There is Saratoga and then there is Belmont. Both are stars and both more than hold their own on the New York Horse Racing circuit. Saratoga is the summer place to be and this year, Belmont was the place to be when American Pharoah roared to victory to break the 37 year Triple Crown drought.
Then, there is Aqueduct. Often forgotten, Aqueduct is the old-timer with a glorious history of its own. The second Breeder’s Cup was hosted at the Big A way back in 1985. The Big A has seen better days as the NYRA tries to keep it from falling apart. There is talk of eventually closing Aqueduct and weather proofing Belmont to accommodate winter racing. That is probably years away at best, so until then, welcome to the Aqueduct Fall Championship Meet.
Lost in the splendor of Saratoga and the vastness of Belmont is the fact that Aqueduct is the heavy lifter for NYRA. The Aqueduct Fall Meet began on Wednesday, November 4 and runs through December 20 before giving way to the Aqueduct Winter and Spring Meets that run through the last week in April. There are about 250 racing dates per year for NYRA; 40 at Saratoga, 97 at Belmont and the remaining 113 at Aqueduct. Unfortunately for Aqueduct, she gets to host when temps are the coldest–November through April. It’s kind of like going to Cape Cod in February. It’s still the Cape, the hotel rates are good, but it’s February. You won’t see many fancy hats and sun dresses come December at the Big A.
Be that as it may, the Aqueduct Fall Meet is a pretty good one. The top trainers like Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey are still here. Eventually, as the weather gets colder, they will move their operations south with most going to Gulfstream Park for the winter. Heck, even track announcer Larry Collmus heads south to Gulfstream, too.
The NYRA eventually has a decision to make. Do they fix up Aqueduct and market her or do they shut her down and split everything between Saratoga and Belmont. And, inevitably, there will be talk of expanding the Saratoga meet beyond its 40 days, which for now is not a good idea. As great is Saratoga is, the NYRA is a New York (City) based operation. As much as the fans love it, moving the offices to Saratoga for 40 days is an inconvenience–a pleasant inconvenience but still.
As you could imagine, there are less stakes races in the Fall Meet than there were at the recently concluded Belmont Fall Meet, but there is plenty of top quality races. The highlight of the meet is the Saturday after Thanksgiving; Cigar Mile Day. The Cigar Mile, a $500,000 Grade I always features a strong field and has been won by the likes of Private Zone, Flat Out and Stay Thirsty. Also on the Cigar Mile card are the Remsen, Demoiselle, and Comely. In fact, Thanksgiving weekend is the high water mark of the Aqueduct Fall Meet. On Thanksgiving, there are two stakes races, highlighted by the Fall Highweight Handicap at 6 furlongs. Black Friday gives us the King’s Swan and the Go for Wand for fillies going one mile.
If you’re a fan of New York racing, you tune into Insider on MSG Plus where Jason Blewitt, Richard Migliore, Maggie Wolfendale and Andy Serling give you their insights and recap the days that were at the Big A. You can tell that they, deep down, don’t really want to be there. Sure, they do their best to hype Aqueduct, but a few days ago, Blewitt reminded us that there are 25 Saturdays left until Belmont. If that isn’t longing, then I don’t know what is.
It’s hard to not to sympathize with them. After all, look at what 2015 has given us. The winter is Kentucky Derby prep time where the top three year olds run at tracks all over the country to prepare for the Derby and the rigors of the Triple Crown. Some go to Gulfstream; others go to Arkansas, New York, California, Tampa and Louisiana. Some even winter at Sunland Park in New Mexico. Then, they all come together on the first Saturday in May. This year, the season lasted seemingly forever as American Pharoah kept everybody’s interest, culminating with his romp and subsequent Triple Crown achievement in the Belmont Stakes. After that, the sun and splendor of Saratoga and that too, crescendoed when American Pharoah came for the Travers and drew over 15,000 for a Friday gallop. After he lost, the talk of retirement was discussed, but when he showed up—and dominated—in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, the sport as they say, “had a year.”
There simply has to be a letdown. After 10 months of pulsating build-up, the major races of the season are over. So, here is Aqueduct vying for your attention and when you think about it, it is an impossible task. There is football, college football, hockey, basketball, the holidays and cold weather. And, the big-race season took a lot out of us. It’s kind of like asking the Kansas City Royals to play the Japan League champion after winning the MLB World Series. The true horse racing fans and certainly the bettors will be there, they will stay true to be sure. The phrase “bring the casual fan and Aqueduct Fall Meet,” will never be uttered. We also won’t see much of NYRA CEO Chris Kay on local radio and TV programs.
The Big A will survive, it always does. Bettors will bet, trainers will train and jockeys will ride. Money will be made and bills will be paid. There will be impressive performances and there will be horses that ran in stakes races over the summer and didn’t win who will come to Aqueduct and do well, thank you.
Before you know it, the Kentucky Derby will be here and so too will the 2016 Aqueduct Fall Meet. Time marches on and the best thing is to accept it and enjoy the racing at the Big A.
Until next time.