There is something in the air at Belmont Park this week that is just a notch higher than the annual buzz for the June 11 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). While anticipation builds in New York for the showdown of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Shackleford, those around the New York Racing Association are looking beyond the third jewel of the Triple Crown and the coming of the Saratoga meeting.
Construction of the Resorts World New York Casino is progressing at Aqueduct and the plans are for a first-phase launch taking place by summer’s end. With the closure of New York City OTB, people are actually coming back out to the track, and more are using the NYRA Rewards advance deposit wagering platform.
After years of battling negative business trends, operating at a loss, and a 2006 filing for bankruptcy, the NYRA seems to back on the uptick.
Slots were approved in 2001, but it’s taken a decade to bring it to fruition.
“For many years it was kind of a far off thing that we hoped for and talked about but we never had a good sense that it would get here,” said Terry Finley, president of the partnership group West Point Thoroughbreds. “Now every time that you drive on the Belt Parkway you see that the casino at Aqueduct is coming a little bit further along. It’s a legitimate hope now; it’s a tangible asset.”
The casino’s construction is making for an upbeat mood on the backstretch at Belmont Park.
“We’ve turned the corner on a lot of things,” said P.J. Campo, vice president and director of racing at NYRA. “We’ve got the VLTs coming up, hopefully, when we come back from Saratoga in September. You’re talking another $20-30 million in purses. Hopefully we can bring back some owners into the game and boost the business up. It’s an exciting time for New York.”
“I feel like we’re going to have a perfect storm, as a positive one and not a negative one,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “With the OTBs closing down, we’ve got all those accounts signing on and we get a bigger slice of the money and we’ve got the slot money coming. I think that once the slot money gets here, the quality of horses is going to go up.”
NYC OTB closed Dec. 8, 2010. Taking a proactive stance, NYRA was out front in offering sign ups to switch OTB customers to their NYRA Rewards ADW. Instead of the usual hassle of signing up for a betting account that could take days to process, one could open a NYRA Rewards account in an advertised “10 minutes to post.”
Since then, nearly 10,000 people have opened accounts with NYRA Reward and generated $38 million in handle, according to Neema Ghazi, director of marketing for NYRA. That’s significant because a wager through NYRA’s ADW is considered an ontrack wager, which returns a larger slice of the takeout to purses than through one of the state’s OTB.
“We’ve invested a lot in marketing and promoting our ADW through every channel,” Ghazi said “We were fortunate we saw the possibility of OTB closing; we moved for an instant sign up.
“One can wager ontrack, online, with a mobile device or by telephone, and we give them the ability to watch the races in real time,” Ghazi said. “We also have the most robust rebate program in the industry.”
While robust times seem to be ahead for NYRA, there’s still the matter of Saturday’s Belmont. Even without a horse going for the Triple Crown, some buzz is building for a battle of the Derby winner taking on the Preakness winner.
“We have a legitimate shot to break the handle record for a non-Triple Crown Belmont,” Ghazi said. “We broke that record in 2009 on the heels of a recession.”
That day, with Summer Bird winning the Belmont, saw $9,632,241 in ontrack handle. Forecast for good weather, a 12-horse Belmont Stakes field, and a solid undercard may just add to the blue skies in New York this summer.