The New York Racing Association, Inc. is a not-for-profit racing association that operates the three largest racetracks in New York: Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga.
It opened on September 27, 1894, on property that belonged to the old Brooklyn Water Works. Home to a conduit that brought water to New York City from the vast Hempstead Plain, the facility was given the name "Aqueduct" and it would become one of America’s most storied tracks. Aqueduct, also known as the Big A, is the only racetrack in New York City, occupying 210 acres in South Ozone Park in the borough of Queens. Just eight miles from its sister track, Belmont Park, Aqueduct’s neighbor is John F. Kennedy International Airport, the top international passenger gateway in the United States.
Through the years, the Big A has been the scene of some of racing's landmark events, including the only triple dead heat in stakes history when Brownie, Bossuet, and Wait a Bit hit the wire as one in the Carter Handicap on June 10, 1944. Man o'War, Sword Dancer, Kelso, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Secretariat, Forego, Easy Goer and Smarty Jones built their legends at Aqueduct, and Cigar, for whom the Grade 1 Hill’n’Dale Cigar Mile is named, won the first two races of his 16-race winning streak at the Big A.
From 1955-59, Aqueduct was rebuilt at a cost of $34.5 million. With a new grandstand, racing strip, barns, and accessory buildings, the new Aqueduct opened on Sept. 14, 1959 to a crowd of 42,473 and drew rave reviews as the most ultra-modern, up-to-date facility in North America. From 1963-68, Aqueduct was the site of the Belmont Stakes during the reconstruction of Belmont Park.
In 1975, Aqueduct opened its winterized, one-mile inner dirt track on the former site of the inner turf course, and on October 11, 1981, it unveiled one of the largest restaurants in New York City, the multi-tiered Equestris. With trackside seating for 1,200, Equestris offers sweeping views of the track and the surrounding areas.
In 1985, Aqueduct underwent another round of improvements, with $3 million spent on the construction of mini-theatres and the expansion of the backyard, paddock and grandstand. As part of its 40th anniversary, a new, weather-insulated paddock, offering fans an unobstructed view of the horses being saddled, was built for $4 million. In 2011, Aqueduct commenced its most sweeping change with the opening of the multi-level, 415,000 square foot Resorts World Casino New York City, operated by Genting LLC. The casino, which occupies the former grandstand, opened in October, 2011 and expanded to a second floor in December with more than 5,000 VLTs and ETGs available.
In 1902, a syndicate headed by August Belmont II and former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney sought land on Long Island to build the most elaborate track in America, one modeled after the great race courses of Europe. They found what they were looking for on the border of Queens County and Nassau County. The 650 acres of land, originally known as Foster's Meadow, included a turreted Tudor-Gothic mansion owned by William de Forest Manice, which was to serve as the Turf and Field Club until 1956.
The grand opening of Belmont Park on May 4, 1905, prompted the first of countless traffic jams in Long Island history as more than 40,000 fans, in all manner of conveyance, tried to arrive by the first race post time of 3 p.m. Not all of them saw August Belmont II’s Blandy, at 7-1, hold off 100-1 shot Oliver Cromwell to win the $1,500 Belmont Inaugural. Later, James R. Keen’s Sysonby, who later would be ranked No. 30 on the Blood-Horse Magazine’s top 100 horses of the 20th century, made his 3-year-old debut against the super filly Beldame, another of Belmont’s charges. In the stretch, Sysonby got unexpected competition from 20-1 Race King, and the two hit the wire in a dead heat.
The most celebrated race at Belmont Park is the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel of racing’s Triple Crown. Since 1919, when Sir Barton was the first to sweep the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, the “Test of Champions” has crowned but 11 winners of racing’s most prestigious -- and elusive -- prize.
Belmont Park holds a place in history in other areas, as well. In 1910, Wilbur and Orville Wright staged an international aerial competition at Belmont Park that draw 150,000 spectators. In 1918, the track served as the New York City terminal for the first airmail service between New York and Washington, D.C. During World War II, Belmont Park was the site of “War Relief Day” in 1940 to benefit the American Red Cross and in 1943 hosted “Back the Attack” Day, wherein fans had to buy a war bond to gain admission to the track. Total receipts that day were between $25 and $30 million.
Closed in 1963, the rebuilt Belmont Park grandstand reopened on May 20, 1968. Over the next decade it rocked to the cheers of thousands as Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) joined Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), and Citation (1948) as Triple Crown winners. In 2007, the Belmont Stakes made history again when the filly Rags to Riches out dueled eventual Horse of the Year Curlin in a thrilling stretch run to become the first of her sex to win the race since since 1905.
Thoroughbred racing has no finer setting than Saratoga Race Course, named one of the world’s greatest sporting venues by Sports Illustrated. For six weeks every summer, the past comes alive in the historic grandstand as fans experience not only the best in racing but the unparalleled ambience and charm of historic Saratoga Springs.
Already famous for its mineral baths, Saratoga held its first thoroughbred meet just a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Staged by gambler, casino owner, ex-boxing champion and future Congressman John "Old Smoke" Morrissey beginning on August 3, 1863, the four-day meet drew thousands of locals and tourists who saw Lizzie W. defeat Captain Moore in the best-of-three series of races.
Emboldened the success of that first meet, Morrissey promptly enlisted his friends John R. Hunter, William Travers and Leonard Jerome to form the Saratoga Association. Its first responsibility was the construction of a new, permanent grandstand on the current site of Saratoga Race Course. Across the street, the “old course” became the barn area known as Horse Haven, with the vestiges of the original track still encircling the barns. Racing was embraced by the populace of Saratoga Springs from the beginning. When horses alit from the trains at the old station on West Circular Street, they would be greeted by townsfolk and escorted around Congress Park to the barns out on Union Avenue and off Nelson Avenue.
Today, looking out over the jam-packed backyard and grandstand on any sunny summer afternoon, it’s hard to fathom that racing at Saratoga once came close to extinction. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there was a movement to conduct summer racing exclusively at the new and modern Aqueduct. But in 1957, New York State Governor W. Averell Harriman, who owned Log Cabin Stud, put into effect "The Harriman Law,” which mandated a minimum of 24 race days at Saratoga every year.
Nowadays, the population of Saratoga Springs triples to 75,000 when the thoroughbreds return each summer, as people who come for the races go on discover the area’s astounding breadth of history and culture.