Jun 08, 2007
AMERICAN TURF CLUB LEAD
By: JOE GIRARDI
As a kid growing up in Long Island just a five minute walk to Belmont Park and a 10-15 minute ride to Roosevelt Raceway; I have some very good memories of the races that will last a lifetime. My parents who had a passion for playing the horses introduced me to the game when I was very young. I can remember traveling up to Saratoga for the first time as a three year old and loving it. We would go every year for over a week and we all cried when we had to come home. Belmont in the Spring/Summer and Fall and Aqueduct in the Fall and Winter; it didn’t matter it was the best racing in the world. Just going to the races and watching the great trainers, great jockeys and yes the great horses compete was exhilarating. The horses back then would stick around for more than just their three year old year. They would run during the week in allowance races preparing for the Stakes races on the weekends, they would run more than just a few times a year and as a fan of the game who knew these horses I couldn’t wait until they ran again.
In addition to the thoroughbred racing, standardbred or harness racing was also a big part of my life growing up. Roosevelt Raceway was only a short drive away from my house and my parents would take me there usually on the weekends but during the Summer we would go a few times a week. As a kid I would remember seeing a lot of the same people I saw during the day at the flats, they would be known as “doubleheaders”, those who would go during the day and then again at night. Wow! What a great life. At least at the time it was because that is when racing in New York was at it highest. Roosevelt Raceway was the mecca of nightlife on Long Island. The crowds were huge, 30,000 to 40,000 a night and that was during the week. Those type of crowds are unheard of especially nowadays in racing when two to three thousand is the norm and less than that in the Winter. Going to Roosevelt wasn’t just a night at the races — it was a community. The same people night after night, their friends, going out after the races to eat and talk about the next night’s card. Believe me there was nothing better. Until somewhere around 1986-1987 things started to change. The track was not keeping up its end of the bargain, it was rundown, the barn area was spiraling downward, the tv’s, the signs at the track, the windows; it just wasn’t the same. The track was losing it’s luster and they were chasing people away. Why would the track stop caring, why would they not want people to come there and bet. Well a few reasons. But the main reason was that there was some sort of deal that wasn’t very much on the up and up where the land would be purchased for the ridiculous sum of $2,000. Then run the track into the ground and say hey we can’t make money anymore and we have to sell the land for some ungodly sum of money. The politicians that were in on the deal made out handsomely considering they didn’t put up any money, other than maybe a few hundred each.
You know who didn’t make out on the deal — the 1000’s of employees that lost their jobs, the horses that didn’t have a place to race anymore, the surrounding area that lost business, especially the restaurants who thrived on the business brought in both before and after the races. The racing fans lost not only their racetrack but a place to go to every night, a place to see the greats of racing compete on a grand scale, a place to be with their friends and family and enjoy what used to be the “Sport of Kings”. I use the word “used to be” because our great sport is not what it used to be. The horses that made this sport great are no longer staying around to develop into superstars, the off track betting has killed the game making going out to the track a lost art. The trouble that New York racing has had over the last few years is distressing. I saw what happened to Roosevelt Raceway when I was growing up and I see now what is happening to New York racing. They took away one of the great passions when Roosevelt fell and now an even greater passion is teetering on the edge. It seems like maybe the NYRA tracks will meet the same fate as Roosevelt Raceway.
When I go Belmont which is generally four out of five times a week to see that huge grandstand empty, to see the parking lots empty that great backyard empty, it saddens me. The slot machines that were supposed to come and save racing aren’t here but are they really going to save racing? There have been many reports that the racetracks with slot machines have not been meeting there per machine quota. The money that was thought to be generated from the slots is not panning out. The main reason for this is that there are too many tracks in surrounding areas that have the slots. The numbers on paper are different from what is reality. You can’t produce new people out of thin air, those people that go to Monticello raceway for their racino can’t be at the Yonkers racino at the same time. A decision on who will take over the NYRA will be coming soon. Hopefully those who take over will realize that to make this sport great again you will need to do a few things. You will need to reward the fan for coming to the track, not with a t-shirt, a clock or an umbrella but with things that a racing fan will need. Free programs, free racing forms, rebates on a grander scale, free food, and a comfortable place to stay. Develop programs that will teach newcomers about the game, make the game fun again, make reasons for people to come to the track instead of playing with off track betting. Pay more to the fan that comes to the track. The tracks make more money when the wagers are placed with them as opposed to off track, give some of that money back to the people who deserve it, the racing fan. On racing’s biggest day don’t discourage the fans from coming out, encourage them to! For example on Belmont Stakes day, no coolers are allowed in the track. They want you to buy from their vendors and pay huge amounts of money for, beer, food, drinks. Instead of encouraging these people to come and enjoy the race you might make a fan for life instead they want to make a few extra dollars for ONE DAY! That’s right one day, nobody comes to Belmont except for Belmont Stakes day. You would think that the powers that be would try to maximize the potential on this day and not chase people away. This is what scares me, chasing the fans away, not just on Belmont Day but everyday, the tv’s in the backyard are old and need replacing, the grounds need landscaping, some very similar things that were happening at the end of Roosevelt. Also there have been reports that Governor Spitzer wants to close Aqueduct down and race year-round at Belmont and winterize the track while putting the racino at Belmont. This also scares me when there is talk of shutting down a racetrack. I wish that the right people come in and take charge and run this place correctly, Get rid of the people that don’t belong at the track, get rid of the problems at the track including rampant marijuana use throughout the facility. There are families coming with children that have to deal with this and nothing is done. Let’s get this back on track, let’s make it great again and please, please let’s keep the politicians out of it because we all know what happened to Roosevelt when they got involved.
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