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Horse racing industry coalition seeks state approval for NYRA borrowing plan

Heather Mulligan speaks at the NYS Capitol in Albany
Lucas Willard
Heather Mulligan speaks at the NYS Capitol in Albany

A coalition of horse racing industry leaders in New York is asking state government to approve borrowing to overhaul Belmont Park on Long Island. They say the improvements there will buoy the racing industry across the state.

The New York Racing Association, which operates racetracks at Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga, wants to build a new grandstand and clubhouse at Belmont Park on Long Island near New York City.

A reconstruction of its racetracks is also planned, as well as the possibility of building of a synthetic track. The current grandstands are more than 50 years old at the home of the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes.

NYRA spokesman Jeff Cannizzo spoke at the state capitol in Albany.

“Here’s the vision. No taxpayer dollars on the line, a state asset dramatically improved, and a world class venue side-by-side with the UBS Arena, a strengthened sport sustaining thousands of jobs across the state…”

The plan is for NYRA borrow $455 million to be paid over 30 years. Debt service would be paid through revenue from VLT gambling facilities that’s dedicated to capital projects – which Canizzo says would not affect municipalities that host the sites from receiving a portion of the funding.

NYRA is part of an industry group formed last year called We Are NY Horse Racing that also includes the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and New York Thoroughbred Breeders. The Business Council of New York State is also now on board. Heather Mulligan is President and CEO of the Business Council.

“It’s important that you have a broad-based coalition. We joined it because of the obvious economic impact.”

Mulligan said more than 19,000 New Yorkers are directly employed by the horse racing industry.

With 2023 state budget preparations underway, the coalition is pushing the state to authorize NYRA’s bonding for the project.

We Are NY Horse Racing says the upgrades at Belmont will “secure the future” of horse racing in New York, including at Saratoga Race Course. Officials say the summer meet at the Spa alone generates $240 million in year-round economic activity in the Capital Region.

Todd Shimkus, President of the Saratoga County Chamber, called the racing industry a statewide ecosystem, anchored by Saratoga and Belmont. He’s hopeful for the major renovations at Belmont under Governor Kathy Hochul, who was just elected to a full-term.

“At the end of the day, modernizing Belmont Park is not solely a downstate priority. It’s a statewide priority and its important to Saratoga. I will say it’s been wonderful our governor has been to Saratoga on a regular basis since almost the first days she took office. Having that support is incredible and we certainly look forward to working with her and to making this priority happen,” said Shimkus.

This fall, construction at Belmont is building vehicular and pedestrian tunnels, which moved the 2022 fall meet to Aqueduct.

If plans move forward, NYRA says a modernized Belmont can bring the Breeders Cup back to New York after two decades. The Breeders Cup is the sport’s annual year-end two-day championship, and it rotates to a different track each year. Again, Cannizzo…

“In a recent letter, the Breeders Cup themselves committed to returning to New York if we are successful in modernizing Belmont Park. The letter literally wrote, ‘If you build it, we will come.’”

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Governor Hochul said via email:

"Governor Hochul is committed to creating jobs and economic opportunity across the state, and she is looking forward to working with the legislature on these priorities in the upcoming legislative session."

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.