The Stakes At Belmont

Belmont Park plan draws support, criticism ahead of April budget deadline

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An aerial view of Belmont Park and UBS arena in 2021. (Credit: Wikimedia user Antony-22, CC BY-SA 4.0

Nassau County residents, public servants, and private interests have been weighing in on plans for a $455-million revitalization and reinvestment at the Belmont Park horse track in Elmont as part of next year’s proposed state budget.

On February 1, as part of her administration’s FY 2024 Executive Budget Proposal, Governor Hochul announced support for a plan by the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) to rebuild and “modernize” the storied racing facilities at Belmont Park.

According to NYRA, the proposed decades-long deal would comprise a $455-million, multi-year project “to re-imagine Belmont Park with a modern grandstand alongside the hospitality offerings and amenities fans now expect from sports and entertainment venues.” Under the plan, the current track and buildings would be entirely demolished to make way for the new, reportedly winter-proof facilities, consolidating Belmont with the Aqueduct Racetrack operations in Queens into a single Elmont location.

NYRA said in a February 1 press release that they expect the new track facilities to generate $1 billion in construction-related economic activity, 3,700 construction jobs, and $155 million in new annual economic impact, including 740 new full-time jobs. “NYRA is also committed to updating and enhancing a variety of facilities for the backstretch community, including the construction of more new housing than at any point in Belmont Park’s history. In addition, the project will unlock the 45-acre infield at Belmont Park for a variety of community uses.”

NYRA President and CEO David O’Rourke commented in a statement: “Belmont Park stands at the center of the statewide racing ecosystem, and the project to re-imagine the facility will create jobs, drive tourism to the region and secure the future of thoroughbred racing across the state. The time is right to build a new Belmont Park for the benefit of New York State and we look forward to working with our legislative partners to ensure the Governor’s proposal is enacted.”

Public figures who have expressed their support for the plan right out of the gate include State Senators Joe Addabbo and Leroy Comrie, State Assemblymembers Gary Pretlow and Carrie Woerner, and representatives of various applicable local labor unions and businesses.

“The advancement of the long overdue Belmont racetrack project will improve and transform that iconic sight for generations to come. To be able to witness the creation of thousands of construction and post construction jobs, expand upon an economic generator, while supporting an historic horse racing industry in our state, is an opportunity that I’m pleased to support,” said Senator Addabbo, Chair of the Senate Racing, Gaming, and Wagering Committee, in a press release.

Nassau County Legislator Carrié Solages commented to Nassau Illustrated News in a statement, “The Governor’s proposal to modernize Belmont Park represents a pivotal opportunity to build upon the assets that were brought to bear by the completion of UBS Arena and restore Belmont Park’s stature as a world-class, state-of-the-art racing facility.”

“In recent months, I have been pleased to see that UBS Arena has met its commitments to creating good jobs and cultivating long-term economic opportunities in Elmont and neighboring communities – a model that the state and the New York Racing Association would be wise to replicate in any revitalization plan for Belmont Park.”

“However, as the experience of building UBS Arena has illustrated, quality of life concerns expressed by Elmont residents must remain at the forefront of all decisions,” Legislator Solages said. “I am committed to advocating for the best possible project and assurances to the community that there will be effective plans for managing construction noise and event-day traffic safety and parking needs. I will also continue to advocate for a rapid transit system that gives Elmont residents real access to their new LIRR station, which despite its name is in Bellerose Terrace at the north end of the Belmont property rather than Elmont itself.”

According to NYRA, the upgrades at Belmont Park would ultimately have no cost to taxpayers, as they would plan to pay back the $455 million loan in 20 years.

As Jane Montalto reported for WSHU in February, however, some state legislators have expressed concern about the plan for the loan’s repayment, given that NYRA’s franchise is scheduled to end in 10 years. “We shouldn’t have to sell the land to pay back your bonds, so how would you pay us back?” asked State Senator Liz Kruger, Chair of the Finance Committee, in a recent public hearing.

One clear critic of the plan is anthrozoologist and wildlife rehabilitator John Di Leonardo, MS, who serves as President and Executive Director of Humane Long Island.

In an email to Nassau Illustrated News, Di Leonardo commented, “Kind people wouldn’t support Governor Holchul’s proposal if they knew its true cost: corporate welfare and dead horses.”

“I lived 15 minutes from the Belmont for more than 30 years, but it wasn’t until I began studying the racing industry as an anthrozoologist that I learned how the industry bets with these horses’ lives,” he explained. “Forced to train and race before their bones are fully developed or even with pre-existing injuries masked by performance-enhancing drugs, thoroughbreds are accidents waiting to happen.”

Di Leonardo also told Nassau Illustrated News that more than 1,600 horses have been killed at racetracks in New York State since 2009. “When they’re not being forced to run to their deaths, horses – who are naturally herd animals – [may be] confined to solitary 12’-by-12’ stalls for over 23 hours a day … At ‘career’s’ end, most spent or simply unwanted racehorses are brutally butchered.”

He went on, “When Belmont opened in 1905, it was a different time. Teddy Roosevelt had just been elected and women didn’t even have the right to vote. We’re now in the 21st Century. The lottery has expanded, casinos have been erected, and mobile sports betting – betting on real sports by human beings who go home at the end of the day and retire when they wish – is in demand.”

“At the same time,” he wrote, “Ringling Bros has ended its animal acts and is coming back animal-free; SeaWorld has ended its sordid orca breeding program; dog racing is banned in 42 states … It has simply never been clearer that the public doesn’t support abusing animals for entertainment.”

Aside from the ethical argument (and/or adjacent ecological ones), Di Leonardo also expressed financial skepticism, pointing to more than $200 million in subsidies that he says the New York State racing industry has already been getting in “corporate welfare” since 2004, courtesy of casino gaming revenues.

“Another half billion-dollar taxpayer handout won’t do a thing,” Di Leonardo added. “Let’s invest in critical services like education and economic justice instead.”

The deadline for a revised NYS FY 2024 budget is April 1, 2023.

Do you live or work near Belmont Park and have an opinion on the proposed plan? Please let us know at editors@antonmediagroup.com.

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