A four-way race is down the stretch at Belmont Park in Elmont and the winner could impact future Belmont Stakes—but these contenders don’t include horse racing’s Triple Crown hopeful, California Chrome.
Rather, four developers are vying for the green light from the New York State Empire State Development Corp., which nearly two years ago requested privately financed proposals to redevelop 36 acres of land near Belmont—the most ambitious of which being the revived New York Cosmos soccer club’s suggested $400-million, 25,000-capacity stadium. The Cosmos won the North American Soccer League title to cap off their debut season last year. The team currently plays its games at James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University.
“To transform into something greater, something that appeals to millions more people, we must have entertainment beyond our sporting activity,” Christopher Kay, President and CEO of the New York Racing Authority that runs Belmont, Aquaduct and Saratoga racetracks said at the board’s May 28 meeting. “We must have differentiated places for our guests to have fun.”
The Cosmos’ proposal, dubbed “Elmont Town Crossings,” includes a hotel, office space, entertainment and retail complex. Real-estate investors and developers Engel Burman Group, based in Garden City, and Basser-Kaufman of Woodmere, have submitted a joint proposal involving retail space, a community center, a large-scale supermarket, and soccer field. A Manhattan real estate firm, Related Companies, proposed a similar plan but without a soccer field. The Syosset-based real estate development firm, Blumenfeld Development Group, propositioned for a “Big Box Store,” such as a Best Buy or Home Depot, which will be surrounded by restaurants, a community center and athletic fields.
NYRA saw a roughly 80-percent drop in thoroughbred-horse-racing bets since interest began declining four decades ago, according to former NYRA board member Bennett Liebman. But Belmont, which banks on the excitement surrounding the possibility of the first Triple Crown winner in three decades, is not alone in trying to get get creative to mitigate waning interest besides such big-ticket events. Aqueduct Racetrack now features a “racino” with video slot machines, and Saratoga Race Course, which is pushing to expand its racino into a full-fledged casino. Television upgrades, new restaurants and state-of-the-art sports bars are just some of the amenities NYRA added within the past year at all three tracks.
“Horse racing track operators are attempting to lure younger crowds with music and food festivals,” IBISWORLD, a company that specializes in industry research, said in a recent report. “Some operators spend thousands of dollars to invite popular music performers to attract younger people.”
Look no farther for attempts to lure younger crowds than the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, featuring musical performers LL Cool J and Frank Sinatra, Jr.
NYRA has also worked its way into the digital sphere, appeasing Internet junkies when it launched a Roku channel allowing customers to watch a live high-definition stream of the races at Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course.
But, the bigger racino expansions can have a down side, experts say.
“Racinos can potentially put money back into the industry in the form of prize money or money to upgrade facilities,” said Philip McManus, co-author of “The Global Horseracing Industry: Social, Economic, Environmental and Ethical Perspectives.”
“But at their worse they can generate an incentive for owners/trainers to put a racehorse in a race above its station and, often with the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs and with little regard to the welfare of the horse, try to win a major purse.”
As far as the soccer idea goes, State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) has publicly endorsed the Cosmos’ bid. But, Nassau County legis. C. Solages (D-Elmont) and his sister, Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont), are opposed to the soccer deal and are pushing for the alternatives that offer a supermarket, since the closest full-scale supermarkets are outside Elmont’s borders. They also question the interest in soccer (observers for years have debated the American sports fan’s devotion to the game) and traffic such a stadium could bring to the vicinity. The Cosmos’ average attendance last season at James M. Shuart Stadium, which seats 11,929, was 6,859. By comparison, the New York Red Bulls, currently the only local Major League Soccer team (they play in New Jersey) averaged 19,461 during home games at Red Bull Arena, which has a capacity of 25,189.
Despite the big bets on the table, the Belmont Park decision has reportedly been delayed time and time again, like the elusive Triple Crown last won by Affirmed in 1978.