New York's Got Attitude Again - By Evan Hammonds

Originally published in the June 18, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan Hammonds A soggy Belmont Stakes (gr. I) day and a New Jersey-based longshot winner of the “Test of the Champion” couldn’t dampen the optimism that pervades New York’s state of mind nowadays. A decent crowd, ignoring the rain and unfazed by the lack of a Triple Crown title on the line, came out to the grand dame of American racing, betting just over $10 million ontrack on the day’s activities—a healthy figure for a non-Triple Crown June afternoon at Belmont Park. Both attendance and handle figures represented double-digit increases over 2010.

It’s doubtful even a potential Triple Crown winner could have done more to ratchet up the enthusiasm already surrounding horse racing in New York overall and within the New York Racing Association in particular.

Construction of the Resorts World New York Casino is progressing at Aqueduct, and the plans are for the first of a three-phase launch to take place by summer’s end. Attendance at the tracks has already been helped by the closure of New York City OTB last December, which actually brought fans back out in robust numbers to Belmont and Aqueduct for live racing and simulcasting. More players also are using the NYRA Rewards advance deposit wagering platform, and that’s putting more money into horsemen’s purse accounts.

After years of battling negative business trends, negative press, and an overall malaise that permeated NYRA before, during, and after its 2006 bankruptcy filing, NYRA seems to be on the uptick.

Slots were approved in New York State in 2001, and they’ve been installed at several harness tracks and at Finger Lakes, but it’s taken a decade to bring a casino to fruition for NYRA at the Big A.

“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, which races in New York. “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 a tangible mood-booster 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, who had a perfect storm of his own Belmont day with two graded stakes winners. “With the OTBs closing, 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.”

NYCOTB closed Dec. 8, 2010. Taking a proactive stance, NYRA got out front by offering to switch OTB customers to its NYRA Rewards ADW. OTB customers avoided the typical hassles of signing up for a betting account that could take days to process. Instead, 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 Rewards, which has generated $38 million in handle, according to Neema Ghazi, NYRA’s director of marketing. 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 a bet made through one of the state’s OTBs.

On top of all that, Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” returned as the theme for the Belmont Stakes. Now, what’s better than that to lift the mood in the Empire State? 

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