Betting on Belmont Park

Randi F. Marshall for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

With all the talk about downstate casinos — and the possibility that one of them could end up at Genting-owned Resorts World New York City at Aqueduct Racetrack — eyes are turning to another key player in the mix: Belmont Park. Could Belmont end up being the region’s racing home, if Aqueduct’s focus turns to casino gambling?

That would only work if Belmont Park’s racing facilities are re-imagined. And those first steps are underway — but the rest won’t happen without state approval to obtain financing.

A retaining wall on the north end of Belmont now is under construction, to be completed by spring. That will allow the New York Racing Association to construct a tunnel from the north end so vehicles and pedestrians can access Belmont’s previously unused infield.

But that’s just the beginning. NYRA’s ultimate goal is to modernize the racetrack and to construct a new structure to replace Belmont’s existing grandstand and clubhouse.

"For thoroughbred racing, a new Belmont Park would be the most significant and important project in many decades," NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna told The Point. "It would pave the way for the return of the Breeders’ Cup to New York and result in a facility capable of hosting year-round racing, among other advantages."

To finance the construction, though, NYRA needs the state’s help, since the association is seeking the ability to use state-backed bonds. While state and NYRA officials apparently have discussed the issue, the racing association has yet to get the authority it needs. NYRA hopes it could be handled through the ongoing state budget process, which would require a go-ahead from the legislature and governor.

Unlike the initial reaction to the arena and other projects at Belmont, it seems the remaking of the racing facilities — and the use of state-backed bonding — has the full support of local elected officials, including State Sens. Anna Kaplan and Todd Kaminsky and Assembs. Clyde Vanel of Queens and Michaelle Solages, who wrote a letter last month to legislative leaders Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Carl Heastie advocating for the bonding authority.

Also on board: the Elmont Chamber of Commerce and the mayors of South Floral Park and Floral Park.

Floral Park Mayor Kevin Fitzgerald’s support is particularly noteworthy, given the village’s reticence to support the other development at Belmont. In a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, Fitzgerald noted that NYRA has committed "to protect our residents."

In his letter, Fitzgerald highlighted some of the concerns he’s had regarding UBS Arena and the other New York Arena Partners development efforts. And he also specifically emphasized the village’s opposition to a casino at Belmont Park.

"To be clear, the NYRA plan supported by Floral Park does not include a casino, and there would be significant community opposition to this project if it included a casino," Fitzgerald wrote.

Those comments highlight the future siting of a downstate casino. While Belmont isn’t the likely spot, Aqueduct could be. And that’s part of the reason why many of the players involved think it might make sense to move Aqueduct racing to Belmont — and another reason to modernize Belmont’s facilities.

A state spokeswoman said officials are "looking at" the authorization request.