With New York announcing plans Dec. 20 to build a hockey arena, hotel, and entertainment district on the Belmont Park property, New York Racing Association officials are ready to move forward with their own renovation plans as they target potential new fans drawn by the development.
When construction of the 18,000-seat new home of the New York Islanders begins next year, NYRA hopes to begin its own upgrades that would include lighting for night racing, renovated racing surfaces, new luxury boxes, a renovated clubhouse, and renovated grounds—including dining and entertainment options centered on the paddock area.
"I think the whole development that the Islanders have envisioned works well for Belmont and the horse racing industry as well," said NYRA president and CEO Chris Kay. "This is going to be a destination where people of all ages will be coming to this site. Some of them have never been exposed to the excitement and enjoyment of horse racing. We will now have an opportunity to go after generations who don't know much about us. This is going to be a great, cool place to come. We're very much an important part of this very cool place."
Bidders on arena projects at Belmont were informed in that process that NYRA also plans to renovate the track facility. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said putting the arena at Belmont makes great use of the property. Critically for the Islanders and Belmont Park in terms of access, the Long Island Rail Road stop at the track will be converted to a year-round station.
"It's going to utilize this great asset (at Belmont Park) that has been under-utilized for years," Cuomo said. "This will be more of a full-game experience. You can come early with your buddies and hang out."
Kay said NYRA is looking at all options for funding its planned renovations, which currently do not have a price tag. NYRA does receive a percentage of revenues—dedicated to facility improvements—from the video lottery terminals at Aqueduct Racetrack. That money could help pay for some of the project.
As fans get accustomed to making the trip to the new arena and entertainment district for hockey games or concerts, NYRA would like to give them another option by offering night racing. NYRA received approval this year from the state Senate to race at night and hopes the General Assembly in 2018 will approve night racing.
"One of the reasons why this is such a perfect marriage with the folks from the Islanders is that they're going to create an entertainment district," Kay said. "We think this is a wonderful, synergistic opportunity for everyone. The Islanders, in an effort to attract new fans, conduct some of their events at night. Then they have the entertainment district to serve those folks who come to the arena. The same will be true for concerts.
"We want to have night racing at Belmont Park during the spring, summer, and fall, so that we can create new generations of fans who are currently working in the daytime. By virtue of having night racing, that can also feed into those restaurants and clubs in that same entertainment district."
For both new fans and current fans, NYRA also plans an overhaul of its clubhouse and grounds. Those upgrades also would figure to add revenue opportunities for Belmont Stakes weekend and also make the venue attractive to Breeders' Cup.
"The idea behind the renovation of the clubhouse would be to provide 21st century amenities to our fans and horseplayers, which we currently do not have to quite the same level," Kay said. "For example, on the first floor, what's so popular in so many other stadiums across the country, are these large meeting areas, social areas where you have a lot of activity going on: bars, food courts, and the like. We also would want to have the same kind of premier simulcast facility that you see at Aqueduct for our serious horseplayers.
"And then, as you've seen at other arenas and stadiums across the country, there are luxury boxes. We don't have any of those at Belmont. So that's something else we'd be looking at. The great thing about an opportunity to renovate this building is that we would not only improve our on-track dining experiences, but paddock dining experiences.
"That's another thing we're looking at. We want to make the paddock a destination in and of itself. A place they can see the horses, enjoy food and beverage and also watch the races on massive HDTVs and video boards."
Besides a complete renovation of the racing surfaces, NYRA is considering the addition of a track inside the turf courses. Kay stopped short of saying if the addition of such a track would signal plans to move NYRA's winter racing from Aqueduct to Belmont.
"Since I got here, I've always tried to invest our money wisely, and in a way that would give us options if opportunities ever arose," Kay said. "As best we can, we're going to invest our money wisely in capital improvements and give ourselves options if opportunities come along in the future. That's the approach we've used since I've been here and that's the approach we'll continue to use."
Kay hopes the renovations at Belmont can be done at the same time as the arena construction.
"It's a very long and extensive process that we'll be going through and the Islanders will be going through. It requires design work, it requires cost analysis, it requires construction permitting; all before you can begin to renovate," Kay said. "In addition it's going to require communication between ourselves and the Islanders to make sure that their development and our development are integrated cohesively so that people who come to Belmont Park will have a great experience no matter where they are on the property, even though we may have two different organizations responsible for creating that experience."
NYRA is not sure if the renovations will require Belmont to be closed for any period of time. Kay thinks NYRA has good options—racing at Aqueduct or Saratoga Race Course—should the renovations require Belmont to be closed for any period of time.
"The great thing about the New York Racing Association is that we operate at three different tracks across the state," Kay said. "If there was a period of time we felt like we'd be better served by having racing at one of our other tracks, rather than Belmont, we'll certainly look at that possibility."
Kay said Wednesday's announcement of the Belmont development is a step forward.
"It's very gratifying to me because I know how hard the men and women of the New York Racing Association have worked the last 4 1/2 years to get to where we are today," Kay said. "It's really been remarkable in that we've now returned to private control, we have created our own television programming organization in 75 million homes, we've had great racing with record handle, we have some of the best apps in the sporting world, built new dorms and renovated existing dorms and now we've taken an important step forward toward developing Belmont Park as a sports and entertainment destination like none in the country.
"I'm very, very, very proud of the collective work of the people in this organization and I'm excited about what the next 4 1/2 years holds in store for us. We're doing the right thing for NYRA and the right thing for horse racing across the country."