Retaining wall/pre-tunnel work under way at Belmont Park on Wednesday. 

Retaining wall/pre-tunnel work under way at Belmont Park on Wednesday.  Credit: Newsday/Randi F. Marshall

Daily Point

Off To The Races?

As the flurry of budget talks continues in Albany, at least one item key to Long Island will be left out of the final version: The bonding authorization necessary for the New York Racing Association to redevelop Belmont Park.

During a tour of Belmont’s facilities Wednesday, NYRA officials told The Point that they now hope the authorization for NYRA to access $450 million in state-backed bonds will be handled as a stand-alone bill after budget season is over and outlined their vision for what a remade Belmont would look like.

“It would mean a much smaller grandstand that’s modern but has a tribute to the past in terms of the aesthetic, lots of green space, a brand-new racetrack and the ability to host the Belmont Stakes and the Breeders' Cup at a level of panache we haven’t seen before,” NYRA chief executive David O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke envisions a new grandstand that would cover about 300,000 square feet, compared with the 1.2 million square feet the current grandstand encompasses. The remaining land could be used for extensive backyard, park and open space. The new grandstand would include suites, along with better food and gathering options and a roof that wouldn’t shade the track. A track suitable for year-round racing would require a limestone base, rather than the current clay. And in the middle of it all, an infield space finally would become accessible to fans.

NYRA already is starting work it can do without the bonding. A retaining wall is taking shape between the north parking lot and the track, part of a $20 million effort to build a pair of tunnels to allow vehicles and pedestrians to reach Belmont’s infield.

The timing is key. With a full casino likely to come to Aqueduct Racetrack, its racing could move to Belmont. Consolidating operations would make Belmont downstate’s racing hub — if and when it’s ready.

Belmont, of course, already is an extensive operation. There are 1,100 workers living on the property and more than 1,600 horses on the premises even during the off-season. As the spring season picks up, Belmont boasts as many as 2,000 workers and 2,400 horses. The property includes 65 barns, 84 dormitories and a day care center.

”This is part of the fabric of Long Island and I want generations of people to be able to experience what I experienced,” NYRA board member and local developer Michael Dubb said.

But while Long Island officials seem supportive of the authorization effort, NYRA has gotten pushback from outside the region. Last week, State Senate Finance Committee chairwoman Liz Krueger criticized the bonding authorization proposal during a virtual news conference, saying incorrectly that the plan was to commit $400 million in state dollars to Belmont.

Said O’Rourke: “The financing of this wouldn’t cost the state anything, but it would actually unlock value” both in the land that would be newly available at Aqueduct and in the possibilities of luring new fans to Belmont.

But Krueger’s critique, combined with concern over Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to spend state money on a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, was enough to keep Belmont out of the budget.

— Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall

Talking Point

Quick count

Election changes passed in Albany last year are coming on line in time for the June primaries, including a new statewide absentee ballot tracker, which the state Board of Elections proudly promoted in a news release on Tuesday.

The tool will inform voters whether their ballot has been received and counted, and will also alert them if they made a curable or incurable mistake when filling out that ballot.

It’s a long-awaited step into modern democracy for the state — the majority of states have already offered the convenience of tracking. But another new change may matter even more to political junkies who will be eagerly trying to see who won key races on Election Night. A 2021 bill sponsored by State Sen. Mike Gianaris changed some parts of the vote-counting process in order to get results more quickly.

Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, told The Point that the bill’s “big thing” is that it requires election officials to “open envelopes and feed the ballots into the machines before polls close,” meaning that there can be a quick count for absentees received before Election Day.

The beginning of the paper ballot count used to be delayed by the need to check whether absentee voters also voted in person, and other logistics like sorting the ballots and allowing candidate representatives to watch and potentially challenge incoming paper ballots. Correctly postmarked absentees are valid if they arrive up to seven days after a primary, which is when Long Island officials would be ready to start counting paper ballots in earnest.

Part of that logistical nightmare was also changed by the law: If you were issued an absentee ballot, you no longer have the ability to just vote on a machine in person. You would, however, still be able to vote by affidavit, which means signing an affidavit oath along with your vote, which will be reviewed later.

State BOE spokesman John Conklin confirmed that the new “canvassing” procedures would be in effect for the June 28 primary. But he cautioned that election boards still have to wait “for all military and overseas ballots to come back and be counted, which for a primary is still seven days after the election.” In other words, the official count could still take time, especially if there’s a big absentee vote: “I think the duration of the count will still depend on the volume of absentee ballots returned.”

Gianaris countered that the number of ballots that would arrive and need to be counted after Election Day — including regular absentees — tends to be “a minuscule number.”

While a final tally will still take some time, he says the new counting rules “will just allow the public to know who won on Election Night in almost every case.”

Test No. 1 in T-minus 3 months.

— Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

Pencil Point

Dem bashing

Credit: / Varvel

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Final Point

Intern season

The internship programs of Josh Lafazan have been the subject of plenty of spilled ink over the years. This time, he’s hoping the youngsters will carry him to Congress.

The Woodbury legislator’s campaign announced on Friday that it had more than 100 interns signed up for duty. The bulk of their work is expected to be in the field: canvassing, phone banking, and general voter contact. But they’ll also be broken up into teams to focus on issues like communications and policy.

The interns are mostly high school-age, according to the campaign, and they aren’t getting paid. Instead, they’ll be offered community service hourly credits, and there’s the possibility of college recommendations.

Lafazan often touts his youth credentials, including winning a Syosset school board seat at 18. He has used interns in the past in his Nassau County legislative office and his campaigns, and his management of them can get creative: With many of the young volunteers not yet at driving (or voting) age, the campaign will be mobilizing some senior citizen volunteers to drive the interns when they go out canvassing.

There are other intergenerational aspects of the intern program. Lafazan brings in political speakers for discussions with the newbies, including chats with the likes of former Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

In 2019, a Newsday article also noted that Democratic National Committeeman Robert Zimmerman, now a Lafazan primary opponent, came to confab with the Lafazan interns.

He reportedly picked up the pizza tab for the crowd.

"It was more expensive than buying a ticket to a presidential Democratic fundraiser," he said.

— Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano