held that it does,” Carol Bagley Amon, a U.S. district judge in Brooklyn, wrote.

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Babylon village heroes fountain … High rip current risk … Guns & Pot Credit: Newsday

North Amityville crash ... Montauk parking ... Northport/East Northport time capsule ... Make your own charm bracelet

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