By Michael Mandelkern
Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens feels like an airport that has seen better days: Old TV monitors hang from the ceiling, announcements echo off concrete corridors and grizzled race fans stand around waiting.
On a gloomy, brisk Friday afternoon last month, several hundred people made their way into the cavernous grandstand to wager on horses. Most kept their eyes glued to the screens, watching the fluctuating odds for the first race at Aqueduct and the progress of races at other tracks across the country. Some stepped into the cold outside to smoke cigarettes and watch the jockeys and trainers parade their horses to the starting gate.
“Well,” one bettor said, “let’s start the day on a good note.”
The dingy conditions at Aqueduct are a world away from its neighbor next door, Genting’s Resorts World Casino, a bright swirl of vibrant colors where fl ashing lights twinkle and tones jingle from endless rows of what look like slot machines but are technically called “video lottery terminals.”
Yet their fates are linked: Since the racino opened in October, 6.5 percent of the take from those VLTs has gone to the New York Racing Association, which runs Aqueduct and two other state tracks.
The money has increased the prize purses in each race, which has drawn more horses to compete and boosted the state’s thoroughbred industry. NYRA’s three tracks handled $352 million in bets last year, up 32 percent from 2010, compared with a 2.6 percent increase at every other horse track in New York.
Now both racinos and racetracks face a reckoning in the coming years, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to legalize full-fledged casino gambling in the state. Genting wants to build a massive convention center at Aqueduct, and everyone expects the company will try to place a casino there as well.
That raises questions about the fate of the old racetrack—especially with NYRA’s Belmont Park racetrack just seven miles away across the Nassau County line.
“Everyone is trying to figure out what the future holds,” said Jeff Cannizzo, executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc. “Ideally, they [casinos and racetracks] can coexist with each other, as they do around the country.”
Cannizzo said casinos would employ only a few thousand people in New York, while industry advocacy groups estimate horse breeding and racing are responsible for 40,000 jobs. The groups have banded together to form the New York Horse Racing and Agriculture Industry Alliance to protect their interests should casinos come to the state.
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