When the gates to Long Island's plush new $33 million Aqueduct "dream track" are unlocked this Monday it will be the first time in 54 years that the state of New York has opened a new Thoroughbred horse park. In the half century since the last new track, Belmont Park, first welcomed the carriage trade in 1905 Thoroughbred racing in New York has had some great days. But it has also been saddled with an apathy and an inertia that at times forced New York to take a back seat to such race-conscious states as New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Florida, Illinois and California, where year after year striking new tracks sprang up to attract the sports-minded public.
But now New York has its new track—the world's most modern racing plant, with nine elevators, 18 escalators, 62 concession stands and 738 pari-mutuel windows.
The fact that Aqueduct has been built, and is ready to open at all, is a tribute to 20 members of the oft-criticized Jockey Club who for five years have been called everything from selfish to stupid to generally incompetent. Today, as New York emerges into a new sporting era, it seems appropriate to review the events of the last few years and to take a solid bearing on exactly where racing stands now in New York.
In 1954 racing was conducted in New York by private interests at four tracks, Belmont, Jamaica, Aqueduct and Saratoga. The tightest tax laws of any state held what profits there were to a bare minimum, with the result that major improvements were impossible and purses, naturally, could not be increased to keep pace with fast-striding competition elsewhere. The situation clearly called for a complete reorganization of one form or another if the state itself wasn't to step in uninvited and take complete charge.
Faced with this challenge, a three-man Jockey Club committee, made up of John W. Hanes (now the president of the New York Racing Association), Christopher T. Chenery and Harry F. Guggenheim, drew up a bold plan. It was designed not only to save New York racing but to elevate it once again to its old position as the dignified leader of racing for sport's sake in the face of the ever-tightening pressure of increased commercialism.
A TASK FOR 20
The managing interests of the four big New York tracks were formed into a new, nonprofit organization called the New York Racing Association. Twenty members of The Jockey Club were named trustees of the NYRA. They were, for the most part, millionaire businessmen gifted with a great enthusiasm for racing, although few of them had more than a vague concept of race track management. They lived, however, in the world of high finance, and despite their occasional errors of judgment it is doubtful if any other group of 20 men could have accomplished in five years what they have. The NYRA, despite a piddling initial equity of just $1,000, went to the banks for loans totaling $63 million; it used the money to buy all four existing tracks; it built Aqueduct, the first new track in New York in half a century; it made major improvements at Belmont and Saratoga, including an enterprising project now under way to make the running surfaces at Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct so uniformly alike that "even the horses won't know where they are"; it set up for the first time in New York pension plans and other benefits for track personnel; and it talked the state legislature into making changes in the tax laws so that the NYRA can use the added revenue to continue improvements and increase purses.
With its 25-year franchise and the improved tax setup the NYRA has more operational security than any other racing association in the country. But despite its accomplishments, its five years of progress and its good intentions, it has become fashionable to criticize the organization both in public and in print. "We have tried to conduct our affairs orderly and decently," says NYRA President John W. Hanes, "and yet we find one million other people trying to run the NYRA, too. If it isn't run exactly the way they want it run, they find a chance to kick the daylights out of us."
The only sensible criticism has come from knowledgeable sportsmen and horsemen who feel that the NYRA, in attempting to provide New York with both the best racing and the most racing, has embarked on an overly ambitious project. In a state where The Jockey Club has always been at the helm of the sport (although in recent years lacking the unquestioned authority it once took for granted), racing up to now has never really enjoyed wholehearted community standing except among Jockey Club members and their friends. For years the attitude of these men, who are among the nation's leading owners and breeders, was one of favoritism toward horsemen within their own tight little circle. Now, by necessity, as part of a general campaign to give more satisfaction to the racing public, the NYRA occasionally finds itself forgetting that one of the greatest assets of New York racing was that sport came first and business second. Yielding to public demand is not always the answer. Even though, for example, the abolishment of the Widener straightaway chute at Belmont gave satisfaction to the press and public, long weary of an occasional race being held in "military secrecy," it may have been a wrong move, if only for the fact that most owners and trainers did like the Widener chute and were against its removal.
Similarly, the addition of a ninth race in New York this year has been translated by many of the old guard as a sure omen that the last remnants of the dignity of the sport are being sacrificed to the interests of pure business. The speedup of the day's card has been pictured by some as a program resembling nothing more than a glorified open-air slot-machine parlor. It was noted, too, that one of the most pleasant and eye-catching phases of any race—that of watching the horses come back to be unsaddled in front of the stands—was eliminated this spring at Belmont in order for the jockeys to make it back in double time to their lockers. "This was purely a case of our trying something which we later found out to be neither popular nor necessary," said John Hanes recently. "We won't continue the practice any more."
And is the ninth race necessary? "There has been both criticism and misunderstanding about the ninth race from the start," says Hanes. "First, the state did not, as many believe, ask us—or instruct us—to put on a ninth race in order that they could derive more tax income from it. We, the NYRA, asked for the extra race. New York has always been sympathetic to jumping races but experience has proven that the pari-mutuel handle is way down on them compared to the flat races. In order to maintain a proper scale of purses for the jumpers, and at the same time increase purse opportunities for our flat stakes and overnights, we needed more money—about two and a half million more, to be exact. The only way to obtain the additional revenue was to add another race."
Naturally popular with the horsemen, always seeking an extra shot at purse money, the ninth race in New York has enabled the NYRA to increase the value of its stakes by $941,375, and the increase in overnight purses has gone up some $1,102,690—for an over-all increase in purse distribution of just over $2 million. If the old guard resents this economic move they must also resent the fact that New York will never again be forced to stand aside while other tracks lure the top horses off to compete for richer purses.
The meeting which gets under way at Aqueduct on Monday (and which will run for the next 67 days) should provide the finest racing on display during any single meeting anywhere in the world. Some of the country's most important races will be contested there, including those vital weight-for-age and distance tests for which the New York fall season alone has long been noted. Of course, in the formative years of the NYRA, some confusing division of authority among the top echelons has led to a certain amount of misunderstanding and bad morale among the other ranks, and this petty squabbling has hardly improved the state of general public relations. But now, more than ever before, the trustees are fully aware of their responsibility to a sport which has been in the blood of most of them since birth. Unintentional mistakes will be made, of course, but there will be less confusion of purpose. There need never be any attempt to imitate the gaudy showmanship of the harness tracks. Instead, there should only be a rededication to sport first, business second.
Make no mistake about the present state of affairs in New York racing as you pay your visit to Aqueduct. And remember that the very same men who five years ago were being damned for their deplorable inertia—the men of The Jockey Club—should today be praised for their energy and accomplishments. Or, as one trustee of the NYRA was saying the other day without the slightest trace of modesty, "For better or worse, the NYRA saved racing in New York."
Don't laugh. It's true. And the new Aqueduct proves it.
NYRA PRESIDENT JOHN W. HANES