By TERESA GENARO
When Aqueduct Racetrack in Ozone Park opens for the season on Friday, Nov. 2, it will do so with little fanfare. The track that first opened in 1894, making it older than most other sporting venues in the country, will host Thoroughbred racing for six months, longer than the Belmont Park and
Saratoga Race Course meets, which, along with Aqueduct, are overseen by the New York Racing Association (NYRA).
Of course, there’s nothing about the current Aqueduct that evokes the 19th century. It is
20th-century urban through and through, from the A train stop steps from the entrance to the city-dwelling crowd to the mid-century Brutalist architecture which, along with a complete overhaul and upgrade of the facility, led The New York Times to crown Aqueduct “a Taj Mahal with horses” when the track reopened in 1959.
Virtually since its inception, Aqueduct has fought a down-market reputation; it lacked the cachet of its upscale rivals: Morris Park in what is now the Bronx and Saratoga upstate. Yet without Aqueduct, New York racing as we know it would cease to exist.
Assigned racing dates that begin in early November and end in early April, Aqueduct is the track that makes year-round racing possible, and with it, year-round employment.
“It’s vitally important to the industry,” said Andrea Belfiore, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Year-round racing keeps jobs here in New York. If there’s no winter racing, trainers go out of town, and maybe they don’t come back.”
Belfiore pointed out that with more than 1,000 workers tending to the horses that will race at Aqueduct, those jobs support a number of local businesses: restaurants, supermarkets, feed companies, tack shops.
In addition to the people working on the backstretch, Aqueduct and the NYRA also employ hundreds of people on what is called the front side: executives, support staff, mutuel clerks, customer service representatives, etc. Many of those employees work at Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct, and will shift their workplaces from Belmont Park to Aqueduct; without Aqueduct, the workers at Belmont Park and Saratoga would find themselves unemployed for half of the year.
Inarguably, the racing at Aqueduct often lacks the star quality that is featured at Belmont and Saratoga. As a result, it attracts jockeys and trainers trying to break into the tough New York circuit, and it gives horses and their owners a chance to earn lucrative purse money against competition that isn’t quite as stiff.
While big outfits like trainers Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown will leave horses in New York over the winter, they will take their best stock to Florida to race aat Gulfstream, making it possible for smaller trainers to win races and earn money to pay their staffs.
“A lot of the trainers who race at Aqueduct are year-round New York people,” said Belfiore. “They’re part of the community.”
Aqueduct’s races will offer more than $2 million in purses in stakes races alone for horses bred in New York State or sired by horses standing in the state; other levels of races at the track will offer several million more. The state’s breeding industry was nearly wiped out in the aftermath of the 2008 financial downturn. But due in part to the opening of the Resorts World Casino New York City at Aqueduct in 2011, the industry has been revitalized. Foal crops in the state have been rising, along with the number of farms and the demand for horses bred in the state, a demand fostered by the number of races for New York-breds at Aqueduct.
“Without the Aqueduct fall and winter meets, the New York breeding industry would lose tens of thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars of state tax revenue would cease to exist,” said trainer Rick Schosberg, who is based in New York year round.
Those jobs and that tax revenue come from far beyond city limits; breeding farms stretch from the Hudson Valley to the Capital Region to central New York. Each of those farms employs stable staff and veterinarians, and relies on local feed companies and van drivers. The economic impact of Aqueduct, significant in the borough of Queens, stretches throughout the state.
Aside from racing diehards and those working in the industry, few Queens residents are likely to be enthusiastic about, or even aware of, another opening day at Aqueduct. But quietly, the track will provide jobs and drive money into the economy, whether people are paying attention or not.