Nearly 20 years ago, Smarty Jones hit the top of the stretch in the Belmont Stakes to what track announcer Tom Durkin famously described as “the roar of 120,000” fans before missing the Triple Crown by a single length.
Last year, less than 50,000 people watched the Belmont Stakes at the track.
Typically, a sport with more than 40 weekly betting opportunities would be concerned with how much in-person attendance has waned over the years. The New York Racing Association (NYRA), however, sees it as an opportunity for the future of horse racing, as the home of the Belmont Stakes nears a major redesign.
“50 years ago,” Pat McKenna, vice president of communications for NYRA, said, “the sport required fans to be present to wager. Fans are now engaging with horse racing from their home, so the in-person experience is much different in 2023 than in 1973.”
Where does Belmont Stakes fit into NY sports betting market?
Before retail sportsbooks launched in July 2019 and online sports betting in January 2022, horse racing was the only legal sport in New York to bet on.
Though New York’s online sports betting industry is less than 18 months old, it already ranks among the largest US sports betting markets. New York sports betting operators handled $15 billion in 2022.
NYRA managed $2.32 billion during the same period. On-track bets, which include New York residents wagering through NYRA Bets, were just $291.4 million of last year’s total.
Bridging gap between sports, horse betting
Despite an entire year of horse betting accounting for what sports betting handles in two months, NYRA’s top executive sees horse racing squarely in the overall sports betting ecosystem.
“Companies have spent millions, if not billions, of dollars, developing large databases of sports bettors,” said David O’Rourke, NYRA’s president and CEO. “Our strategy has been to piggyback on top of that. We are seeing growth.”
O’Rourke believes the difference-maker will be shared wallet technology, which is on the horizon for NYRA and its sports betting partners BetMGM and Caesars Sportsbook. FanDuel Sportsbook is the only operator offering a single wallet between its sports and horse betting offerings.
Belmont Stakes, Saratoga cornerstones of New York racing
Betting on the Belmont Stakes and summer racing at Saratoga see an increase in attendance and handle. Last year’s Belmont Stakes Day handle approached $100 million, and Saratoga topped $878 million over 40 racing days.
McKenna said the increased traffic at Saratoga centers on the open greenspace on track property.
“We have consistently heard from fans, casual and loyal, that is an element that allows Saratoga to stand apart. We are looking forward to taking some of those lessons and applying them at the new Belmont Park,” he added.
Stakeholders expect entire industry to benefit
While Belmont Park is the epicenter of redevelopment, Najja Thompson, executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc., told LSR the entire industry will see a boost.
“It is a direct investment in each breeding farm throughout the state,” Thompson said. “It signals to the entire industry that New York is where you want to be. You can race at two top-tier tracks throughout the year in the new Belmont Park and Saratoga.”
According to We Are NY Racing, an industry coalition, the New York racing industry provides $3 billion in economic impact and supports 19,000 jobs annually.
Funds to revamp Belmont Stakes home
On May 2, the New York State legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul approved a state budget, including a $455 million loan for NYRA to redevelop Belmont Park.
The agreement calls for NYRA to repay the loan over 20 years. NYRA will use funds from video lottery terminals at Resorts World casino attached to Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, NY.
Sen. Joseph Addabbo, chairman of the New York State Senate Racing, Gaming, and Wagering Committee, told LSR the state stands to gain $80 million in interest payments on the project. The Senator hailed the project as a victory for racing and the local community.
“The potential is incredible,” Sen. Addabbo said. “That location has evolved into a destination spot that has benefited the entire area. The home of the New York Islanders and UBS Arena right next door, the transportation hub, the retail, the hotel, it is the perfect time to redevelop Belmont Park because of what that area has evolved into.”
High-priced real estate owned by New York State
The deal also includes closing Aqueduct Racetrack and building new racing surfaces at Belmont Park to accommodate winter racing. New York State owns the 110-acre Aqueduct site, recently appraised at $1 billion.
The state will be able to develop the land once reconstruction is complete and winter racing moves to Belmont Park.
“I grew up in the shadows of Aqueduct. I sold my school’s chocolate bars out front there,” Sen. Addabbo said. “In its heyday, Aqueduct was exciting. Secretariat ran there. It will be bittersweet when it closes, but it will be nice for the next three years to see Aqueduct being highlighted.”
New York racing’s plan for the future
In addition to the track surfaces, the Belmont Park grandstand and clubhouse are also set for reconstruction. The building currently covers 1.25 million square feet, the equivalent of nearly 22 football fields.
By the time construction is projected to be complete in 2026, it will be roughly one-fifth the size at 275,000 square feet.
McKenna explained that significantly reducing the building size reflects the more mobile-friendly future of horse betting and New York sports betting.
Construction underway at Belmont Park
The goal, McKenna said, is “to be able to scale up to 90,000 people on a Belmont Stakes Day, but also have the facility feel intimate and exciting on a Saturday afternoon in September.”
Parts of the project are underway on the grounds. NYRA is deep in the design phase for the new building, with the bulk of construction expected to begin after next year’s Belmont Stakes.
When asked if the 2025 Belmont Stakes would need to be relocated because of construction, McKenna told LSR the Belmont Stakes has been held at Aqueduct in the past, so NYRA does have options there, or even at Saratoga.