Night racing at Belmont Park expensive, needs to be on limited basis

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TwinSpires Staff

January 18th, 2018

By Dick Powell 

It was disclosed on Tuesday that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 budget for New York State includes language that will enable the New York Racing Association (NYRA) to race at night under limited conditions. 

They will not be able to run past 10:30 p.m., must coordinate their post times with Yonkers Raceway and can only run at night on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. 

In last year’s legislative session, the New York State Senate passed a one-house bill that enabled NYRA to race at night but time ran out for the Assembly to do the same. Now that it is part of the budget, it will become law when the budget gets passed and signed by the Governor. 

Last August, I was on a panel about the future of NYRA as part of Albany Law School’s Saratoga Institute. I am not a lawyer and don’t even play one on television but I speak every year at the Institute on various subjects. We had two local, elected officials on the panel and they spoke about the process they went through in the last legislative session that ensured NYRA would continue to run racing in New York and mentioned nighttime racing. 

Not being a lawyer and not being shy and reticent either, I spoke up and said that I saluted them giving NYRA the ability to choose when they want to race. All too often in New York, things are made illegal and you then need legislative help to make them legal. NYRA should have the ability to race when they want and the law that forbids Thoroughbred racing after sundown was put in years ago by the harness industry to keep the two breeds apart. 

I also said that as a business consultant who makes a living giving clients advice on what to do, I wouldn’t go near nighttime racing on a regular basis. Churchill Downs has succeeded with their “Downs after Dark” program and the Fair Grounds has had success with it as well. 

But racing a few nights a week, every week, will not work out because of logistical reasons. It’s been tried before and it does not work the way it is thought to be. 

Garden State was re-opened to much fanfare in 1985 and it raced at night for the most part. Business started out strong but quickly dropped due to competition from Atlantic City casinos and the track closed down in 2001. 

The Meadowlands in Northern New Jersey raced Standardbreds from January to August and then switched to Thoroughbreds from Labor Day to early December. The Thoroughbred meet did well and I got to see the immortal JOHN HENRY make his final career start there in the Ballantine’s Scotch Classic at the age of nine. 

But the Thoroughbred meet has declined to the point where it currently runs only a couple of weeks of turf racing in September before hardly any live audience.  

There are tracks that race at night in America but nearly all that I can think of have some form of gaming attached to them so there is a magnet for people to go to the building. None of them do handle much more than $1 million per night. 

When you race at night, you still train in the early morning. Help has to be there at 5 a.m. to feed, groom and train the horses. Nighttime racing means they have to come back later in the evening and with the last race before 10:30 p.m., by the time you get a horse to the spitbox for drug testing then bathed and cooled out, its past midnight for the help that had the misfortune of working with horses that were in the later part of the race card. Then, they have to get up again and be at the barn by 5. 

When you race at night, you have to illuminate the track and in today’s simulcast world, that means studio quality lighting. A one-mile track like Churchill Downs or Fair Grounds, with one turf course, is not that hard. Some tracks like Penn National and Mountaineer Park don’t even light their turf course and run their turf races in the summer at the front of their racecard while the sun is still up. 

Belmont Park, until proven otherwise, would be daunting and expensive to light. It is 1 ½ miles in circumference with two, wide turf courses inside of it. You are looking at massive light poles on the inside of the inner turf course and the outside of the main track. The grandstand is pretty far from the track so attaching them to its roof might be too far away. 

Plus, you have to light parking lots, outdoor food beverage stands and all the horsepaths the horses need to traverse back to their stalls. I hope the plan calls for massive solar panels on the roof of Belmont in order to defray at least a small portion of the cost. 

Can it be done? Of course. I have driven from Saratoga to Vernon Downs to ride out to Buffalo Raceway with one of the pacing fillies I used to own for a nighttime race out there. Made it back to Vernon by midnight and after getting everything settled in, drove back to Saratoga. It was fun for me but I didn’t have to go back to the barn the next morning. 

Still, if it works I think the industry would make the sacrifice even though the results have not been pretty. Downs After Dark works since it is only done a few times a year and they already installed lights to help them be a site for the Breeders’ Cup. Fair Grounds already had lights since they race in the winter and with so little daylight in the morning, they need lights to train early enough before racing begins.

On my panel at Albany Law’s Saratoga Institute was trainer Rick Violette, at the time, head of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. He was as negative as I was about nighttime racing working at Belmont Park. We were not saying it was a bad idea to try but felt it would not work on a regular basis and not worth the risk. If it didn’t cost so much, we would all be in favor of trying it every once in a while during the warm weather. But once the money is spent, the temptation would be there to race too many nights to try to recoup costs.