A new Belmont Park could fuel future attendance gains.

A new Belmont Park could fuel future attendance gains. Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

As a new arena rose at Belmont Park, the grandstand stood in its shadow, a relic of another time and place.

Yet Belmont remains a critical economic engine for the region. The park and backstretch form their own mini-city, housing more than 80 training-related small businesses, employing up to 2,000 people at the busiest times of year, and featuring a health clinic, day care facility, and more. But for Belmont to fully realize its economic potential, for its impact to ripple through the region, the rest of the park — including the tracks and grandstand — must be re-imagined, too.

So, Gov. Kathy Hochul's effort to include a $455 million loan for Belmont's redevelopment in the state budget is a smart wager.

The New York Racing Association hopes to renovate its tracks, open its infield, and replace the grandstand and clubhouse with a smaller, modern facility. The three-year project would enable year-round racing and add considerable open space, restoring the "park" and providing new opportunities for the land.

A re-imagined Belmont has broader repercussions. Hochul's budget memo notes that Aqueduct's racing would move to Belmont, leaving the state with 115 acres of prime real estate in southern Queens, previously valued at $1 billion, available for development.

The budget language seeks to address concerns regarding the New York Racing Association, and the future of Belmont and horse racing in general. The legislation itself doesn't specifically mention NYRA, which has a troubled past and uncertain future. Instead, the budget says the state will provide funds to the "franchised corporation" for the redevelopment. When NYRA's franchise agreement expires in 2033, the loan will rest with whatever arrangement the state then develops.

The loan will be paid back from video lottery terminal funds. NYRA currently gets about $120.7 million annually from VLT's, approximately $40 million of which goes to capital projects. The state will capture $25.8 million per year of that for 20 years to pay back the loan before it hits NYRA's books. State officials should ensure the budget language is explicit, so the state is paid back directly and completely.

There are broader questions, of which the first is the safety and care of workers and animals. A federal law passed in 2020 provides new regulations and a new federal authority. A centralized drug-testing program begins next month. Then there's the success of horse racing itself. While attendance remains down, betting NYRA-wide rose to $2.3 billion in 2022, in part fueled by online sports betting. A new Belmont could fuel future attendance gains. State officials must make sure NYRA follows through on its commitments, prioritizes safety, and continues to shed past problems.

This version of the Belmont Stakes can be a win — if Hochul and the State Legislature get the redevelopment across the finish line.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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