When the New York Islanders broke ground on a new hockey arena at Belmont Park last week, local and state officials hailed it as the beginning of new era for Long Island sports.
But when the ceremonial shovel hit the dirt, it wasn’t just about hockey. The event also stirred long-simmering questions about horse racing, New York City development, off-track betting and casinos upstate and downstate.
The arena for the New York Islanders is just one piece of what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo considers a visionary rebuild of Belmont Park, known for hosting the last of horse racing’s Triple Crown races.
But redevelopment backers have a grand vision of Belmont becoming a “sports destination” that goes like this:
- Consolidate downstate horse racing by ending it at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, and moving all racing to Belmont. Then promote Belmont as a destination with hockey, horses, hotels and shopping.
- Authorize three new downstate casinos by 2023, or sooner.
- Allow Aqueduct, which already rakes in money from thousands of video slot machines, to become a full-fledged casino, and maybe do the same for Yonkers Raceway.
- Consider selling to developers the acreage at the sprawling Aqueduct facility that won’t be part of a casino. The state owns the land and the horse racing business is just a tenant.
“We believe it makes sense to consolidate horse racing to Belmont so Belmont can become year-round sports and entertainment destination,” Kevin Law, CEO of the Long Island Association, a business lobby, said.
“The horse racing industry needs to attract the next generation of fans so consolidating racing at a new vibrant sports and entertainment destination campus might help with that," Law said. "Also, it frees up a lot of land at Aqueduct that could be repurposed for other economic development activities.”
Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont), who represents the Belmont area, said, “I know everyone is very excited about what’s going in with hockey.” But that’s just one “hook” that can propel a grander redevelopment “so people can fall in love with Belmont,” she said.
Also, she said, consolidation of downstate racing — the two racetracks are just eight miles apart — is “really what needs to happen to ensure the horse racing industry in New York … ”
Others cautioned that such plans would take years to actually come together — if at all.
There could be significant legal, financial and political hurdles on every issue. Moreover no one has put their full weight behind the idea, not even the New York Racing Association, the private entity that operates the Belmont and Aqueduct tracks.
“No one has floated this as anything coming up soon,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), whose district includes the area around Belmont.
The challenges are many.
Belmont would need to be overhauled to be able to host winter racing that now occurs at Aqueduct. “Winterizing” Belmont could cost more than $100 million, including heating parts of the clubhouse and facilities.
NYRA recently has spent millions of dollars to upgrade Aqueduct, in part to maintain its fan base there.
And legislation to permit night racing at Belmont would be needed.
A NYRA official didn't comment directly on the proposal to consolidate racing at Belmont, but noted the association recently poured lots of money into improving Aqueduct and considers the track vital.
"Since 2013, NYRA has invested $18 million in capital improvements at Aqueduct to upgrade the facility, add amenities and improve the quality and safety of racing operations," NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said in an email. "As the home of winter racing in New York, and the venue for NYRA’s live racing from November through March, Aqueduct plays an important role within the overall ecosystem of thoroughbred racing in New York State."
No downstate casinos have been authorized yet, but many political leaders think it's just a matter of time.
Voters in 2013 approved a constitutional amendment to add four upstate casinos in a referendum that also made three more downstate casinos optional beginning in 2023.
The upstate casinos haven’t met revenue projections and their owners and political backers are sure to say downstate casinos would further cripple their businesses, which provide lots of local jobs.
Others say downstate casinos are potentially too lucrative for the state not to consider them seriously. The state Gaming Commission has launched a study — due by year’s end — to assess the impact of downstate casinos.
Gambling companies already are lobbying state lawmakers to accelerate the 2023 time table. The companies include Sands, which has hired former Gov. David A. Paterson to make its pitch.
Potential downstate bidders also have said they’d be willing to pay penalty fees, likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to upstate casinos for the right to gain a foothold in the New York City area.
Genting, the giant Malaysian gambling company that owns the Aqueduct video slot machines, could turn the venue into a full-fledged casino with table games, many have said.
But Sands, MGM and other companies would want to compete so state leaders don't just hand a casino license to Genting.
Genting representatives didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
On Long Island, the Shinnecock Indian Nation has taken steps to begin talks with casino developers. Others have suggested that Jake’s 58, the Islandia video-slots facility run by Suffolk County Off-Track Betting Corp., could be considered for a downstate casino site.
Another below-the-radar issue would be Nassau County’s share of gambling revenue it now receives from Genting video slots at Aqueduct. The county recently received $5 million in proceeds and expects to receive the same amount every three months going forward. If Aqueduct becomes a full-fledged casino, would Nassau want and get a share of revenues from any new machines and games?
“Look, I like the idea,” Kaminsky said of consolidating racing at Belmont. “But whether it’s technically feasible and whether Nassau would get any share [of casino revenue] has to be addressed as part of any plan.”
Said Solages: “At the end of the day, we all have a vested interest in making sure Aqueduct and Belmont both flourish. The current model is not working.”