Half a Billion in the Bank — And Next to No One in the Stands

At Belmont Park’s opening day, local brass celebrated a windfall of state cash. Hardly any fans showed up.

Sam Mellins   ·   May 8, 2023
An empty Belmont Park Winners Circle on May 4, 2023.
The Belmont Park Winners Circle on opening day, May 4, 2023. | Sam Mellins / New York Focus

In May 1999, the New York Times fretted that Belmont Park, once a premier destination for horse racing, had drawn precious few fans for its opening day. The crowd of 7,526 left the grandstand “empty and cavernous,” the Times reported.

That turnout would have made the place seem positively abuzz compared to opening day at Belmont last Thursday, when a total of 2,120 fans paid the $5 admission fee. Heavily male and silver-haired, they formed a small crowd at the fence separating the stands from the track. No one had to wait long in the short lines at hot dog stands and betting booths.

Attendance at Belmont, which sits on Long Island just over the border with New York City, has been declining for decades — consistent with the nationwide industry. Aside from the gaggle of fans near the fence, the stands on opening day were almost completely empty, especially on the upper levels. The footfalls of a man carrying a mop echoed across the second floor concourse. In the upper deck, a group of elderly women strained to spot the horses, barely visible as they started a race on the opposite side of the mile-and-a-half track.

“I won $4.71!” one exclaimed as the group crossed the finish line. The horses and jockeys were closely followed by an ambulance with its sirens off, trailing just in case — equine deaths and injuries are a frequent occurrence at Belmont.

Fans watch horses race, May 4, 2023. | Sam Mellins / New York Focus

Governor Kathy Hochul and other New York lawmakers are betting big that they can bring back Belmont’s faded glory. This year’s state budget allocated $455 million in public money to tear down the grandstand, build a new one in its place, and make improvements to the track and the property. Once Belmont is “modernized,” the theory goes, the crowds will return — and with them, the economic activity and tax revenue that the track once generated.

The $455 million allocation is a loan, but it’ll still be New York state that ultimately foots the bill. That’s because the New York Racing Association, which operates Belmont, hasn’t turned a profit for years. It relies on tens of millions of dollars in state subsidies annually, and it’ll use a portion of those subsidies to pay back the loan.

One group did show up in force to celebrate on Thursday. At 12:30 pm, just before the first race of the season, a cadre of legislators, union leaders, and horse racing executives gathered at the winner’s podium for a press conference. The speakers didn’t mention the multiple horses that had recently died while training for the 149th Kentucky Derby, which was run two days later, or the nine horses that have died at Belmont Park so far this year. They focused on their own big victory instead.

“I’m really thankful that the governor saw fit to advance this money,” said Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, who chairs the Assembly’s committee that oversees racing. “There were a lot of naysayers in the state legislature, people who think that racing is cruel and think various things negatively about racing, which I don’t agree with at all.”

Lawmakers thanked the racing association, which, according to public data, spent over $50,000 every month since January on lobbying in Albany. “I thank NYRA for keeping at it,” said Assemblymember Michaelle Solages, whose district includes Belmont, referring to the New York Racing Association. “Many of the times we met, many days of conference calls, Zoom calls, physical meetings, discussions, late night phone calls — it was a process to get here, but we’re finally here, and it’s really exciting.”

What is the case for dedicating nearly half a billion dollars to a sport in a long, slow decline? The racing industry says that a modernized grandstand will jumpstart a renaissance for Belmont. An industry-funded study predicts that the new grandstand will attract 350,000 new fans per year, nearly doubling current attendance. The new fans will bring other benefits, like tens of millions of dollars in new revenue and hundreds of jobs, the study claims.

There’s not much evidence to support those predictions, though — in the study or otherwise. No other racetrack has dramatically increased attendance by renovating, and it’s not clear why Belmont would be the first. It’ll likely see an influx in fans from the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens, which plans to close after the Belmont renovation. But the study says that the bump will come on top of the current attendance at Aqueduct and Belmont put together.

“So you don’t have the people here. But you do have the racing.”

—Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow

Belmont could also get a boost by hosting the Breeders’ Cup, one of racing’s biggest events, which rotates between several racetracks around the country and regularly draws over 100,000 fans. That would only happen about twice a decade at most, as the racing association acknowledges.

Pretlow said that New York racing has a bright future — but not necessarily because of the crowds. The boon, he thinks, will be thanks to out-of-state betting.

“So you don’t have the people here. But you do have the racing. People want to see good quality horses run,” he told New York Focus. “Even though these stands aren’t full of people, there are several people watching this around the world, not just the country nor the state, betting off-track.”

Track improvements will allow for better horses and thus more betting from around the world, Pretlow claimed. But that won’t mean much for the state of New York, since bets made on New York races from elsewhere aren’t subject to New York taxes.

Politicians hold a press conference at Belmont Park on May 4, 2023.
Politicians hold a press conference, May 4, 2023. | Sam Mellins / New York Focus

Most of the racing industry’s subsidies come from a slice of revenue generated at select slot machine parlors around New York, particularly Resorts World near JFK Airport. If the racing association finds itself in a stronger financial position once Belmont is rebuilt, will those subsidies continue? Hopefully, the gathered politicians said.

“It should. Yep, yep. It should,” said Senator Kevin Thomas, who represents parts of Nassau County near Belmont. “This is going to be an economic engine for this area.”

Resorts World is currently seeking to transform into a full-fledged casino, adding live dealers and table games to its current offerings. Pretlow said he’s focused on making sure that horse racing continues to get its cut if that happens.

“The money that they have been putting toward NYRA will continue to go to NYRA,” Pretlow said. “And maybe we’ll get a casino here.”

“That is an important segment of funding there. So it’s going to be important to work through that,” agreed Senator Joseph Addabbo, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees racing. He’s also optimistic that the renovation will bring back the crowds.

“Everybody loves a shiny penny. Everybody loves a new thing,” Addabbo said. “I think you’re going to obviously get a significant increase here.”

Some fans weren’t so sure. Andrew Gorgi, who had traveled to Belmont from Bayside, Queens, was sitting by himself, watching the races from a chipped green bench inside the concourse.

“Honestly, I really don’t know. There’s a huge stigma,” he said. “Almost everyone who doesn’t come out with me, they think that it’s old men who are drunks. They don’t want to be here.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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